Toolmaker Talk: Nicholas Gammell (GAIN Fitness)

November 2, 2011

This is the second post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features many stories by those conducting personal QS projects that are about: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned?  In Toolmaker Talks we hear from those closely observing all this QS activity and developing appropriate tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences?

Frequent visitors to San Francisco QS meetups have watched GAIN Fitness grow from an exciting idea to a very helpful exercise tool. It whips up an exercise routine based on what you want to do at the moment — “I’ve got 15 minutes, I’m in a hotel room with no equipment … what can I do that will still help me in my weight loss goals?” — and helps you track your workouts.


Founder and CEO Nicholas Gammell explains what led to its creation and the impact it has had.

Q: How do you describe GAIN Fitness? What is it?
Gammell: GAIN Fitness is like a digital personal trainer in your pocket. It allows you to design customized, personal-trainer quality workouts based on your real-time goals and constraints – e.g. fitness level, time and equipment available, desired intensity, etc. You then “play” each customized workout and a series of timers, instructional images and tracking tools will push you efficiently through your workout session. The underlying recommendation algorithms were developed in consultation with certified personal trainers and can produce literally millions of uniquely tailored workouts in a matter of seconds.

Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?
Gammell: I’ve always been a pretty serious exerciser, having grown up playing multiple competitive sports (football, baseball, basketball) where training mattered. I started lifting weights when I was 12 years old and the family got a Soloflex for Christmas. Meanwhile, I always read Men’s Health, where I learned a variety of different training techniques and the basics of exercise science. Ultimately, I went on to play college football at Carnegie Mellon (a school known more for its tech geeks than for its varsity athletics), and I trained hard in the offseason with lifting coaches and teammates.

When I started working as a traveling consultant, my first job out of college, I faced a difficult challenge — how to keep a steady, progressive fitness schedule despite long, unpredictable hours and intermittent gym access. I knew it was completely possible. Whether you have 45 minutes at the gym or 15 minutes in a hotel room, a challenging routine can be designed. It was merely an information problem, and I hacked together a rudimentary Excel model that helped offload some of the thinking/planning aspects to designing situated-adapted workouts on the fly.

Q: What impact has it had?
Gammell: Personally, I’m in better shape now than I’ve been in the past 10 years, and I’m spending about 40% less time working out. I do 3 or 4 GAIN workouts a week, about 20-45 minutes each, plus a cardio activity like basketball or running once a week and a little yoga/stretching in the mornings. I can rep out about 20 pull-ups and I hopped a mountain bike the other day and road 55 miles without much trouble. I do this all while working 70-80 hours per week, so I think anyone can find 2-3 hours a week to get their fitness to a pretty decent level.

We’ve heard many great things from our users – some have told us they’re working out regularly again for the first time in years, others say they’ve lost significant weight and their friends have taken notice. We haven’t had the resources to pull together any before/after pics or transformation stories yet, but plan to do so in the near future.

Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Gammell: It’s really the algorithmic, data-driven approach that sets GAIN apart from other fitness apps. We viewed the problem as a big data problem from the outset, and designed a system from the ground up to eliminate as many friction points as possible, providing users with real-time, personally tailored workouts at their command. Most other fitness apps leave you with a bunch of off-the-shelf workout programs to pick through and, at the end of the day, aren’t really that customized. Or they require oodles of manual data entry up front before they do much.

We don’t want you to spend time researching workouts, thinking about what you should do, or entering lots of data. We provide users with an instant action plan so they can stop mulling over “what should I do…” and get right to it.

Q: What are you doing next? How do you see GAIN Fitness evolving?

Gammell: We’re really just in the first quarter. We’re building a platform for fitness experts with different specialties to scale their programs to mass audiences instantaneously. We call this concept “iTunes for Fitness.” Want to maximize your performance next ski season? Want to build muscle but have some rotator cuff issues to work around? These are some of the goals and issues people face in creating a personalized fitness program, and we want to help top fitness experts in various niches turn their expertise into scalable algorithms so users can access workouts precisely tailored to their needs. We’re starting out by launching a few new “fitness packs” that contain workout protocols and exercises designed by top-notch fitness experts.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

Gammell: Just that we’re really excited to be here, to help out lots of people look and feel better, and we want to hear your feedback so we can continue to design our personalized training apps to better meet your needs and remove friction from your journey to gain fitness.

Product: Gain Fitness
Platform: iPhone & Web
Price: free

(If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact

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