Aly Orady, Tonal’s founder, on creating the smartest home gym.
Tonal is the fitness experience I always wanted. An entire gym and personal trainer in my home. Tonal is so advanced that even professional athletes have fallen in love with it. It’s so simple, that people who’ve never stepped into a weight room before have learned to strength train using it. That’s what I always wanted in a fitness experience, and that’s why I built Tonal.
People who meet me always assume that I’ve been a lifelong fitness fanatic. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Growing up, I was the chubby kid with glasses who could code and endured a life-long struggle with my weight.
By the time I was 35, I was classified as obese (BMI of 34), had type-II diabetes, was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and had a number of other health issues due to my weight. I was smart enough to build the most advanced technology of our day and yet couldn’t figure out how to be a healthy weight.
I needed to make getting healthy my sole priority. I always had a gym membership and often watched what I ate. Growing up, my parents would never let any junk food into our home. Yet being a healthy weight was difficult and the solution wasn’t obvious.
At 35 I was 240 lbs. and felt I was out of options, so I quit my full-time job and spent the next nine months losing weight. Like most people on this journey, I started watching what I ate, and would go to the gym every day and hop on the elliptical. That routine worked for a little while, but after I lost 10 pounds it quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to see the results I really wanted. The only way to really lose the weight and feel confident in my own skin was to incorporate strength training into my routine. Looking back, if I had hired a personal trainer, they would have taken me to the weights, not the cardio section of the gym.
Strength training is difficult. Most people don’t know how to strength train optimally, even those who’ve been doing it for years. Only personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches really know how to build well-rounded fitness programs, designed with your goals in mind. Yet even with a well-designed program, you still need to know how much weight to lift and when to increase or decrease that weight.
I decided that I wanted to be that expert, so I studied the science, read research papers, and watched a lot of YouTube videos. I learned about selecting the optimal weight, using advanced techniques like eccentric overload, forced repetitions, and the importance of having a spotter. I learned how important it was to vary my routine by changing the exercises and incorporating flexibility work and intervals. Most of all, I learned that without writing down what I did each day I couldn’t really push myself week over week.
Eventually, I achieved my health and fitness goals. But it took many months of full time work to do it. I lost 70 lbs, got my diabetes under control, and was finally sleeping better than I ever did before. For the first time in my life, I could (and did) run a 10K, and climb up San Francisco’s hills on my bicycle.
I knew that my best hope of staying healthy was to make sure I could get my workouts in, at any time, from the convenience of home. But I wasn’t about to buy a giant weight machine—I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Instead, I realized that there was probably a way to generate a lot of force using electricity to create an electromagnetic field. After all, electromagnetics is the principle that propels the motors in electric cars and levitates high-speed trains in Japan. Couldn’t that be applied to weightlifting? I knew that the key was going to be a lot of math and complex algorithms to control the field precisely enough that it would feel like a weight machine. That same math would enable dynamic weight modes, like a spotter and eccentric overload (heavy negatives), and allow precise measurement of what the user was doing.
That’s what digital weights are. It’s a computer chip doing a lot of math and running algorithms to precisely control an electromagnetic field, while measuring and responding to you as you pull on a cable. It might feel like pulling against gravity, but it’s really an algorithm you’re pulling against – an algorithm that’s smart, precise, and responsive to you.
Tonal has been almost four years in the making. I pretty quickly realized that just building a compact strength training machine wasn’t enough. It would be like giving someone a piano without teaching them how to read music. This machine had to be part of a versatile system that could be used to do any exercise. And, not only that, it needed to provide coaching to teach people what to do efficiently and effectively.
I knew that for this to actually be a thing it would have to be beautiful enough to fit in my home. Fitness equipment has been bulky and ugly for too long and, as a result, often hidden in basements and forgotten. It was clear with the rise of other connected fitness companies building equipment that great machines with inspiring instruction had the power to get people to exercise consistently and push themselves harder than they thought possible. But that kind of innovation really only exists in cardio.
Building an amazing team with a purpose and mission took patience and dedication. We weren’t just on a crusade to transform the lives of people everywhere, we were also transforming our own lives. We could come to work and be fit, and help our friends and family get more fit as well. Each person joined the mission and then pulled others in as well.
Over time, we’ve found all the people and investments we need. From professional athletes, industry experts, manufacturing partners, design firms, angels, and more traditional investors, we’ve built a network of hundreds of people working to get Tonal out into the world.
It might have taken 3 months to invent the first digital weight, but it took more than 3 years to build Tonal and perfect an entire system built around digital weights. The past two of those years have been about learning from actual users and fine-tuning every element of the experience. We’re so excited to finally unveil Tonal to the world and we hope you’ll let us help you be your strongest.