I’ve spent a good portion of my time inside during lockdown sifting through the best Instagram Live workouts, but working out at home isn’t really my thing. The global covid-19 pandemic—and subsequent gym closures—forced me to reevaluate that stance. Free streaming workouts are fine and all, but what I really needed was solid home gym equipment. Unfortunately, I’m a little picky.
See, I love weight-lifting, and I’m not a big fan of cardio. Also, both my parents were P.E. teachers, so I learned to love the gym pretty early on. And, when the world isn’t locked down, there are plenty of places for me to work out—there are five major gym chains less than a mile from my apartment, and I belong to two of them.
That’s not to say I’ve never considered cobbling together an apartment-friendly home gym, because I definitely have. But my options are somewhat limited — not only is most home workout equipment cardio-oriented (treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals, Peloton), but I’m also an apartment dweller. While I have enough room to occasionally lay down a yoga mat, I don’t really have enough space for anything that can’t be easily rolled up, such as a power rack, a cable machine, or a Bowflex.
What I need is a versatile strength-training machine that can somehow create decent (more than 20 pounds) resistance without the bulk and heft of actual weights.
Turns out this actually exists. It’s called Tonal, and it’s a wall-mounted digital weight machine that uses electromagnetics and wizardry to create up to 200 pounds of combined resistance (100 pounds per arm). It’s a “smart” home workout device that’s been called the Peloton of strength training. The comparison is a little off—it’s not really that much like Peloton, except in that it has a touchscreen with tutorials, real-time workout data, and on-demand streaming workouts you can follow.
But it’s not cheap.
Tonal starts at $3,000, but that price is just for the wall unit. It doesn’t include the smart accessory package ($500), professional installation ($250), or the monthly membership fee ($50/month) to access Tonal’s streaming content and proprietary “Coach AI” features. The smart accessory package isn’t mandatory, but you’ll want the smart handles and the smart bar if you want to perform all of Tonal’s exercises. The professional installation is mandatory, and so is the first year of Tonal’s monthly subscription. In other words, the first year of Tonal costs $4,328 before taxes, or about $360/month. It’s the same price as Peloton’s lust-worthy treadmill (sans subscription), which, to put in perspective, would be the cost of memberships for all five gyms in my neighborhood combined. Tonal does offer a 36-month finance plan for $149/month, which is closer to the monthly price of a (fancy) gym membership. But, still. The sticker shock is real.
Before you start considering whether you should splurge on expensive workout equipment, you should know that Tonal has barriers other than price. The machine needs to be mounted on a wall, and it can’t be just any wall. The wall needs to have 16- to 24-inch wood or metal studs, it can’t be packed with plumbing or wires, and there needs to be an electrical outlet within six feet of the device. The location you choose will also need about seven feet of surrounding space (vertical and horizontal) so you can fully extend and rotate Tonal’s arms. You can take your Tonal with you when you move, but it will cost you—relocation fees start at $175 (though the exact price varies depending on the move).
Most of the walls in my apartment are made of concrete, steel, and whatever else industrial buildings were made of in the early 1900s (asbestos, probably), so I actually only have one wall that meets Tonal’s requirements. This same wall happens to have an expanse of unusable space (thanks to a closet door), but it was an incredibly fortunate coincidence that I happened to have a perfect Tonal-friendly location in my apartment. Even though Tonal’s compact form makes it ideal for smaller spaces, it’s not quite as small as it first seems, and you can’t just shove it wherever it fits. Once my wall was deemed acceptable, the actual installation was fairly quick—about 45 minutes, including wifi and Bluetooth setup.
At a glance, Tonal looks more like an interactive retail display than a workout machine: It’s a long, vertical rectangle with a big touchscreen and two adjustable cable arms. It’s pretty slick-looking, and it definitely takes up less space than any other home workout machine you can buy (minus, perhaps, the Mirror). When you’re not using the machine, you can rotate the arms all the way around until they’re hidden at the back of the machine.
Tonal’s arms have a couple of levers and buttons for adjustment; they slide up and down the length of the machine and rotate horizontally and vertically, locking into place. It might take you a moment to get used to adjusting the arms, but once you figure it out it’s very easy and quick. One of my favorite things about Tonal is how quickly you can switch up the machine to perform different exercises. At the end of each arm is Tonal’s proprietary T-lock mechanism for attaching different grips. The T-lock works with Tonal’s smart accessory package, and Tonal also sells standalone T-locks (4 for $20) that can be attached to any cable machine attachment.
Tonal’s smart accessory package comes with three cable grips: smart handles, a smart bar, and a non-smart rope. The main thing that makes the smart grips “smart” is the Bluetooth buttons you can use to turn Tonal’s weights on or off (the smart handles also have built-in gyroscopes for more accurate movement tracking). You don’t need the smart grips to perform the majority of Tonal’s movements, but having them does open up a variety of movements you’d normally never be able to perform with such a compact, space-saving cable machine. The smart accessory package also includes a bench, fitness mat, and foam roller, none of which are particularly noteworthy.
Setting up Tonal is simple and fast: Make an account, answer some questions about your fitness goals, and watch a couple of tutorials on safety and getting started. The tutorials teach you how to use Tonal’s different attachments and digital weight features safely. Tonal will suggest some initial workouts, including a weight calibration exercise that tests your strength so Tonal’s “Coach AI” can estimate your ideal starting weight on various exercises. Tonal’s Coach AI also analyzes your lifting (based on speed and smoothness) and adjusts your weight as you lift to better suit your levels. If you prefer not to follow a guided workout, you can always use Tonal’s Free Lift mode, where you can manually pick an exercise from Tonal’s catalogue of moves (or make up your own) and choose your starting weights. You’ll find all the moves you’re used to seeing on cable machines at the gym—tricep extensions, seated lat pulldowns, deadlifts—as well as some you don’t normally see on a cable machine, such as the barbell bench press.
Tonal’s digital weight system is definitely unique, and it allows for some neat features you wouldn’t normally get without an extra person. In addition to regular weight lifting, Tonal has two additional lifting modes: chains and eccentric. Chains mode adds weight at the top of your lift (similar to lifting a chain), while eccentric mode adds weight as you’re going down. An eccentric lift isn’t impossible to get in the gym—it’s like a spotter pushing down on the bar. Tonal also has a built-in spotter, which adjusts your weight if it senses you’re struggling. I personally thought the spotter stepped in far too early and frequently, so it’s not quite like having a human spotter.
Tonal is an impressive strength training machine, but it’s still a machine—it’s not going to replace free weights for people who really need free weights. You can’t really perform explosive lifts on a cable machine (and I wouldn’t suggest trying it on something that’s mounted to your wall), so many basic Olympic lifts, such as power cleans and snatches, are out. Tonal is also less effective for compound stability exercises, such as squats. But you can strength train without worrying about Olympic lifting, and so Tonal is versatile enough to replace the weight room for many people.
Tonal’s on-demand content is…well, let’s just say it can’t compare to Peloton. Tonal’s “classes” aren’t really classes, they’re more like video walk-throughs—the experience is more like working out with a personal trainer (minus the accountability, though Tonal is equipped with a webcam and mic for possible future interactive sessions) than it is like joining a group fitness class. Tonal does have a nice variety of workouts organized by fitness goal (get lean, build muscle, maintain fitness, etc.), body area, coach, and time. Most workouts are between 10 and 45 minutes long.
Tonal’s workouts are good, but they’re not necessarily the ultra-motivating Peloton workouts with hyped-up trainers and perfectly-curated playlists (in fact, Tonal’s workouts don’t really have music, but you can put your own music on or listen to one of Tonal’s built-in radio stations).
This isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but it might be one for you. I’m not big on group fitness classes—I don’t dislike them, but I don’t feed off instructors’ energy the way a lot of group fitness enthusiasts do. Don’t get me wrong, Tonal’s instructors are great, but because most of the app’s on-demand content is focused on strength training (though they do have a handful of cardio and yoga classes), they’re there to tell you how to do the exercise more than they’re there to get you pumped up for working out.
Tonal seems like it was made for me. It’s compact enough that it fits perfectly in an otherwise unusable part of my apartment, it’s easy to use and well-made, and it offers plenty of resistance for legitimate strength-training. At first I was unsure if 200 pounds (or 100 pounds per arm) would be enough, but it’s plenty for most of what I do, and I’m frankly not sure I’d want to trust more than 200 pounds to digital weights. (By the way, if the power goes out, Tonal’s cables lock in place—I did check this to make sure.)
But Tonal definitely has some drawbacks, namely that it won’t help you that much if you’re completely new to strength training. Despite the fact that the machine has a built-in camera, no features currently make use of it—though that could change in the future. That means there’s no feedback on your form during exercises. At the end of the day, Tonal is a cable machine and not a set of free weights. It also doesn’t really have the Peloton allure of live classes and accountability. If you’re not already the kind of person who works out regularly, I’m not sure Tonal will change your mind.
But I love it.
It only took me a day to fall in love with it. I’ve spent the past month working out with the machine, trying to justify why I need to buy one after I return the review unit when I’m already a member of more than one actual gym. It’s just so damn convenient! But I’m also a renter, which means I’ll need to have Tonal come move the machine when I inevitably change apartments—and that’s assuming my next apartment has a wall that works with Tonal.
I asked the guys who installed my Tonal if they’d installed a lot of these lately, and they said yes—after all, it’s LA! Who doesn’t want a sleek, high-tech workout machine in their living room here? And I think that might be exactly who Tonal is for: People who can afford a home gym but don’t have the space for it.
- Digital weights are basically magic and, no, it won’t pull your wall down.
- Super easy and quick to move into position and switch between exercises, so working out is crazy convenient.
- It’s a high-tech cable machine, so it’ll replace your cable machine but not your free weights.
- Designed for people living in small apartments, priced for people living in giant mansions.