Is this AI-powered home gym worth the cost? I tried it to find out
Tonal brings smart strength-training programs into the home—for a price
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There are a lot of ways to work out at home. You can install the quintessential suburban home gym—that is, a treadmill and a set of dumbbells beside a dusty ping pong table and a media shelf containing Grease and Rat Race on VHS. You can use the glow of your laptop to lead the way through an exercise routine from one of the many fitness gurus that run rampant on YouTube, or go old school by revving up a classic Jane Fonda video.
Or you could take it next-level by investing in Tonal, a smart connected home workout system with digital weights that possesses aspects of all, without the clutter of free weights or the monotony of a video—and, of course, with a hefty price tag.
That price starts at $2,995, plus tax; plus delivery and professional installation ($250); plus “Smart Accessories,” the handles, bench, and mat that you need to do a lot of the exercises ($495); plus a monthly membership fee ($49), which adds up to a (very) grand total of about $4,400 for the first year. There's also a financing plan of $149 a month for 36 months—on par with the high-end gym membership it’s designed to replace. For that kind of money, it has to be a great product—right? I tested it to find out.
What is Tonal?
Tonal is a Peloton-esque smart device that offers streaming workouts that include strength training, thanks to its resistance cables that go up to 200 pounds. All of this is condensed in a wifi-enabled vessel about the size of a flatscreen TV turned on its side. Like a lot of new, smart fitness equipment, it comes from a company based out of San Francisco, and looks something like The Mirror, a similar smart fitness device, but with arms and handles. It achieves its function and compactness thanks to internal electromagnetic resistance that, when paired with its “Smart Accessories,” allow you to do much of what you'd usually do in a gym's weight room—bench presses, rows, lat pulldowns, deadlifts, and so on—with a single machine. You can pair it with your phone to play music, or connect to one of Tonal’s music channels, which have options like pop and hip-hop. These stations play actual artists, not covers or instrumental songs, which is nice.
Tonal also uses AI to identify which weight is best for you and your abilities for each exercise, and automatically adjusts the weights in real time as you go through a workout. As you get stronger over time, the AI increases your weight for each exercise. Tonal offers multi-week workout programs that include strength training, cardio, yoga, partner exercises, and more, all of which are led on the screen by a rotating cast of trainers. Classes are available on-demand for you to do at any time, but Tonal doesn’t currently offer live classes like Peloton or The Mirror. You can also connect Tonal to a Bluetooth heart-rate device as a gauge for exertion, but it’s not mandatory and the classes don’t seem to hinge on calorie burn as a motivator.
In its ads, the device seems akin to a strength training machine geared towards more serious weight lifters (with an emphasis on upper body strength, based on the ads I saw). Fitness-wise, I do not identify this way. I am more of a group fitness person who tends to veer towards spin, yoga, barre, and Pilates classes, and I’ve always been nervous about trying heavy-duty weight lifting in a public gym, where great pain—or worse, humiliation—could befall me. In trying the Tonal machine, I hoped I might learn some lifting techniques (beyond my usual lightweight bicep curls) to make me stronger overall and help me gain confidence at the gym.
How do you use Tonal?
When you order Tonal, you pick a time and date you would like it to be installed, and wait for it to arrive. Our delivery guys arrived to Reviewed's offices on time (though they were sent by the PR team, who offered to lend us a test unit). The overall installation process—which involves bolting the appliance into the wall—took about 30 to 45 minutes.
Once installed, you perform a fitness assessment to gauge your starting strength, which includes a seated lat pulldown, a bench press, a shoulder press, and a deadlift. You also pick out a few fitness goals, like “lose weight,” “maintain fitness,” or “boost energy,” and are prompted to join one of Tonal’s programs, which are classes led by certain instructors that you do a few times each week in order to meet a goal. (You don’t have to join a program right away, however—I opted out initially and joined a program later.)
Like most things, Tonal has a learning curve. You adjust the arms alongside the screen and clip the smart handles, bar, and rope in and out depending on the workout, which can be a little challenging at first, but grows routine after a few tries. As with most cable machines, the weights have an inherent instability—particularly when using the long bar—so they can feel heavier than they really are.
What are the classes like?
There are a few ways to do classes on Tonal. One is by joining one of the programs, which is best for someone looking to meet a specific goal. You can also pick classes a la carte on Tonal's homepage, which are sorted by muscle group and workout type (such as “lower body,” “high-intensity,” and so on). Each of these is between five to 50 minutes long in a range of difficulty levels. Finally, you can build custom workouts in Tonal’s app by picking exercises and assigning your own reps, sets, and rest periods.
To get a feel for the breadth of Tonal’s offerings, I mostly did the pick-and-choose workouts. And they kicked my butt. I tried both high-intensity and strength training classes, and even though I mostly picked 25- to 35-minute workouts, I felt like I had done the equivalent of one of the hour-long studio workout classes I'm used to. I also felt noticeably sore in the days after my first few workouts. This is probably because I’m not as used to straight-up strength training as I am to lower-impact classes, and the soreness and fatigue I felt after a 30-minute workout receded as I grew more used to Tonal and strength training in general. Still, it was cool that the classes felt as efficient and effective as they did.
I also thought Tonal provided a decent way to learn the basics of lifting. The system offers demos taught by Tonal's on-demand personal trainers that you can watch before you start a set in a workout, and the screen is a little reflective, so you get a glimpse of what you’re doing and can size up if it matches with what the instructor is doing. The nature of the machine means I still don’t know much about how to use free weights at the gym, but I have a better idea about how much weight I can bear for different exercises. And the cable machine there no longer intimidates me.
As for the AI weight adjustments? In almost all cases, it was smarter than I am. Sometimes I had to adjust the weight a pound or two, but in most of its workouts, it was spot-on. In fact, a few times, I was assigned a seemingly low weight that I scoffed at, deciding I would be fine bumping it up a little. But by the halfway point in the set, I'd realize that, yes, for the reps required, I needed the lighter weight originally assigned to me.
What isn’t so great about Tonal?
Despite the tutorials and reflective screen surface, there were a few instances in which I worried about my form. This was particularly true during exercises where I couldn’t look at the screen, like bench presses, to verify that my technique was correct. I dealt with this by watching demos and listening to instructions extra-carefully before starting the exercises, but my form still could have been totally off and I had no real way to know. You also don’t get to join in on live classes, so you don’t get the sense of community that comes with some home workout devices.
Also, the machine is bolted to the wall. This means it’s sturdy and secure—and it can be removed, with effort—but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who rents or moves frequently, because heavy, semi-permanent fixtures tend not to mix well with lease agreements and moving trucks.
Finally—and this is more of a quibble than a real complaint—the trainers, though clearly human, take on the appearance of Sims or computer-generated Instagram models during certain parts of the workout. They don’t stop doing reps until you stop or tap the screen to go to the next exercise, so if you happen to rest for a moment without pausing the video, they keep doing squats or deadlifts or whatever on a loop, without any change in form or appearance, and keep going until you finish the set or power off the machine. I don’t know what I would have them do instead (turn their head a little bit? Wipe their brow? Stop and yell at me for slacking off?) but it felt odd enough to me during almost every workout that I wrote WEIRD!!! in my notes.
Is Tonal worth it?
From the perspective of making strength training accessible and fun, Tonal is excellent, and arguably the most robust at-home system for total fitness that you can get. Its competitors—the Pelotons and Mirrors—focus on cardio or body-weight training and don’t involve weights unless you buy them separately. Tonal combines top-notch instruction with up to 200 pounds of resistance, in a compact and attractive package that’s mostly unobtrusive in the home.
I thought every Tonal workout I tried was effective, efficient, and enjoyable. But I also found myself missing some aspects of my beloved group fitness classes. I don’t mind paying for workout classes because part of what I’m paying for is a 45- to 60-minute period of time in which I am separated from my phone and I don’t have to look at a screen. I also don’t find motivating myself to work out on my own to be too hard. What is hard is tearing my eyes away from my phone and laptop if they are not physically taken from me. You don’t get that with Tonal—you can play music from your phone if it's connected to the Bluetooth, but you have to stare at the Tonal screen to do the workout. This happens with most other home workouts, too, and l would say that the Tonal screen falls into the good screen category as opposed to the bad screen one. But I did find myself missing the eye break I get when I go to a studio workout.
That said, the workouts are great. If you don’t mind the screen factor, and you feel the price is in your budget, and you know you will use it, Tonal may be worth it for you.
Should you get a Tonal?
I loved working out with Tonal. If I had the money (I do not) and lived in a large space I owned and did not rent with several roommates (ditto), I would get one for myself. Tonal is a great for someone with some fitness experience—though not necessarily in traditional weight training—who is interested in working more with a weights machine, learning more lifting techniques, getting into cross training, and doesn’t want to leave their house to exercise. Sound like you? If so, you’ll enjoy this home gym upgrade.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.