If you followed Shalane Flanagan’s post-retirement journey to running all six World Marathon Majors in 42 days after reconstruction surgery on both knees, you may have seen her on Instagram pulling, rowing, twisting, and hip hinging her way to strength using a high-tech, flat-screen TV-looking device in her mini home gym. That device is Tonal, a new digital-weight resistance training system she calls a “game changer!!”
Recently, Flanagan’s been joined by 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials Champion and 10x USA Champion Aliphine Tuliamuk, who started using Tonal after the birth of her baby Zoe, for elite-level training without leaving her living room. She’s now using it as she rehabs from the hip injury that resulted in a DNF at the Tokyo Olympics and a DNS from this year’s New York City Marathon.
“I’m using Tonal for core and upper body workouts. I love that there are so many different options for exercises. I can go in and do a 20-minute routine while the baby naps and have a really good workout!” Tuliamuk told Runner’s World. “The coolest thing is that after you do the initial strength test, it automatically sets the weight you need and automatically adjusts the weight for each exercise without you having to think about it. It also shows you how to do each exercise, so you can turn your brain off and just do the work. I can see that I’m getting stronger in real time. It’s the best gym you could ever have in your home.”
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been a certified trainer since the ’90s, and though I absolutely love the results of strength training, I have always struggled to be consistent with it because I’d much rather run or ride my bike.
I have some equipment at home, but not the weights and plates I need for heavy deadlifts, squats, and the wide array of exercises I prefer. If I’m honest, I also lack the spark to make myself do hard weight workouts at home on my own. I’ve joined gyms over the years, but that’s always been hit or miss at best—it’s another thing to schedule, it takes time to get there and set up and break down, and it’s easy to find excuses to skip. So, I’ve blown my share of gym fees over the years. The result: My resistance training slides and so does my strength and stability running on the trails, especially as I get older.
Like Tuliamuk, I’m unabashedly in love with the Tonal home gym. As a self-employed person with Zoom chats and phone calls at all hours, I love that I can finish a meeting at 2:30 p.m., have another one at 3 p.m., and get in an intelligently programmed, muscle-quivering, 100-percent trainer-guided effective workout in 20 minutes in between. The programming hits every muscle, including the ones I might just gloss over if left to my own devices—I’m looking at you, chest and triceps! The nearly two months since I’ve gotten it have been hands down the most consistent (and happy) I’ve ever been with strength training. It’s a fun break in my day that has the benefit of making me stronger.
The strength shows up in abundance on the trails. I run taller as the canister of core muscles wrapping my torso is stronger and more stable. It’s easier to pick up my feet and dance through rock gardens—even an hour into the run—without the bumbling and stumbling that sometimes happens when the hips and legs get tired.
In the market for a home gym? Here’s everything you need to know about Tonal to help you decide if it’s right for you.
Why Should You Trust This Review?
I’ve been a certified personal trainer since 1996 and a competitive endurance athlete for 30 years, with coaching and training certifications from USA Cycling, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and Precision Nutrition. I have authored, co-authored, and/or contributed to more than a dozen books on training, and I have made it my life’s work to stay abreast of strength training trends and science, personally trying each and every modality I cover. I used the Tonal at least three days a week in the nearly two months I’ve been testing it, and plan to bump that usage up to four to five days a week as winter moves into the Mid-Atlantic region where I live because I find it so effective and enjoy it so much. I have had periods of my life where I have forced myself to strength train with that level of consistency. This is the first time I can say I really enjoy it.
The Takeaway: Tonal is a full home gym, personal trainer, and suite of exercise classes you can hang on a wall.
- Who should buy this: People who want a comprehensive, time-efficient, and effective way to train without leaving the house and/or hiring a trainer.
- What we love: That Tonal provides personalized programming and automatically sets and adjusts the weight within 1-pound increments.
- What we don’t love: It doesn’t lend itself to doing Olympic-style lifts, like clean and jerks, and/or complex kettlebell-style exercises.
- Price: $2,995 + $49/month membership fee ($495 accessory fee + $250 delivery and installation fee)
What is Tonal, exactly?
Tonal is a wall-mounted unit—like a vertical flat screen television—with adjustable electromagnetic arms with built-in cables that attach to handles (or a barbell or rope attachment) that offer resistance for strength training.
When you turn it on, you’re greeted with a variety of on-demand workouts and Peloton-style Tonal Live classes. There are hundreds of options available, including non-resistance workouts and sessions like yoga, kickboxing, Barre, Pilates, recovery, HIIT, boot camp, and guided meditation.
To begin, Tonal walks you through a series of moves that act as a strength assessment. It then automatically sets the resistance for your upcoming workouts. As you perform the moves, it adjusts in real time in 1-pound increments so you’re working against the exact amount of resistance you need to make strength gains.
You choose programs based on your goals (or you can always create your own). Once you select a workout, a coach comes on screen and walks you through the routine, which includes the warmup, the setup, your form, your sets and reps, and the cooldown. As you go through your routine, it provides real-time guidance on your form and technique, so you get the range of motion, positioning, and pacing right.
Tonal keeps track of sets and reps and completed sessions. So, each time you turn it on, the resistance is automatically set and adjusts as you go along, allowing you to track your progress in real time.
How does Tonal work?
Tonal uses an electromagnetic resistance engine to generate the opposing force you experience as “weight.” It can provide up to 200 pounds of digital weight, which feels considerably heavier than traditional free weights because the resistance is constant, and you don’t get the benefit of momentum as you do with free weights.
The resistance is also dynamic, so it can change from rep to rep or even within a single rep to make sure you’re applying enough force within the move to be challenging to your muscles. It does all this through a complex system of cable sensors, which can tell the power you’re driving at every part of the movement and adjust accordingly.
Those cable sensors also enable the machine to give form feedback to ensure you’re performing the exercises correctly. The precise cable length data is tracked 60 times per second, and Tonal integrates that real time feedback with a database of nearly a billion repetitions and more than 100 million sets of exercises. If you’re out of position or off pace, the machine issues a prompt that cues you on how to correct your form when it’s incorrect or starting to breakdown.
The system also offers more advanced dynamic weight modes—Smart Flex adds weight during a rep at the point you’re strongest; Spotter Mode bumps the weight down if you get stuck while trying to lift heavy; Eccentric increases your time under tension; and Chains Mode makes the weight heavier at the top of your range of motion.
What doesn’t Tonal do?
You can’t mimic complex kettlebell exercises and throwing actions like a medicine ball slam on Tonal. If you’re into CrossFit and/or Olympic style lifts like clean and jerks, Tonal won’t replace your gym—yet.
“With an explosive movement, most of the force is generated in the initial phase, and you’re riding the momentum and catching [the weight],” Matt Bean, Tonal’s senior vice president of research and programming, told Runner’s World. “We can model that: We have sophisticated devices for describing that movement with physics and telling the machine how to mimic it. We’ll get there. But it’s fairly complicated and we want to get it right.”
How much does Tonal cost?
All this tech comes at a price. The machine itself retails for $2,995, and you have to pay an extra $495 for the accessory package, which includes smart handles and a smart bar that allow you to turn the weight on and off with the touch of a button, as well as a rope attachment and bench, mat, and foam roller. Delivery and installation are an extra $250.
Once you’re set up, there’s a $49 per month membership fee, which includes access to the full library of on-demand workouts and live classes. You can set up an unlimited number of user profiles per household under one membership fee, which is nice if you have multiple people in your family who want to use it, too. There are financing options that make the initial investment easier to swallow, but there’s no getting around that it is a sizable initial investment.
So, is Tonal worth it?
If used consistently to its fullest capacity, Tonal would pay for itself over time, when you consider the cost of gym membership, various strength and complementary classes, and personal training. Based off of what I’ve paid for gym and class fees in the past, Tonal would pay for itself in 22 months and save me about $150 per month after that. Tonal also buys you a full home gym that you don’t need to clear out a room for. If you want a comprehensive, effective way to train in a compact package, Tonal is an excellent option.
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