When it comes to getting super toned and sculpted, you could seek out a trainer at the gym. But if you’re a homebody or can’t deal with live humans these days, you can try a “smart tech” trainer without leaving your bedroom.
Enter: The Tonal Home Gym, a Wifi connected strength training machine that guides you through challenging weight-training exercises, lets you view expert trainer-led online classes and tailors workouts to help you crush your health and fitness goals.
There’s loud online buzz about this intelligent system, and celebs are so sure the technology will be a must-have that sports figures such as Stephen Curry and Serena Williams have pitched in to the investment pot. But the real question is, does Tonal make sense for you, your budget and your lifestyle? Read on to find out.
What is Tonal?
The system consists of a mounted rectangular-shaped unit with adjustable arms and a touch interface screen that you use to choose trainer-led online weight-training classes, customize your workout and select music. Tonal uses electromagnetic resistance technology, which lets you push and pull up to 200 pounds (100 pounds per arm), without actual dumbbells to clutter up your living room.
How does Tonal work?
In a nutshell, Tonal’s technology evaluates your exercise capacity, then sets the poundage that’s perfect for you for every rep. "It uses a combination of electricity and magnets that are able to digitally adjust the weight," Good Housekeeping's Head Engineer and Chief Technologist, Rachel Rothman, says.
Magnets can attract or repel each other dependent upon their polarity, Rothman explains. When electricity is passed through the coils it can make the magnets more or less attractive, making the magnetic field stronger or weaker. The greater the current, the more resistance can be achieved. "While traditional weights rely on the force of gravity pulling them down as you try to lift them up, with digital weight you are overcoming resistance that is controlled by computer chips impacting the electric coils and magnets," she says.
The Tonal screen hangs from your wall on a bracket — to choose your workout spot, you need seven by seven feet of floor space, and seven feet of clear wall space, plus a ceiling height of at least seven feet, ten inches. While that's sounds like a lot, the unit itself is compact, says the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab's Deputy Director Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, NASM-CPT, who is also a personal trainer and tested Tonal. Sassos appreciated the small footprint, "especially if you have kids running around the house and don’t want loose fitness equipment all over the place," she says. Sassos also vouches for the "top quality" fitness content and instructors, and easy interface.
The unit comes with a bench and floor mat that you use during your workouts, and you have the option of attaching accessories such as different grips to the arms in order to perform the moves. Seventeen sensors monitor your movement and provide real-time feedback on your form as you do the exercises. “It’s an easy onboarding process — you can choose your fitness goals and difficulty levels,” Rothman said.
Like The Mirror, through which you screen virtual workouts, Tonal is completely interactive, and offers real-time classes where others participate from their own homes (maybe you'll catch Serena Williams, who is said to use it). While Tonal isn't exactly the same as a fitness mirror (since it's not an actual mirror!), many consider it alongside others that are classified as such.
Is Tonal good for strength training?
Um, yeah! One tester reported that before you start exercising, you take a strength test to determine how much weight you can safely lift. “The advanced modes are cool,” she adds. “The ‘Eccentric,’ for example, will add a few pounds to last few reps, and the ‘Spotter’ helps you a bit when you’re struggling. You can choose programs to simplify finding classes to achieve a goal and almost set it and forget it.”
And if you are new to strength training, no worries. "Many people may be intimidated to lift weights. This is nice because it provides a bit of guidance and feedback while you lift and you don’t need to be a lifting expert to use the machine," says Sassos. "Beginners can get a lot out of it too."
Can Tonal replace a gym membership?
Yes, if you won't miss the social aspect of sweating near non-family members. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's exercise recommendations include at least two days of weight training, and at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio (or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio) each week. While Tonal focuses on weight training, their cardio programs include high-intensity training, bootcamp, boxing, kickboxing and dance cardio. "They even have 305 Dance Fitness workouts which is really fun," says Sassos.
As for strength training, all your muscle-building needs will be met here, and the equipment offers lots of freedom and function. “You can easily swap off grips for handles, a bar, or a rope,” one tester says. Tonal can also provide precise targeting for special fitness needs. “The trainer for pre/post natal exercises was amazing, helping me work on my diastasis recti,” said Rothman, a mom of three kids under five who suffered from this after repeated back-to-back pregnancies.
How much does Tonal cost?
The cost is heavy duty too – currently, $2,995 for the machine, $495 for its smart accessories, then a minimum $49 month subscription cost. There are also installation charges in the $250 ballpark.
What are the pros and cons of Tonal?
What we liked:
- Clear focus on weight training
- Live classes
- The smaller footprint than previous weight-training machines
- Arms can be folded away when not in use so the unit is relatively flush against wall
- Multiple users can customize
- You can choose your fitness goal (lose weight, boost energy, etc.)
- The starter set included bench and nice floor mat
- Easy to navigate touch interface
- Easy onboarding process
- Ability to adjust music
- It's not cheap
- It's doesn't provide as accurate form feedback as some others
- 100-pound max per arm or 200 pounds combined
- You need to have enough space right in front of the unit to do all the moves (so not great for a tiny apartment)
- The unit is bolted to the wall, which may not be ideal if you don't own your home.
So, is Tonal worth the price?
That depends on you and your needs: Considering that the average fee for a gym membership in the US can range from $120 to $1,000 a year, you should calculate whether to spring for Tonal based on cost-per-use. Are you dedicated to using the system multiple times a week? Is working out at home something you enjoy and will do regularly? Do you need the guesswork eliminated for you? If so, Tonal, and its in-home convenience, could be perfect for you. For instance, Tonal adjusts and sets the amount of weight you're lifting, so you are challenged without overdoing it, and you never forget where you were in your progress. The bottom line? “While it’s definitely cost-prohibitive, it’s one of the most impressive pieces of strength training equipment I’ve ever used!” Rothman raved.
How we test fitness equipment: In the Good Housekeeping Institute Wellness Lab, we test fitness equipment based on ease of use, functionality, and value. We look at ease of installation and setup, intuitiveness of using the system, the breadth and quality of exercise content, the ergonomics and footprint of the machine, and more.
To evaluate Tonal, we had a dozen testers use Tonal over the course of a year and provide feedback. Our lead testers from the Institute, Sassos and Rothman, both used Tonal, several times a week for over a year before culling their data and feedback from the other testers to arrive at our assessment.
Why trust Good Housekeeping?
- Rachel Rothman, chief technologist and head engineer, has a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics with a mathematics minor from the University of Pennsylvania and has been at GH for nearly 15 years. She leads efforts for the constant evolution of GH’s technical and testing protocols, responding to both market drivers and growth opportunities. She is also a certified Pilates mat instructor and has always been an avid athlete, continuing to play soccer, tennis and lacrosse well into adulthood. She has experience testing a multitude of fitness equipment, including benchmarked tests of treadmills, ellipticals, rowers, smart fitness mirrors and smartwatches.
- Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, NASM-CPT, has been working in the fitness industry for the past 10 years, specializing in indoor cycling and strength training. As a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, she uses her expertise and exercise science knowledge to create informed fitness content for the Good Housekeeping Institute. From vigorously testing exercise equipment to curating workout plans for GH readers, Stefani is passionate about leading an active lifestyle and inspiring others to do the same.
- This story was edited by Stephanie Dolgoff, Deputy Director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, who has been researching and writing about health and fitness for decades, and since 2015 at Good Housekeeping. Stephanie worked closely with a writer and the Good Housekeeping Institute Lab experts who tested Tonal, collected data and provided insight to bring you a complete sense of how the unit works, its benefits and what it was like to experience it firsthand.