Digital weight, adjustable arms, and connected features have modernized this traditional gym set-up.
Space is at a premium when it comes to your home gym. If you want to lift heavy, it’s not always easy to make room for a whole set of free weights or a cumbersome squat rack, barbell, and weight plates. But a home gym pulley system can give you access to a whole stack of weights (literally) without taking up too much floor space. Here’s what you need to know about this type of home gym equipment—and how Tonal has set a new standard for at-home pulley systems.
What is a Home Gym Pulley System?
A home gym pulley system is a cable machine with a series of weights that relies on a pulley wheel to operate. In a traditional pulley system, one end of the cable is attached to the weight, the cable loops around a wheel, and the other end has a handle or strap for you to hold.
A home gym pulley system can be as simple as a rope and weight looped over a pull-up bar, but free-standing pulley systems and wall-mounted pulley systems are even more common. Picture the bulky cable machines you used to use at the gym; those don’t really have a place at home, but a simple, wall-mounted pulley system can be used in nearly any living area.
Benefits of a Home Gym Pulley System
Besides saving you some space, a home gym pulley system has two big benefits.
Using a pulley system generates constant tension as you lift and lower the weight, says Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Fitness Programming Specialist at Tonal. That includes both the concentric (shortening) and eccentric (lengthening) portions of a lift. For example, in a barbell biceps curl, the bulk of the work is done as you curl the bar upwards, but your biceps muscles are still under tension as you lower the bar with control.
The cable on a pulley system also allows for increased range of motion and exercise versatility.
“You can do more with less,” says Clay. With free weights, you can only load your body vertically; a pulley system also loads your body diagonally (picture a rotational chop) and horizontally (like in a Pallof press). And because you’re mostly standing while using one, you’re almost always engaging your core in addition to whatever muscles an exercise is targeting.
Downsides of a Home Gym Pulley System
Obviously, a home gym pulley system isn’t the most compact home gym option—and you do still need weights (potentially a lot of them) if you’re hacking your own rope-and-weight system.
On a standard pulley system, you can move the resistance up or down. “You can move the cable in all planes of motion, but you can’t move the weight in or out,” says Clay.
Plus, with traditional pulley systems, moving between exercises can be a pain if you have to adjust the anchor point upward (say, for triceps extension) or downward (for something like a lat pulldown). That takes time, “and people waste a lot of time in the gym, just from adjusting the machine or adjusting the weights,” says Jenna Moore, a certified strength and conditioning coach and Programming Specialist at Tonal. That would apply at home, too.
One issue you may have encountered using cable machines at the gym is the extra force you need to generate at the start of an exercise to engage the weights. That’s because there’s no direct resistance on your body—not a huge deal, but still something to consider when thinking about how much load you’ll be using.
There’s also zero form guidance when using a traditional pulley system. Once you’ve engaged the weights, you’re responsible for nailing your technique. That’s part of what makes the system so versatile, but it can be tough for beginners.
How Tonal Modernized Home Gym Pulley Systems
Tonal functions like a pulley system—but it’s a smart home gym that’s been redesigned for the 21st century. For starters, it’s a sleek, space-saving home solution that mounts on your wall. “With its digital weight, compact size, how quiet it is, and the features it has, I almost don’t even put it in the same category as a traditional pulley system,” says Moore.
But instead of an internal pulley weight, Tonal is built around a digital weight system that uses an electromagnetic motor—similar to the motors that power electric cars and electric bikes— to deliver 200 pounds of resistance. It intuitively adapts to you in real-time, which means that as you get stronger, Tonal challenges you more. As you’re performing an exercise, the machine is performing thousands of calculations per second to emulate the physics of traditional weights while monitoring your form to provide truly constant resistance.
You can also enable dynamic weight modes that automatically adjust weight during each rep (Smart Flex); reduce the weight if you’re struggling (Spotter mode); and add heavier loads to the eccentric portion of an exercise for faster gains (Eccentric mode).
Another hardware perk is the fact that the height, angle, and rotation of Tonal’s arms can be adjusted to support more than 200 lower-, upper-, and full-body movements.
“Tonal moves in all three planes of motion, which really sets it apart,” says Clay. “That helps you optimize the line of pull, so you’re providing the most resistance through an increased range of motion while decreasing any joint stress.”
You can also move from a lat pulldown to a barbell hip thrust in seconds, adds Moore.
On top of that, you get access to features such as personalized weight recommendations based on a strength-training assessment; Form Feedback, which encourages awareness of proper form; Tonal Live workout classes with real-time guidance and encouragement from coaches; a vast library of on-demand workouts and programs in the app; the ability to build Custom Workouts to support your goals; and in-depth progress tracking that shows how hard you’re working different muscles, how much volume you’ve lifted, and how your Strength Score improves over time.
Sure, you could DIY an old-school pulley system at home. But save yourself the trouble (and the potential home damage) by investing in a Tonal—a device that not only provides the weight you need, but takes the guesswork out of training with it.