The next great home gym takes up next to no space in your living room and looks sleek when not in use. When it comes time to get your sweat on, you hit the power button, pull out some easy-adjusting arms with cable attachments, and select a custom workout using a Netflix-like interface. Then, pre-recorded trainers and slick AI programming whip you into shape.
Welcome to Tonal, the Silicon Valley device hoping to revolutionize the home workout. Created by Aly Orady, who lost 70 lbs. by hitting the gym back in 2013, Tonal looks like a teched-out Bowflex, but it’s far more. The machine subs out large sets of dumbbells for electromagnetic resistance that can approach 200 lbs. And it tries to solve other workout problems, too. Not sure what exercises you should do? That Netflix interface will tell you.
It’s a bold — and at $2,995, pricey — venture into the home workout market. We gave it a test drive in Manhattan, and while it’s definitely a work in progress, there’s a lot to love.
Beginners Are Welcome
Orady isn’t trying to replace big-box gyms. He’s focused on beginners. That’s why Tonal does its best to learn about its user before anything — then it tells you the exercises and weights you should use. When you start up Tonal for the first time, you’re asked to input your training goal (think “maintain” or “lose weight” or “build muscle”), then given a five-exercise assessment test.
Tonal has you perform a shoulder press, a seated lat pulldown, a deadlift, and a bench press. At the end, its AI preselects weights for you to use during all workouts. The initial training weights are conservative, so you’ll have a few easy workouts. Its resistance picks for Mark Emery, our social media editor were accurate; Emery’s been doing curls with 15-lb. dumbbells, and Tonal had him curling 14 lbs. per arm.
This system gives you a chance to learn each exercise, with form presented in videos shown onscreen. It’s all solid, but nothing special: the onscreen video isn’t much different from what you’d get from most other workout apps currently on the market.
But Tonal does have advantages. It will up your weights when the AI notices you progressing.
The lone downside to this is that the machine isn’t thinking of physique balance. In general, you want to pull more weight than you push, so you should use more weight doing, say, a dumbbell row, than you should doing a dumbbell bench press. A real-life trainer might consider that, but Tonal can’t… at least, not yet. Since it’s simply a matter of writing and updating the software, the company could easily add that feature.
Feel the Burn
Tonal can skip dumbbells and other bulky weights because it’s running off an electromagnetic resistance that Orady, an engineer, developed. Orady hoped to design a space-saving resistance that would allow him to recreate the giant cable machines that are in most big-box gyms.
And he’s succeeded. Tonal’s electromagnetic resistance was one of the biggest concerns I had about it, but it feels smooth and offers plenty of challenge. Emery even said it felt “very similar” to what he’d experienced in his usual gym. The resistance comes with an ease of use that will appeal to home gym users, too. There are no plates to change or dumbbells to lug around, and Tonal’s cable arms and attachments are extra-fluid and intuitive. If convenience is big for you, Tonal will win you over from your big-box gym.
Tonal’s resistance is also versatile. You can load up the machine and do a 200-pound deadlift easily. Or you can go lighter, and focus on velocity training, firing up fast-twitch muscles and honing athleticism. That’s something you can’t even do on the average cable machine in your typical big-box gym.
New Resistance, New Challenges
If you’ve spent time lifting free weights, Tonal’s weights will feel different. There’s no inertia to them, so if you’re doing, say, a bench press, your arms will have to battle a great deal of instability from start to finish on every rep.
That doesn’t make Tonal better or worse than free weight training, but it does make it feel different. Tonal’s initial assessment suggested I do bench presses with 63 pounds of resistance on each arm, markedly lower than my normal training loads for that exercise. In practice, it felt more like 80 or 90 pounds per arm. (Part of that is learning the machine; before the demo ended, I did another set of presses at the same weight, and it felt much lighter.)
The feel of Tonal’s resistance makes its 200-pound ceiling go far. For novices, there’s plenty of poundage to challenge you, even on your strongest lifts. And even experienced lifters can get solid work doing rows, pulldowns, and other exercises on Tonal.
Spotting Isn’t Spot On… Yet
Tonal touts that its resistance can provide you with a “spot,” making it ideal for burnout sets. It’s a feature that can be turned on and off, depending on the workout or mode.
This actually works — sort of. I tried it on a bench press. If I reached any sticking point, the machine reduced the resistance. But it never increased the resistance once I had the weight moving. This isn’t bad since it let me bang out more reps, but it’s also not a great “spot.”
A human spotter would (should) have let me handle the full resistance once I regained control. Tonal let me move the lower weight for the rest of the set. That made it more like a “dropset,” where I’d use a ton of weight for several reps then pick up a lighter weight to finish out the set.
Being able to do dropsets on this machine with such ease is useful, and Tonal has other unique resistance settings. Its electromagnetic resistance can increase or decrease swiftly, so it can simulate eccentric loading (in which you fight more weight as you lower it) or lifting with chains (which increase in challenge as you lift them higher, decrease as you lower them).
Other types of resistance can be added easily, since it’s all done with software algorithms. Most are for advanced lifters; Tonal’s spotter mechanic is the one that will appeal most to the masses. It will likely also be the hardest mechanic to perfect, even with a software algorithm.
There’s Plenty of Potential
Tonal has several forward-thinking ideas that remain works in progress. It can track motion with gyroscopes on its handles, and measure force at several angles, as well as speed and power on each rep. It doesn’t convey all this information to the user to start, but it can eventually do so after more workouts are logged, or use the data to create more nuanced workouts and programs.
Eventually, Tonal will roll out compatibility with smartwatches to track your heart rate, and an upcoming smartphone app could integrate diet and sleep-tracking features (or interface with existing apps that do).
You don’t need any of this to get in shape, but if convenience and space-saving are keys for you, Tonal’s worth considering. It has the basics down, and it provides you with more than enough resistance and smarts to advance beyond the beginner level.