The first reaction people have when they see the Tonal, a connected strength training machine, on my wall is often one of two things: 1) is that the Mirror (a different internet-based piece of fitness equipment)? 2) can I try it?
Both are valid reactions, especially when you consider how much money the industry has poured into marketing connected fitness. There are ads for the Mirror all over train stations and cars, Echelon bikes are in nearly every Costco, and, well, you must have seen or at least heard of that Peloton holiday commercial. Five years after the first Peloton product launched, the concept of an at-home workout regimen no longer requires retro workout videos of the past. Even if you’re not interested in buying one, you’re probably at least curious what all the fuss is about.
Tonal is unique in this field for its focus on weight training instead of cardio. Think of the machine like a slimmer, low-profile Bowflex that mounts flush against the wall rather than taking up an entire corner of your room. With arms that can be adjusted and folded away, it’s also a bit less likely to end up as an expensive coat rack.
At $2,995 plus a monthly subscription cost, Tonal’s pitch is that it will replace a personal trainer at the gym by putting an on-demand one inside your home. I’ve been working out with Tonal for a few months, and while it’s got a lot of potential, there are also a lot of quirks and flaws.
The Tonal is a wall-mounted machine that has two adjustable arms; you can move them up and down and angle them for various push or pull exercises. The grips can also be swapped out for either two handles, a bar, or a rope. Some of these handles include an on / off button that allows you to get into position before starting the weight. The starter set also comes with a bench and a floor mat.
Inside the Tonal, electromagnets create resistance so that you can push and pull up to a maximum of 200 pounds combined, or 100 pounds per arm. (That might not be enough for some people, but it should suit most beginner to intermediate levels. If you want more resistance, you’ll have to wear your own wrist weights.) The center features a touchscreen that includes a roster of classes to suit your goals, whether it’s to bulk up in muscle or get toned and lean.
When you start up Tonal, you’ll need to perform a strength test to measure just how much weight you can handle. Based on the speed and force you’re able to lift, Tonal will auto-adjust the resistance and recommend weights for each program. You can also select your goals and difficulty levels for suggestions on the best classes to take. The machine keeps a “strength score” that shows you how much more you’ve been lifting over time.
Tonal currently offers a handful of coaches with different personalities, but most of their classes are structured the same way: the instructors start with some small talk then lead you through two to three sets of three to four exercises, which includes a warm-up and cool down. Most workouts last anywhere between 25 and 45 minutes, and you can also select a freestyle mode to perform specific exercises if you want to craft your own sets. Currently, the machine supports hundreds of different movements targeting all areas of the body, from arms and abs to legs and shoulders.
As the instructors talk you through the exercises, a video appears to show you how to adjust the machine’s arms to prepare for what you’re about to do. It’s a little clunky to get accustomed to at first, but I got used to it after a few workouts. As you push or pull, Tonal prepares the weight and counts your reps for you, beeping at the end for your last three reps so you know it’s almost over. If necessary, you can also pause or skip a section.
This is a similar setup to many other exercise apps, but what’s interesting about the Tonal are advanced modes like Eccentric, which automatically adds a few pounds to your last couple of reps and the “negative” portion of your lift (when you lower the handle during a bicep curl, for example) to further challenge you. I was often surprised by how much more I could lift even though it felt like I had already maxed out. There’s also Spotter mode, which is supposed to sense when you’re struggling to complete a rep and automatically decrease the weight, though I never found this to turn on unless I am shaking and unwieldy. With any kind of exercise, there’s always a risk that you can seriously injure yourself, so I wouldn’t rely on Spotter mode to save you over your intuition.
Each push and pull from the Tonal arms were smooth and quiet. There’s a small crank-like hum behind the screen, but you won’t hear much of this anyway, as Tonal offers various music radio stations you can listen to while you work out. Unlike the Peloton, Tonal music doesn’t synchronize with each move so it’s not running into similar issues Peloton is with copyrights. However, the music selections are slimmer as you can only select by genre instead of artists / albums, and you can’t personalize your own playlist.
The sleek hardware is cool and all, but the most important thing about connected fitness is whether it’s actually fun to use. After all, home workouts are only effective if it’s entertaining enough for you to do them regularly.
That’s where I found Tonal to be a bit underwhelming. Currently, Tonal doesn’t offer live classes, and it comes with pre-taped programs that you use to work out three to four times a week and repeat over the course of the month. There’s something mildly impersonal about this; whereas Peloton shines in the instructors bringing the boutique workout experience into your home by engaging personally with students, talking about their day, cracking jokes, or even pushing themselves to the point where they’re as out of breath as you are, the Tonal classes feel a bit robotic and rehearsed to the point where some of the script come across as cringeworthy. In one class, a coach flexes his incredibly sculpted biceps to show them off, then smirks at the camera. I found this to be corny, but maybe someone out there in inspired by that.
Since classes are just Tonal coaches narrating what you’re supposed to do next, followed by an instructional video of what you should be doing, it feels akin to watching a YouTube tutorial on how to perform certain weightlifting tasks. The thing about having a personal trainer (aside from someone to yell at you to work out) is someone to watch your form, and that’s just something Tonal can’t quite do. Tonal says it’s programmed the videos to be as detailed as possible, and the coaches do blurt out reminders to check your forms periodically, but without being able to see yourself, it’s hard to tell whether you’re doing a new exercise correctly for the first time.
Once the week is over and you go back to day one of the program, the content also starts to feel stale. Yes, weight training works by repetition and consistency, but hearing a coach make the same cheesy joke gets old after the second time, never mind the fourth. After two weeks of a program, I often found myself starting a different one or ignoring the machine for a few days before being ready to go back to doing the same things over again.
It’s also super easy to cheat the machine. Since Tonal is only monitoring whether a push or pull is being made, you don’t necessarily have to do the exact exercise you’re being told to do. When I was too tired to do a proper bicep curl, I found that performing weighted squat or even just walking the pulley forward still tricked the machine into counting the rep. Whenever I was too lazy to properly warm up or cool down, I skipped during those segments by either using the fast-forward button or just walking away for a drink of water.
You shouldn’t do that, obviously. Part of any physical transformation is your level of dedication, and these programs are designed to only work if you’re committed to following through the way they’re meant to be done.
As it stands, using the Tonal feels like paying to be a beta tester. That’s both good and bad: because Tonal is clearly young, growing, and learning, it’s extremely receptive to current user feedback. Employees are often personally engaging with users on dedicated Facebook groups and via emails; on one occasion where I skipped through a workout and rated it 3 out of 5 stars, someone from the team reached out to note what had happened and asked how the program could be improved. Additionally, the employee suggested other classes I might want to try that might better suit what I was looking for based on my specific reason for rating the class poorly.
The Tonal software is also constantly getting updates. In the six months that I’ve had the machine, Tonal introduced partner mode (for switching between you and a friend while working out), custom workouts, high-intensity mode, progress tracking on the mobile app, and yoga was added to the class offerings. Most of these features were things users directly requested in Facebook groups, and the team seemed to respond swiftly and directly. The whole app even updated with a new font, a cleaner interface, and classes now take place in a mood-lit set. (This all happened so quickly that it made our review photos outdated shortly after the shoot.)
But the con is obviously that the machine costs thousands of dollars for something that’s clearly still relatively early in its stages of development. It’s clear that Tonal wants to be the next Peloton, but it still doesn’t quite have that stickiness Peloton has with getting users —especially ones that are new to strength training — addicted and committed to classes. Peloton forces you to stay through class by not offering a pause button and clipping you into the machine so that getting on and off the bike is an effort in itself. That’s just not something Tonal can easily re-create with any simple formula.
Tonal’s primary focus is strength training, and while it does offer some bodyweight cardio classes, it might not be as challenging as cardio machines like bikes, treadmills, or rowers. Lots of Peloton owners have ended up buying the Tonal to complement their cardio regimen (Tonal even has a Peloton program designed to use in conjunction with Peloton classes), which could mean a lot of upfront costs for those who want a full connected home gym experience. That said, Tonal does offer a financing plan that makes it roughly $199 per month (including the subscription), which compares much more favorably to a gym membership and personal trainer than Tonal’s full hardware cost. (Of course, there’s always the danger of relying on software updates to run the thing, which is now an all-too-common risk with the Internet of Things.)
If you are the kind of person who is already mentally prepared to commit to weight training, the Tonal is an excellently designed machine that’s much sleeker than your traditional home gym equipment. It’s space-efficient and great for multiple people in the house to use since each profile saves their personalized weights for the next time they work out. Plus, you can’t deny the perks of grunting and sweating in your own private space instead of a public gym.
But is the Tonal going to get you the body you’ve always wanted? Not exactly. But really, no machine can promise that since diet is another huge part of that equation. However you choose to exercise, know that working out doesn’t have to be expensive — getting over the mental hurdle is the hardest part.