The majority of smart home fitness products center around cardio workouts instead of lifting weights. Ride a bike, do some burpees, plank for five. Some systems include lightweight dumbbells or kettlebells, but even when those are part of the package, they are used in interval training workouts designed for toning and slimming down. They aren’t helpful for meeting the goals of a structured weight lifting regimen: adding mass and piling on a good amount of strength. Until now, if you wanted a good weight lifting experience at home, your only option was to stack a pile of weights in your garage and grunt away in your self-imposed dungeon like an extra in Orange Is the New Black.
Tonal addresses this home fitness hole with its simple-to-use system. Similar to home fitness competitors like Mirror, Tonal is a large, rectangular, wall-mounted device that displays interactive workout programming on a big screen. The one major difference with Tonal is the pair of adjustable arms that extend from the system. Each arm houses a cable that provides an adjustable amount of resistance of up to 100 pounds per arm. Attach some of the included accessories and you can perform a wide range of strength-building movements, from bench presses and squats to bicep curls and rope extensions.
The programmed workouts that appear on the screen are delivered by knowledgeable, encouraging trainers. The music selection is pretty great too. If you’ve got the cheddar for one—the Tonal unit costs about $3,000, plus a monthly subscription—you’ll find it to be one of the most comprehensive strength-building systems in the increasingly crowded “smart home gym” marketplace.
You’re probably familiar with all the clanging and banging a traditional resistance machine makes as the weight plates slap together at the end of each rep. The Tonal emits more of a subtle whirring; the system uses electromagnetic force instead of weights to add resistance to the cables. The cables extend from the arms and attach to a variety of handles to mimic most of the free weight and cable movements you’d find at your standard Planet Fitness. Tonal comes with a bar, a pulldown rope, and a set of handles. The bar and handles are equipped with Bluetooth-enabled buttons that let you switch the resistance off and on. This is a great feature that allows you to keep the weight disengaged while you get into position, then turn it back on when you’re ready to lift.
The workouts appear on a high-definition touchscreen that’s bright, clear, and extremely responsive to taps and swipes. The workouts are accompanied by a wide range of excellent music you can select. (I recommend the ’90s hip hop station.)
The setup routine is simple. After you enter your vitals (age, height, weight, goals), Tonal guides you through your first workout. The instructor takes you through a warmup, then a series of movements designed to teach you how to use the machine. After that is the proper strength assessment, in which you perform a series of movements that Tonal’s software uses to determine your strength levels. For all of your workouts after the assessment, the software automatically sets your weight for every movement, constantly adjusting the resistance as you grow stronger. You also have the option to adjust the weight manually if you’re feeling especially beastly on a given day.
Tonal offers hundreds of workouts, from traditional strength and high-intensity interval training programming to yoga, Pilates, barre, and meditation. You can even call up kickboxing classes and dance cardio, as well as more specific training programs, like pre- and postnatal workouts, triathlon training, and family workouts. There are recovery, mobility, and Theragun walkthroughs to help ease those post-workout aches.
There’s also a free lift option, where you pick each movement as you go. You can even create your own custom programming via the Tonal app. If you’re working out with a partner, you can do in-person partner workouts; the system will automatically adjust the weights for you and your partner and keep track of boeective warmup at the beginning and a mobility-focused recovery at the end. I especially liked this aspect, as I tend to skip the warmup and cool-down when I’m working out on my own.
Other features meatheads like me will appreciate are the Eccentric and Chains settings. Both settings are used in strength sports. Eccentric lifting adds resistance to the negative (lowering) portion of your lift, while the Chains setting simulates lifting with chains attached to your barbells, gradually adding weight as you perform the lift. Both are used to help speed up strength gains. As a former competitive powerlifter, I found Chains to be a welcome feature. It doesn’t look as cool as having 50 pounds of chains dangling off the bar, but the results are the same.
Since I get most of my endurance and cardiovascular workouts via CrossFit, I focused on what sets the Tonal apart from other home fitness tech: lifting weights. Going through a chest, triceps, and shoulder workout was similar to what you’d get at Anywhere Fitness or World Gym—dedicated sets and reps at specific weights. The big difference in the programming is that the weights are calibrated specifically to your strength levels and goals. When I chose the workout I wanted, the weights and movements were all set up and preprogrammed for me. All I had to do was move the position of the arms and add the appropriate handles.
As a fitness enthusiast, I was expecting an easy workout. Tonal had other ideas. By the end of the second set of cable flys, I was grunting and straining to bang out my last few reps while the Tonal pinged me with a notice that I was shortening my reps and a reminder to extend to a full range of motion.
The result of that reminder was eerily similar to working with a personal trainer in person: I muttered “I am, damn it,” gave the Tonal an angry side eye, then quickly corrected my form. What followed was the realization that my other job as a fitness coach may be in jeopardy.
During the bench press, the ability to disengage the weight on the cables made getting into and out of position under the bar a snap. Since the weights are calibrated to approach the top of your ability level, I struggled to get the last press. At the top of that last shaky rep, I thankfully heard the “ding” that signals a full rep, then thumbed the button to take all the weight off the cables before dropping the bar back to my chest.
In addition, whenever I crapped out on a set and couldn’t finish my reps, the Tonal automatically lessened the weight resistance so I could finish the set. This mimics the act of spotting, where someone hovers over you as you lift and stands ready to help you raise the weight if you falter. It’s a huge plus for people who work out by themselves and is a safety feature that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in cable machines in commercial gyms in the near future.
For people used to free weights, using cables is going to feel different. The lack of inertia and the constant cable tension makes every rep feel unstable at first, but after a few workouts it becomes familiar.
I have to admit that I missed the feel of hauling a 500-pound deadlift off the floor, but the 200 pounds of total resistance is more than enough for beginner and novice users. Even advanced lifters like me can get a solid workout, thanks to a variety of lifting modes.
However, if you’re looking for a monostructural cardio workout like a stationary bike or a treadmill, you’re out of luck. Cardio on the Tonal takes the form of HIIT training classes and plyometric programming. These workouts require you to pay attention to the screen at all times. Tonal isn’t built for people who prefer to zone out and disengage when they work out.