Every fitness guru will tell you that strength training is a big part of staying in shape. But weight rooms can be intimidating when you're just starting out, which is why I'd rather take a toning class like pilates than step foot in a gym. Plus getting to a gym and back can also suck up a lot of time. So I was anxious to try Tonal, a new personal weightlifting device that doesn't use a single weight or require its own room in your house.
Tonal's "weight machine" looks like vertically mounted TV screen for your home or office. No weights, no metal plates, no barbells, just two giant arms that extend outward from the sides of the screen at the push of a button plus a built in coach on its touch screen.
Instead of changing weights with a metal rod, you adjust a number on the display: 30 pounds was my starting weight, but Tonal can offer up to 200 pounds of resistance. I grabbed the handle and bent my knees into position to do my first row, half expecting this thing to unbolt from the wall and tip me over in the process. Instead I was met with a good amount of resistance as I pulled back the handle -- the same feedback you'd get from a physical weight.
OK, I was impressed. But where are the weights? The wall-mounted box could probably hide 30 pounds blocks behind the display, but not 200 pound worth. The answer: The weights are digital, too.
Digital weights for a digital world
Unlike traditional weight rooms at your local muscle factory, Tonal doesn't need physical weights. All it needs is electricity. The machine uses an electromagnetic resistance engine to generate the opposing force needed for the cables to give your biceps a rough time.
Aly Orady, the CEO and brains behind Tonal, used his engineering background to come up with the concept of a digital weight-based system after losing 70 pounds and quitting his tech job.
"I needed to figure out a way to keep the weight off and make working out part of my job", says Orady, who built the first prototype in his apartment roughly three years ago. He says Tonal is the first machine of its type to use this type digital weights rather than old fashioned metal plates and gravity.
Tonal's built-in trainer works better than your fitness app
The hardware was just one part of the equation. He knew he Tonal also needed the level of guidance you get from a personal trainer at the gym.
If you've ever used a coaching app on your phone like Sweat or Sworkit, it's pretty much the same concept, but on a much larger screen: The coach demos the move you're about to do, and then you join in. But Tonal takes it to the next level, because the machine knows when you're engaging the cables, it can count reps for you, and the coach actually waits for you to finish your reps before moving on to the next exercise. The machine may not be able to correct your form, like a real-life trainer would, but it felt a lot more interactive than just following along with a demo video on my phone.
The training system comes with eight different coaches -- who are elite personal trainers in real life -- to guide you through workouts to bulk up, trim down or get stronger or all of the above.
But not before giving you a fitness assessment. The machine had me do a few different exercises to determine how much I should be lifting to achieve my goal of getting stronger. This already seemed like a better approach than the weight guessing game I played on the rare occasion that I did make it into the gym.
With my results on the screen, I was ready to do my workout.
Real-time data to guide you
Most of the exercises I did were weight-based for upper body, legs and core (check out the video if you want to see the types of exercises), but Tonal also gives you the option to mix it up by adding different attachments to the arms like a bar or rope to target different muscles.
And because the machine has real-time feedback about how much you're lifting, the speed and even the quality of each rep, it can react by either increasing or lowering the cables' resistance, which is what happened when I struggled to complete a rep toward the end of my 30 minute session.
It was like having your own spotter at the gym, minus the embarrassment.
Tonal is also designed to keep track of your progress over time and modify the exercises and resistance as you get stronger rather than just repeating the same old gym routine. That should give you a more efficient workout with faster results.
Price and availability
With its $2,999 price tag, those results won't come cheap. Still Tonal is on par with a similar weight machine, but you also have to factor in a $250 installation fee, the optional $500 dollar accessory kit plus a $49 monthly fee for the personal training service, so all in you're looking at a $3,740 investment.
This gives you an unlimited number of accounts which each person using Tonal will get a customized routine.
Tonal may end up getting more features down the line. Orady said that future software updates bring more specialized training programs and could potentially unlock the other sensors, mics and cameras currently dormant in the machine.
I didn't notice any results after my initial 30 minute session with Tonal, but I did work up a sweat and felt some soreness the next day, so I'd definitely be curious to test it out for a longer period of time to see if I notice progress faster than with my regular routines.
You can buy Tonal now on the company's site with deliveries beginning in September for San Francisco Bay Area residents. Tonal will roll out to other cities in the coming months.