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I tried Tonal and saw changes in my body in just 4 weeks

I thought $3,500 for a piece of fitness equipment was absurd — until I saw results with Tonal.
Tonal Workout
Tonal is like having a weight room in your house and a personal trainer on speed dial.TODAY Illustration

I like shiny objects just as much as the next person. And that includes state-of-the-art fitness equipment that is as much a piece of décor as a tool to improve your health.

But my exercise routine is working well for me and it’s affordable. So why would I shell out thousands of dollars for a fancy machine?

I don’t need it, I told myself, it’s a waste of wall space.

But after almost a year of being targeted with ads on Instagram and having LeBron pop up in my living room, the company offered to send me a machine to test and I caved. What finally convinced me to see what the hype was all about was the release of the live workout feature. Over the course of the pandemic, that was something I found to make a big difference in my motivation to stick with a workout — the ability to tune in to a class with a live instructor and connect with others in real time.

This turned out to be only one of the many things I loved about working out on Tonal.

How much does Tonal cost?

The Tonal machine costs $2,995. The required accessories cost an additional $495. So you have an upfront price tag of about $3,500. You will then need a monthly membership to access the content, which costs $49/month and allows you to create unlimited accounts.

How is Tonal installed?

The Tonal screen is 20-inches wide and 50 inches high, and only sticks out about five inches from the wall. But you do need a 7-by-7 foot space in front of the machine for the arms to extend. On delivery day, the Tonal was not only made a permanent fixture in my home in under an hour, but the delivery workers also gave me a tutorial on how to navigate the device, switch out the three different handles and move the arms. When not in use, Tonal blends into the background. The arms tuck nicely inside and you are left with what looks like a sleek TV.

The Tonal platform

Before you start working out, Tonal prompts you to create an account. You enter your weight, height, fitness level, and how many days a week you want to exercise. It also asks you to choose between three goal options: get lean, build muscle or improve fitness. I chose build muscle.

Using this information, Tonal populates your dashboard. You can access tons of programs and a large library of standalone workout routines, not only strength training, but everything from kickboxing to dance cardio to yoga. There is also a “free lift” feature, which allows you to create customized workouts, and "partner workouts" where you can workout with a buddy.

During every workout you see the same metrics displayed on screen, including rep count, weight, power and range of motion during each repetition, and a diagram highlighting the areas of the body being worked by each exercise.

The newest feature? Live classes. You can see the schedule a week in advance and there are typically about four live class options each day. Once you click on a specific live class, you can see a detailed workout routine and which attachments will be used.

Tonal's adjustable arms allow you to complete over 200 movements.
Tonal's adjustable arms allow you to complete over 200 movements.

Getting started: How Tonal uses smart technology to set your weight

When I first signed in, I was prompted to take the 38-minute intro class. This is the assessment used to establish your strength and automatically select your weights for every exercise moving forward.

I was really impressed at how personalized the class felt. The technology loops the exercises until you have completed your reps, so you’re never chasing to keep up with a pre-recorded trainer, but instead, the workout always goes at your pace.

During the strength assessment, the harder I pulled, the more I felt Tonal resisting. I saw the machine adjust the weight based off my strength, without ever having to input anything.

It took absolutely all the mental work out of strength training.

I felt the shift in my opinion about Tonal start to happen: This was awesome. It took absolutely all the mental work out of strength training and without having the down time of switching dumbbells, I felt my heart rate jump up quickly, serving as a cardio workout, too.

We finished with one exercise in “chain mode,” which simulates the effect of lifting with real-life chains by adding resistance at the top of a movement to help increase the power you generate. This is just one of the intelligent weight modes that simulates weight lifting in a gym. Other modes include “spotter,” which reduces the weight when you struggle and “eccentric mode,” which adds resistance at the point in the movement where you’re strongest to build muscle faster.

As your performance improves, Tonal automatically increases the weight. So you never need to worry about manually adjusting it or going back to retake the strength test. My mind was blown.

At first, I was really intimidated by the machine itself. But moving the arms around and switching out the handles started to become second nature within a few minutes. It was interesting to see the weight that Tonal set for me. For some exercises, like bicep curls, I was given a lower weight than what I would have selected in a dumbbell. But for others, like rows and goblet squats, I lifted a lot heavier than I normally do.

Before I started using Tonal, I had two main concerns. The first was that it would be hard to fumble with the arms and different attachments during a workout. The second was how this could possibly be worth $3,500 dollars. At the end of just the intro class, both of these concerns had vanished.

Bulgarian split squats had me hobbling around for days.
Bulgarian split squats had me hobbling around for days.

I worked out on Tonal for one month – and I am hooked

To take even more of the mental load out of exercising, and hopefully see concrete results, I decided to start with a program. I chose an intermediate “Making Muscle” program that was three times a week for four weeks.

The classes ranged from 33-47 minutes and every workout was full-body, broken up into an upper body, lower body and core circuit. Each circuit contained two exercises that were performed back-to-back for three rounds. I really liked this structure because I could push myself as hard as possible and completely fatigue each muscle group knowing that I wouldn’t have to work it again.

The first day of the program was intense. We started with Bulgarian split squats with one foot on the bench and it was brutal (the next day, I was hobbling around from these). This wasn’t going to be easy.

The transitions between exercises weren’t exactly smooth sailing at first. I fumbled a bit getting the arm in the right place and switching out the handles, but I never felt rushed since the classes literally wait for you to set up and press start when you’re ready.

I was really surprised at the weights that were set for me, which made me realize I had been arbitrarily choosing dumbbells up until this point. I’ve never quite seen the definition I want in certain areas like my arms, perhaps this is why?

When I started the tricep extensions they felt easy and I thought the weight chosen was too light. But Tonal knew something I didn’t — by the end of set I struggled to make it through the last rep (thank God, for “spotter mode”). On the flip side, I was shocked to see Tonal set me at 22 pounds per arm for the rows. I thought there was no way I would get through all three sets, but while it was challenging, I am here to tell the story.

Lifting such heavy weights led to a soreness that I hadn’t felt in awhile. The trainer encouraged at least one rest day in between each workout. But there were some weeks where I needed a few days to rest my muscles in between sessions.

The smart technology really optimized my workout, both in terms of efficiency and safety. I felt like I was getting a one-on-one personal training session. When the trainer would tell me to correct something on my form, I felt like she could see me through the screen. This was the first time I have ever worked out with a barbell and the form feedback was really helpful. It reminded to keep my core tight to keep my hips (and the bar level) and push my hips back further to get lower in a squat. After each set, the form feedback I was given was summarized on screen as a reminder. When my triceps gave out toward the end of a set, “spotter mode” kicked in and slightly lowered my weight by a pound or two so I could complete the full range of motion in the last few reps of the exercise.

The same three workouts were repeated every week for the course of the program. This did get a bit repetitive at times, but also allowed me to really master the form and also see strength gains. I felt the exercises get more familiar to my body as each week passed and could feel my form and strength improving. At the end of every class, I felt like a pro who had just worked my way through the weight room at the gym.

The program summary translated my work into data and really made my progress visual.
The program summary translated my work into data and really made my progress visual.

The final week of the program, Tonal upped my weight on most of the exercises and I hit tons of personal records, or PRs — both in volume and power. There is a special kind of satisfaction seeing that “new PR” graphic pop up on screen during your workout. After the last class, it displayed a chart showing my strength gains over the course of the program. This gave me the most tangible marker of progress I have ever seen with any workout I have done. I never would have increased my weight and hit these PRs strength training on my own. This made me realize that I don’t exercise with any measurable goals in mind and it felt really good to actually accomplish something with my workouts.

Live classes on Tonal

While following the program, I began to sprinkle in some live classes.

It was nice to see what exercises I would be doing ahead of time, but I was still nervous about the pace and that I would be scrambling with changing the handles out during the workout.

The first live workout I took was Thanksgiving week — when I definitely needed some additional motivation. Someone cheered me in the waiting room and it was fun to see the little emoji pop up. I cheered her back and sent the little muscle emoji to others as they popped into the class. There ended up being about 65 total.

The class was a beginner 30-minute HIIT. It was similar to my program in that it was a full-body workout and was broken down into three blocks of work. I found myself sending people cheers throughout the workout and they would send them back in return. The instructor also shouted out members throughout the class, which added a sense of community and served as motivation. Whenever someone hit a record during the class, it would flash across the top of the screen. It felt nice to celebrate others and be celebrated and it also gave me a boost of motivation to push harder whenever I saw another member hitting a new record.

There was plenty of time to set up for each move, and despite my worry, I never felt rushed. During rest time between sets, I liked that the trainer shared words of wisdom that were timely — specifically talk about gratitude and the stress of the holidays. It reminded me of the camaraderie and connection I feel during in-person gym classes.

When I joined an advanced 30-minute power HIIT it was a different ball game altogether. Cue the scrambling to keep up I was worried about. The workout was a mix of strength on the Tonal and bodyweight HIIT and the moves were really challenging — think one-arm rows in a side plank. I didn’t quite have enough time to check my form before some of the exercises started. I actually was rushing and clipped the tip of my nose with the barbell — ouch! Even though I had been doing a program for almost a month by this point, I don’t think I had enough practice setting up different moves on the Tonal to move at the advanced pace. Mental note to stick to the beginner and intermediate classes for now.

That being said, I loved the instructor’s energy. She encouraged us to cheer on others, did a bunch of shout outs, and threw in some mom banter about Cocomelon (if you know, you know), which made me chuckle. There were a ton of people hitting PRs during this class and it pushed me to work harder.

Toward the end of the workout, she turned on “Smart Flex mode,” which adds and subtracts weight throughout an exercise to match your strength. I finished out of breath and my muscles burning.

What I liked

Tonal takes the mental load out of exercising. As a mom of an almost two-year-old who works full-time, I have zero extra mental energy to spare and could not have appreciated this more. Tonal also takes all of the guesswork out of strength training: How much should I lift? What exercises should I do? How often should I strength train each body part? All I had to do was push start. There are so many health benefits to strength training, and I wasn’t doing it enough because of how complicated it can be. Tonal made it just as easy as hopping on my spin bike.

In terms of the technology, they have thought of everything — you can link your Apple watch or Apple/Amazon playlists, the machine goes into sleep mode automatically after 10 minutes of inactivity to preserve energy, and there are buttons on the handle attachments that allow you to turn on and off the weight during a workout. These little details really make the whole experience seamless. This is probably a good time to mention that the music stations are legit. Your Tonal could totally double as a DJ for your next house party.

The smart technology really optimized my workout. Seeing my power on screen for every rep motivated me to keep pushing and not slack off toward the end of a set. I was also able to see how using my breath improved my power — a concept that is often recommended by trainers, but can be hard to remember. I was amazed at how I was given a form tip exactly when I would feel discomfort somewhere or started to get lazy. I truly felt like they had eyes on me.

I also loved how it felt customized to me. This is the only piece of at-home fitness equipment I have tried that created an experience that felt completely personalized, as if I had a trainer in my home leading me through each workout, moving at my pace, and tracking my progress.

I saw definition in my shoulders and biceps after just four weeks of using Tonal.
I saw definition in my shoulders and biceps after just four weeks of using Tonal.

Speaking of progress, I have never seen a return on investment so quickly as I did with my Tonal workouts. By the fourth week of my program, my weight increased in almost every exercise and PRs in both power and volume continually flashed on the screen throughout my workouts. (I completed a 54-pound dead lift sumo squat!) I never would have increased my weight that quickly working with weights on my own. The chart summary allowed me to visually see how I had built strength in a short period of time.

I also felt my strength gains in other workouts. I began to notice these as early as two weeks in, when I dropped down to do pushups in a class and was shocked at how much easier they felt. And I began to see definition in my biceps and shoulders that I have never been able to make pop before.

What I didn’t like

The two most obvious drawbacks are the price tag and the fact that you have to be willing to permanently part with a wall (and be OK with a few holes). It also does require a substantial amount of space cleared around the machine.

In terms of the live classes, I do wish there was more of a chance to interact with people, like a message board or chat feature. I also would love a scheduling tool, so that I can mark classes and get a reminder. It’s easy to access the schedule, but it doesn’t let you RSVP or save an upcoming live. You basically have to remember on your own to sign on the machine right when the live starts to join. There were a few times I wanted to do a live class, but then completely forgot until it was too late to join.

There are also currently a lot of encores (which are replays of previously recorded lives), so I am hoping as they ramp up the live schedule there are even more live class offerings.

Some of the exercises in my program were really difficult. I struggled to master the form for the sumo squat dead lift and there were a few body-weight ab moves that put a lot of pressure on my wrists and were extremely advanced. Yes, Tonal does most of the thinking for you, but it’s important you don’t zone out completely and stay vigilant about form and checking in with your body. Especially when lifting heavy weights, you need to be sure you pay attention to prevent injury. It may feel like a trainer is in your living room, but they aren’t, so that is on you.

I would recommend this to:

  • Anyone who is intimidated by strength training
  • People who are serious about seeing strength and toning gains
  • Fitness buffs who love using technology to optimize their workout
  • Those who want to tone up with as little mental effort as possible
  • People who wander around the weight room like a lost puppy