Tonal vs Free Weights (What’s the difference?)


Tonal is a home-gym smart cable machine that uses digital resistance powered by multiple AI algorithms to further personalize your workouts. Today I will explain if Tonal is better than free weights, which one should you choose, and what is the difference between digital cable training and regular weights.

As a whole, Tonal is better than free weights because it uses magnetic resistance that allows maintaining consistent mechanical stress to enhance the post-exercise hypertrophic response. It is also better for people who choose to train at home because it takes less space, is safer, and comes with several on-demand and live classes.

However, using free weights has also advantages if you have access to the full gym setup (more on that later).

Tonal vs Free Weights Strength Curve

The difference between Tonal and free weights is that dumbbells and barbells provide isotonic resistance with various levels of muscle tension throughout the range of motion. This has a negative impact on the strength curve because the muscle can generate less force.

What is a strength curve? In short, the strength curve refers to the amount of tension and force that can be produced throughout the range of motion at the different joint angles. For example, when using the free weights, the highest muscle tensions occur in the mid-range of the lift due to the position of the load in space and the gravity.

Take a look at the graph below.

As you can see in the graph above, during the biceps curl the highest amount of tension and force will occur when the arm with a dumbbell reaches a 90 degrees angle. On the other hand, the beginning and end range of the lift will generate the least amount of tension.

In other words, exercises like chin-up or biceps curl will be the easiest at the end range and hardest in the middle of the range.

Tonal is different.

A Tonal gym doesn’t use weights and gravity, and all of the tension is created by the magnetic cable resistance that provides constant muscle tension throughout the whole range of motion.

See below.

As you can see above, regardless of the position of the arm and the angle, the Tonal cable training provides constant tension throughout the whole movement. This muscle tension leads to greater muscle activation, higher metabolic stress, and muscle growth.

What is metabolic stress? In short, metabolic stress refers to the build-up of metabolites like lactate, hydrogen ion, and inorganic phosphate when the muscle is under tension for an extended time.

Studies have shown that “greater time under tension leads to greater stimulation of sympathetic nerve activity, thereby mediating an increased adaptive hypertrophic response” (Schoenfeld, Brad J. 2010).

Tonal gives you this ability to maintain time under tension and trigger muscle growth, without adding additional weight.

Tonal vs Free Weights For Muscle Building

The biggest difference between Tonal and free weights like dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells is that free weights can elicit higher muscle recruitment, as well as greater anabolic hormone response, which leads to greater muscle hypertrophy and strength.

This happens because dumbbells and barbells allow you to lift heavier weights, which then increases mechanical tension and leads to better neural adaptations.

What is mechanical tension? In short, mechanical tension is a force produced on the muscle tissue to overcome the resistance from the weight lifted and its essential part of the muscle growth.

Whoa!

This basically means that a heavier load requires more muscle fibers to fire up, therefore, triggering muscle damage and recovery, which results in growth.

Please remember that mechanical tension is strictly related to the number of muscle fibers that have been recruited to lift the weight. This means that optimal mechanical overload can only be done by adding more weight, progressively.

Also, keep in mind that free weights can elicit a higher anabolic hormone response (e.g. testosterone) compared to the Tonal.

Take a look at the graph below.

Source: Schwanbeck, Shane R et al. 2020

Higher testosterone and growth hormone are both considered to have anabolic properties like stimulating cellular uptake or increasing muscle protein synthesis.

Plus, studies have shown that “training with free weights resulted in a significant acute increase in free testosterone from before to after workouts, which have greater increases in anabolic hormone response” (Schwanbeck et al. 2020).

However, when it comes to hypertrophy and strength, the same study has shown that free weights and cable training were equally effective.

This means you can still get a good workout from cable training, as long as the weight matches the free weights.

This brings me to the next point because resistance on Tonal gym is limited to only 200lbs. This may sound like not a lot, but please remember there is a big difference between digital resistance and mechanical resistance.

For example, Tonal gym does come with smart technology like dynamic modes that can elicit similar muscle-building effects, without having you list 250lbs.

What are Tonal dynamic weight modes? In general, the Tonal dynamic weight modes are the patented digital programs that allow you to adjust the resistance in the middle of the rep, based on the training modality to do. For example, it can mimic some of the advanced training methods like supersets, drop sets, and eccentric movements.

Here are four dynamic modes available on Tonal.

  • Burnout – Tonal burnout mode reduces the weight when you start to fatigue on the high rep set. It is similar to an advanced resistance training technique called “drop set”, “descending sets” or “strip sets”, which allows you to lower the weight and continue to lift once you reach muscle failure.

You can learn more details about “tonal burnout mode” in my article here.

  • Smart Flex – Tonal smart flex is a function that monitors your form and can automatically lower or increase the weight based on how hard it feels for you. It uses the built-in accelerometers in the handles to calculate how easy or how hard was that last rep and adjusts the resistance accordingly.
  • Eccentric mode – Tonal eccentric mode allows you to use higher resistance during the eccentric, which is the lowering phase of the list. Normally, this could only be done with the help of the trainer. However, tonal AI technology allows changing 20lb resistance into 30lbs resistance halfway through the rep.

Click here to learn more about “tonal eccentric mode” and how to use it for strength and muscle growth in my article here.

  • Chains – Tonal is one of the first fitness machines that allow you to mimic chain resistance training, which is like having suspended chains attached to your barbell during the bench press or deadlift. This technique helps to increase the explosiveness of the movement because it utilizes faster lifting velocities in the initial concentric portion of the lift.

All these features allow maintaining a decent amount of muscle tension, without having to constantly add more weight, which is great, especially for beginners.

You can learn more about “tonal digital weight” in my article here.

Is Tonal better than free weights for building muscle? As a whole, both Tonal and free weights are effective for building muscle because they both elicit similar hypertrophic responses. However, if your goal is to choose the option that is more convenient, and doesn’t require a lot of space, equipment, and investment, I recommend Tonal.

Now let me clarify.

If your goal is to do a high volume of strength training and powerlifting exercises that require adding more and more weight over time, you should join the gym where there is already plenty of equipment.

Alternatively, you can build your own home gym that includes a squat rack, benches, Olympic size plates, and a collection of dumbbells. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of investment.

NOTE: You can learn more about how to use “tonal for weight loss” in my article here.

Tonal vs Free Weights Price

As a whole, the Tonal is more expensive than free weights because it not only requires a high upfront cost ($4,637.95), but it also comes with a subscription fee of $49/month. On the other hand, the free weight home gym fully equipped with a power rack, weights, and benches cost less than $3,500.

You can read more about “tonal subscription” and all the benefits that come with it in my article here.

See the prices below.

TonalFree weights
Hardware $2,995
Smart accessories $495
Delivery and installation $295
Taxes $264.95
12 months membership $588
Squat rack $600
Olympic barbell $200
Olympic Hexagonal barbell $150
10lb Olympic bumper plate (4 pcs) $160
15lb Olympic bumper plate (4 pcs) $200
25lb Olympic bumper plate (4 pcs) $280
35lb Olympic bumper plate (4 pcs) $440
45lb Olympic bumper plate (4 pcs) $640
Adjustable dumbbells (44lb to 88lb) $300
Adjustable Olympic Bench Press $250
Total $4,637.95Total: $3,220
Tonal vs free weights

Of course, please keep in mind that the home gym set up on the right side includes only the weights, and does not include any additional machines like less press, leg extension, chest press, or chin-up bar.

This means if you lean towards free weights, you should already know how to use all the equipment, without having to invest additional money into hiring a trainer.

On the other hand, Tonal is more expansive, but it also comes with dozen of cool features like heart rate tracking, spotter mode, and form feedback, which helps to stay motivated and consistent.

Here is the full list of the Tonal features that come with the hardware and membership.

Tonal Free weights
Training volume
Custom workouts
Dynamic Weight Modes
Spotter
AI technology (weight suggestion)
Form feedback
Heart rate tracking
Strength score metrics
Milestones
Leaderboard ranking
Workouts streak
Progress tracking
Workout history
Live classes
Workouts ON THE GO
Partner workout
Virtual group workouts
Manually change the resistance
Tonal vs free weights features

As you can see, together with a higher price, you also get many functions that make the experience better, compared to free weights.

NOTE: Click here to learn all the benefits and how to use the “tonal strength score” to burn fat and build muscle.

Of course, people who are already motivated do not need a leaderboard or live classes. They usually have their routine dialed in.

Also, when comparing Tonal gym and the free weight you have to understand that Tonal gives you the option to perform over 100 different exercises, all from one machine. And if you would want to mimic this at home with regular free weights, you would need to spend much more on additional equipment.

Conclusion

As you can see, choosing between Tonal and real weights will depend on your experience in the weight room, as well as the amount of space you have available.

I personally like to lean towards the free weights because I just like the feeling of lifting something really heavy (psychological feeling). However, I don’t have much space available at home, so I choose Tonal.

If I want to lift something really heavy, I’m satisfied with going to the gym once a week for the big lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench press.

However, if you are not concerned about heavy lifting and the positive effects its got on the body, I strongly recommend getting a Tonal.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

Recent Posts