Tonal First Impressions

TLDR; Tonal is a very compact strength system, but doesn’t quite deliver on first time user experience. In fact, if the AI was a real life trainer, I’d fire them on the spot. But if you can approach it with lower expectations, it’s an early glimpse at what a smart strength training system could be.

We recently had a Tonal installed in our basement. We ordered it a few months ago and it’s finally arrived. I think I was sold on the idea that the AI inside the system would be able to adjust and help me get stronger without much thinking… but I think that there’s a long way to go. After doing the initial setup, I think that the system rated my strength score too high, and all the workouts after that were too difficult. Secondly, when I reached muscle failure, it took too long for the AI spotter to kick in.

To me, I think that there should be a way to give the AI active feedback. Currently the software relies on passively adjusting. Though they say it measures your output 50 times every second, I think that there were several times where I needed to be spotted or the weight needed to be adjusted. This caused strain, frustration, and turned me off to strength training. If a real trainer was like this, I would fire them on the spot.

Tonal has an opportunity to be better… and not by being “smarter”, but by being a better listener asking for feedback. It should do this until it has enough data and then can make adjustments. In addition, the workouts are not very clear how to work out, how to recover, and what kind of body shape you’re building towards. Their programs could do a better job of setting these kinds of expectations and explaining what’s happening. Lastly, I think that they should have audio commands to tell the AI when to help, or to adjust the weight. It’s silly to stop weight lifting just to get up and go to the screen to adjust things. I think voice controls would be ideal if they supported just a couple of commands. Things like, pause, turn up the volume, reduce weight, etc.

With all that being said, I think that it’s a beginning of an interesting product, but there is more room for improvement in terms of first time user experience. This should cater to noobs—people who are intimidated by gyms, trainers, and weight lifting. I think they should start you off easier, so that you can transition in. My first experience had me screaming, straining, and I felt defeated. If this was a real life trainer, it felt passive aggressive, as if I was too weak and I was out of my league.

Tonal should be an extension of your fitness knowledge. They should hire some gaming designers to help them out, or figure out a way to get more feedback (not just in the programs, but in the AI).

I’ll report more on this more soon.

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