Tonal Vs Functional Trainer (What’s the difference?)

After training at the gym for over a decade, I took a leap of faith and decided to set up my own home-based workout station with a cable machine. Today I will explain the difference between Tonal gym and Functional Trainer, and most importantly, which one is better?

As a whole, Tonal is better than Functional Trainer because it uses digital resistance with electromagnets to create a more seamless workout. It also uses AI technology that helps to personalize each exercise to maximize muscle and strength growth. However, Functional Trainer is more affordable and requires no monthly subscription.

I will touch on how effective are both of them when it comes to building muscle and burning fat. Plus I will also tap on the functionality and price.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer Construction

A Tonal gym and Functional Trainer are completely different machines but they share one thing in common; they both use cable resistance to provide constant muscle tension throughout the whole range of motion at the different joint angles.

Tonal uses electromagnetic resistance that creates a magnetic field between the magnets that generate opposing force. Once the magnets move away from each other, the resistance goes down. On the other hand, when the magnets come closer, the resistance goes up.

This technology not only helps to create silent and easy-running resistance but also requires almost no maintenance.

The resistance can be changed manually via a massive touchscreen or set up automatically via Dynamic Modes (more on that later).

On the other hand, a Functional Trainer is a typical pulley cable machine with two weight stacks that uses gravity to create resistance.

Both Tonal and Functional Trainer provide unrestricted movement in any direction for all of the exercises.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer Max Weight

The difference between Tonal and Functional Trainer is that Tonal only allows you to use a maximum of 200lbs, whereas some of the Functional Trainers cable machines (depending on the manufacturer) come with 350lbs weights.

I personally don’t like the fact that Tonal is limited with their maximum weight because a lot of the exercises could have a much better effect if you could add extra weight.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer For Building Muscle

In general, both Tonal gym and Functional Trainer are effective to build strength and muscle. They both use cable training to generate continual time that loaded muscle was under tension for both the concentric and eccentric phases of the lift.

Why is constant tension important? Constant tension in the muscle is important because it leads to higher muscle recruitment and longer time under tension. This results in greater muscle protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy.

In general, you can build muscle in a couple of ways:

  • Mechanical tension – Using more weights to put the muscle under heavier load and tension.
  • Time under tension – Increasing the time that loaded muscle is under tension with a lower or medium load.

In other words, the time the muscle is under tension during exercise is important in muscle growth. It’s not just how much weight you can lift but also how long you can keep muscle active under load.

Studies have shown that “greater muscle time under tension at 30% of one-repetition maximum increased the acute muscle protein synthesis 24–30 h after resistance exercise” (Burd et al. 2012).

There are a few ways to increase time under tension:

  • Do more repetitions (working until you reach muscle failure).
  • Doing multiple exercises for the same muscle group (e.g chin-ups followed by biceps curl).
  • Slowing down how fast you lift (moving the weight slower on both concentric and eccentric phases).
  • Using a cable machine that generates constant muscle tension.

One of the most popular ways to increase time under tension is by slowing down the pace of the repetitions.

In the graph above, on your left side, you see the illustration of the biceps curl with 1 second on the eccentric phase.

On the right side you have the same exercise, but with 8 seconds on the eccentric phase. The difference in how fast/slow you lift will put the muscle under longer tension and lead to better training adaptations.

Another popular way to increase time under tension is by using a cable machine like Tonal or Functional Trainer. This way you can create muscle fatigue, without using heavyweights.

Can You Build Muscle with a Tonal?

Overall, you can build muscle with Tonal because it not only creates longer time under tension via a cable system but also uses AI technology with advanced training methods to change the weight in the middle of the repetition.

For example, you can set up the Tonal to use different resistance for concentric and eccentric phases. It’s kind of like asking your 10lbs dumbbell to become a 20lbs dumbbell on the lowering phase of the lift.

Not only that.

Tonal has built-in accelerometers and motion sensors in the smart handles that can measure your power output. Then it uses multiple algorithms to collect the data about your performance and uses that information to suggest your resistance, reps, and sets you need to reach muscle failure.

Can You Build Muscle with a Functional Trainer?

As a whole, you can build muscle with a functional trainer because it uses a pulley cable to put the muscle under load. It also allows you to train both isolated exercises that work on one specific muscle (e.g. later shoulder raises) and compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

One thing that I like about the Functional Trainer is it gives you a variety of multiple exercises that can be done from one workout station. You can also adjust the weight by simply changing the pin.

Another thing that I love about the functional trainer is the variety of pull-up handles. Of course, with Tonal you can do pulldowns and seated chin-ups, but it does not allow you to physically lift yourself like on a regular pull-up bar.

However, what I don’t like about the functional trainer is it takes much more space than Tonal and requires a lot of maintenance to keep the parts in working condition. On the other hand, Tonal, you don’t have to change the cables or oil the pulley.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer: Which One Is Better?

In general, Tonal is better than Functional Trainer for building muscle because it uses many advanced training methods, helps to personalize your workouts, and gives access to online live and on-demand classes and programs.

On the other hand, Functional Trainer uses weights and gravity to create resistance, does not comes with the online content, and takes significantly more space to install.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer For Weight Loss

Tonal and Functional Trainer is both good for weight loss because not only you can build muscle (which leads to a higher basal metabolic rate) but also can do circuit training for higher calorie burn.

Circuit training works by using multiple muscle groups during the same workout while reducing the recovery time. For example, doing 5-6 different exercises that target the upper and lower body, back to back, with no rest in between.

This type of training is effective for weight loss because its a combination of resistance training and aerobic fitness (due to elevated heart rate).

However, the difference between Tonal and Functional Trainer is that Tonal also has several classes like HIIT, Tabata, Cardio, and Kickboxing.

Multiple studies have shown that a combination of HIIT and resistance training programs are more effective in improving functionality, cardiorespiratory fitness, and body composition than resistance training alone (Müller et al. 2021).

Plus, Tonal is better than Functional Trainer for weight loss because it also uses Dynamic Modes to help increase the workout intensity.

  • Burnout mode – Tonal burnout mode automatically lowers the resistance and allows for fatigue of the muscle.
  • Smart Flex – Tonal smart flex helps to adjust the weight based on your current power output.
  • Spotter – Tonal spotter features lower the weight for the last couple of reps (just like having a spotter behind you).
  • Eccentric Mode – Tonal eccentric mode adds more weight to the negative phase of the lift.

These are all effective tools that you can use to help you burn more fat, tone your body, and improve your fitness, without spending extra time in the gym or adding more weight.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer Installation

The difference between Tonal and Functional Trainer is that Tonal requires less space to be installed. However, you need to wait for a significant amount of time for the delivery, as well as schedule the installation date with the Tonal team members.

You cannot just order Tonal and install it anywhere you want. Before you made the purchase, you need to fill out the form and specify in which place you are willing to train.

For example, if you let them know that you want to install Tonal in the garage, they will refuse to come. You need to ensure in advance that your workout station is risk-free to install.

On the other hand, Functional Trainer does not come with the installation team to your door. You can order one from Amazon at any time and within a couple of days, you will receive the whole station to assemble on your own.

Tonal vs Functional Trainer Price

When it comes to price, Tonal is much more expensive than regular Functional Trainer (especially when including the monthly subscription). However, some of the pulley-cable machines can cost up to $6,000.

For example, BodyCraft XFT Functional Trainer costs $5,999, whereas the Powerline PFT100 Functional Trainer costs $1,517. The difference between the two is in the quality, functionality, and amount of weight you order.

Here is the price comparison between Tonal and Functional Trainer.

TonalFunctional Trainer
Price$3,490$1,000 – $6,000
Price for membership$49/month
Tonal vs functional trainer price

As you can see, there is a big discrepancy between prices for functional trainers. However, even if you spend more than for Tonal you don’t have to pay $49 monthly membership (which is $588 per year).

However, Tonal membership allows you to do all the cool features. Of course, you can get Tonal without membership, but I don’t think it’s worth it. You can learn more about “tonal without membership” in my article here.


As you can see, you can use both a Tonal and Functional Trainer to either lose weight or build muscle. Compared to regular free weights, both Tonal and Functional Trainer cable machines can lead to greater muscle activity and longer time under tension.

However, if I would to pick one, I would choose Tonal. It comes with many cool features and also gives access to other classes that adds to the variety of the workouts.

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.

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