September 10, 2021

Are Digital Weights the Future of Fitness?

A man workouts out with digital weights in a smart home gym
Smart home gyms and digital weights offer enticing technologies like quick-changing plates, magnetic resistance, and advanced performance tracking. You can monitor heart rate, check your form, and stay motivated to push for one more rep.

But is there real substance behind the sleek touch screens, or is connected fitness just another passing fitness fad?

We explore the pros and cons of some leading smart gyms. If you’re wondering if a digital weight machine will make you stronger, keep reading.

What Are Digital Weights? #

The term ‘digital weights’ refers to a variety of smart home gym devices which apply technology to strength training. Some digital weight machines, such as the Tonal home gym, use magnetic force instead of steel plates to provide resistance. Bowflex dumbbells and JAXJOX kettlebells use digital mechanisms to quickly add or remove weight. Some digital weights have built-in accelerometers that connect to an app and will count your reps or track your movement.

Technology has long promised to make our lives better and more efficient. And yet here we are, with more tech than ever before, generally fatter and busier than our parents and grandparents were.

Do digital weights fulfill technology’s promise of better and more efficient?

We take a look at several leading brands in the smart gym space and explore their pros and cons.

Digital Weights: The Pros and Cons #

A woman performs a chest fly exercise using a smart home gym
Photo: Tonal

The Smart Home Gym Expense #

Assessing the expense of a smart gym is a good place to start because for most people, price is the primary barrier to entry.

It’s never been cheap to outfit your garage with a full set of free weights, a Concept2 rower, and a TV. While digital weights have a much smaller footprint, they don’t come with a lower price.

The Tonal smart gym starts at $3,500 if you’d like to purchase the accessories that make each exercise possible. What’s more, accessing the online content will incur a membership fee of $50, which commits you to well over $4,000 in the first year.

Tempo studio, Tonal’s leading competitor clocks in at $2,500 with a $39 monthly commitment. BowFlex SelectTech components start at $300, but you’ll need both dumbbells and the barbell to make your home gym feel fully functional.

Assembling Your Smart Home Gym #

The appeal of a home gym generally centers on ease of access. Strength training at home eliminates a commute and you’ll never have to worry about forgetting your towel or a change of clothes. But what’s the compromise?

Smart gyms take up significantly less space than a home Olympic weight rack and treadmill, but they do take up space.

The Tonal system requires a strong wall devoid of plumbing or electrical wires, yet with an outline within 6 feet. Tempo studio stands on the floor but by all accounts is too heavy to move, thus needs a permanent, dedicated space. Both require WiFi access.

The Bowflex SelectTech systems eliminate the need for an entire weight rack. But like Tonal, require a bench and accessories if you’re to complete the full range of strength training movements.

Smart Gym Content and Coaching #

Digital strength training systems focus much of their technology on AI-based coaching and on demand content and classes.

Tempo studio’s technology tracks your movement using 3D sensors, providing real-time feedback on form. Tonal is often referred to as ‘the Peloton of strength training’ and for good reason. How-to weight lifting tutorials, yoga, pilates and cardio workouts attempt to bring personal training and the high energy of a group fitness class to your living room.

Smart gyms understand that technology addiction is real.

Content and competitive gamification keep us glued to the screen, and to the monthly membership fee.

The Real Value of Data #

In the early days of the Fitbit nobody could get enough of wearables and the promises they made. Data was going to save us from ourselves. By feeding our competitive nature through charts, graphs, rewards, badges, and accountability notifications, we’d sleep more, take more steps and meditate daily.

Science and experience say otherwise.

Approximately 30% of those using fitness trackers abandon them within 6 months. Studies on whether or not dashboards and data improve health outcomes are primarily inconclusive 1 while some find access to data makes you no more 2 likely to lose weight.

Tonal, Tempo and digital weights will sync with your Apple Watch, count your reps, track your heart rate, calories burned and more. But overwhelming data often goes unused and fails to translate to real world gains.

Assuming you’re motivated by the stats, the primary question is; can you even strength train with digital weights?

Strength Training with Digital Weights #

A man holding a digital kettlebell in the street

We know from research that building muscle is the best way 3 to reduce body fat. And if you want to build muscle, you have to lift heavy 4. So can Tonal, Tempo or the BowFlex SmartTech system deliver gains?

Tonal operates as a cable machine, and not as a set of free weights.

The cables use magnetic resistance and allow for a maximum pull of 100 pounds per arm. As one reviewer put it:

A combined maximum 200 pounds of resistance is just not satisfying for lower body exercises such as squats or deadlifts.

One tonal user suggests supplementing with wrist weights for more resistance.

Tempo studio recently began offering an accessory package that includes heavier weights for those who need more than the 115 pounds included with the system. The bar is also compatible with the Olympic plates you might already have at home.

Look beyond the sexy tech and Tonal is just a cable system, while Tempo or BowFlex are just free weights.

None offer a maximum load that will efficiently trigger hypertrophy for most adults. The digital bells and whistles don’t make up for the fact that weight lifting is a waste of time.

Weights are Weights, Smart or Not #

Technology is fun, but it’s distracting 5. In fact, it just may have distracted us from what really makes a difference in strength training gains.

A virtual coach, a digital spotter, and on-demand workouts can help get you off the couch if you have no idea what you’re doing, but they aren’t must-haves for building muscle and losing weight.

The real advances in strength training science aren’t the 3D sensors or AI-based coaches but the realization that variable resistance training offers far more effective gains 6 than weight-based strength programs.

As humans, we tend to make things complicated. We’ve known this since Occam’s Razor rang true in the 13th century, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” Rather, the simplest solution is always the best.

What could be simpler than a steel bar, metal plate and resistance bands?

The X3 Difference

X3 Bar is an effective strength training solution that pales in cost compared to a digital weight system and requires only a few square feet of space.

With no permanent installation or WiFi connection required, it can even slide into your suitcase and travel with you.

Programming is simple. Just follow the 12 week workout plan and repeat. The exercises will take you less than 10 minutes per day.

Heavy resistance bands are safe, easy on the joints, and target your muscles better than free weights.

Cables and free weights have been used for many years and are staples of a failed endeavor—weightlifting. Digital weights disguise this old dog by teaching it new tricks, but it only complicates working out.

While a cable system with a maximum pull of 200 pounds might work for those who have been sedentary or new to strength training, it simply can’t offer the resistance a trained athlete needs to stimulate continued muscle growth. In addition, cables docked 7 have been by researchers for failing to recruit the stabilizing muscles that make your workout functional.

Free weights offer strength gains, but lifting is not the most efficient way to build muscle. With Tempo or Bowflex SelectTech, each movement is still limited by your strength and flexibility at the weakest part of your lift.

Variable resistance is a more effective strength builder. Tonal’s magnetic resistance might be as close as one can get to digital variable resistance. They’ve also added chain mode, which attempts to replicate the addition of chains to your free weights.

But it’s not a free weight machine, and Tonal’s safety features may prevent the sarcoplasmic fatigue that builds muscle.

Among the selling points is a safety feature which “detects if you’re struggling in a rep and reduces the weight.” At least one reviewer confirms the spotter steps in far too early and too frequently.

The Smartest Home Gym #

The X3 workout bar and bands

X3 targets and fatigues the most vital parts of your body; the muscles, heart and lungs.

A capacity for over 600 pounds of resistance makes X3 Bar a muscle-building solution for deconditioned individuals and elite athletes alike.

Extra data is nice, but it doesn’t always equate to extra strength. If you’re interested in tracking your every move, start a journal.

We’ll be spending our time living life and building muscle.

Sources


  1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2055207619900059  ↩︎

  2. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2553448  ↩︎

  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32397898/  ↩︎

  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25530577/  ↩︎

  5. http://acikerisim.ticaret.edu.tr/xmlui/handle/11467/4074  ↩︎

  6. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276297645_Effects_Of_Variable_Resistance_Training_On_Maximal_Strength_A_Meta-Analysis  ↩︎

  7. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255721759_Free_Weights_Versus_Machines  ↩︎

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