I tried a $3,000 high-tech home gym, and loved its sleek design and emphasis on strength over weight loss

  • Tonal, a high-tech digital home gym, uses electromagnetic weights and personalized workout programs to make strength training streamlined and convenient.
  • As a fitness geek who doesn't like fads, I was skeptical of Tonal, but it quickly won me over with its sleek format, thoughtful customization, and emphasis on building strength instead of losing weight. 
  • Although its $3,000+ cost makes it out of reach for most casual fitness enthusiasts, it's an exciting sneak peek at what could be the future of at-home exercise. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more. 

Advertised as "the world's most intelligent home gym," Tonal is a digital touchscreen that mounts on your wall and promises a full-body workout and personal training from the comfort of your living room.

Though the tech debuted more than a year ago, in August 2018, it's been expanding since and generated more buzz at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. 

Two arm-like appendages extend from the machine which, combined with a variety of attachable hands, allow you to push, pull, and hoist up to 200 pounds worth of "digital" weight, which is provided via electromagnetic resistance.

The price tag, at $2,995 and up, isn't cheap, but neither is a traditional home gym, since racks and barbells can easily run hundreds of dollars. 

The result is like having a full gym's worth of equipment, in one sleek, efficient package. If it sounds too good to be true, I thought so too. But after trying Tonal out for myself at the company's Manhattan showroom, I came around to believe it's one of the coolest fitness tech innovations I've seen in a while. 

Here's what I liked most about Tonal's high-tech equipment and programming, and why it's exciting even if the cost makes it out of reach for most everyday gym-goers. 

With tonal, you don't need any free weights cluttering your basement.

Tonal uses electromagnetic Resistance to provide customizable digital weight without the bulk of traditional equipment

For Tonal's arms to provide so much digital "weight," computer chips generate an electromagnetic field and magnets allow you to push or pull against that field, making it feel like actual weight. 

The multi-directional movement of those arms, combined with attachments such as handles and a barbell, allow you to incorporate that resistance into the same strength-training movement you might do at the gym, such as bench presses, curls, squats, cable pulls, and more. 

For fitness enthusiasts like me, the benefits of this are obvious, since it condenses bulky traditional gym equipment like a squat rack, cable machines, and heaps of dumbbells or kettlebells into one convenient package that fits on your wall. This is particularly exciting in New York, where tiny apartments and 5th floor walkups make it tricky to haul in heavy metal gym equipment. 

"It's designed to be sleek, not something that's going to end up collecting dust in your basement," Ashley Hennings, director of PR and influencer marketing at Tonal, told Insider at my live demonstration. 

The weights adjust in real-time to make your workouts safer and more efficient 

Unlike regular weights, the digital weights can adjust in real-time based on personalized workout goals. 

For example, the program has something called burnout mode, which I found especially exciting. In a traditional burnout set (also known as a drop set), you select a challenging weight for a given exercise (like a bicep curl), lift that weight until you physically can't lift any more (known as muscle failure), slightly decrease the weight, and repeat until your muscles are totally tapped out. This helps build strength and mass.

Doing this at the gym requires some space and prior planning, since you have to estimate how much and what increments of weights you'll need, and line them up in advance. 

With Tonal's burnout mode, though, you can program the digital weight to decrease automatically as you hit muscle failure, making for a much more streamlined burnout. This saves you the time of having to collect, and then wipe down and re-rack, multiple sets of weights. 

The dynamic weight mode also offers some perks for advanced lifters. For instance, chains mode mimics the variable resistance of a chain attached to your barbell or weight, making it heavier on the way up (as the chains leave the ground) and lighter on the way down (as the chains return to the ground). Again, this is all digital, so you don't need chains carpeting your apartment.  

The program also has some nifty safety features built in. The spotter mode feature recognizes when you're struggling (based on your range of motion) and gradually lowers the amount of weight to prevent injury, similar to a gym spotter making sure you don't drop a barbell on your face. 

Plus, all the digital weight can be clicked off at the touch of a button, built into each of the handles, barbells, and grips that attach to the machine. 


The programs emphasize building strength, not losing weight

Every new Tonal user starts with a strength assessment, which is then used to create a customized profile from which you can track your workouts and see your progress. The system also uses this data to recommend the amount of weight and number of reps you should do in a given exercise, based on your previous workouts, making it accessible even to beginners. 

You can also scroll through Tonal's library of strength and aerobic fitness programs, many of which can be personalized. These also include video tutorials of various exercises to help less experienced athletes perfect their form. 

Hennings said that Tonal is specifically designed to bring strength training to people who might otherwise be too intimidated to try lifting in a traditional gym.

This is all part of one of my favorite aspects of Tonal — the system is designed to help people build strength, instead of focusing on weight-loss goals. Many other high-tech fitness systems (including Mirror and Peloton) are cardio-focused, and there's often an implicit or explicit suggestion that burning fat or shedding pounds is the goal.

Instead, Tonal tracks how much you're able to lift, which is a refreshing change, especially for women like me who go to the gym to get stronger, not smaller. 


The biggest downside, however, is the $3000+ price tag

All in, Tonal costs about $4,000: $2,995 for the base price plus more for smart accessories and installation. So I don't expect it to replace most people's monthly gym membership, mine included. 

However, in a competitive market where everyone seems to be releasing a fitness app or trying to re-invent the wheel, it was exciting to see a tech company with a genuine gym innovation.

In my opinion, Tonal is an awesome home gym for folks who can afford it. I'll be looking forward to what the company comes up with next, especially if it's something for the rest of us. 

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