December 6, 2023

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New Tempo review: AI improves your home gym

Unlike a lot of Americans, I’ve been a home gym enthusiast since before the pandemic. After moving to a small mountain town with few gyms and even fewer childcare options, I knew I needed to come up with something that worked for me at home.

But, I’m picky. As a lifelong athlete and former CrossFit coach, I’m big on educated instruction when it comes to at-home weightlifting programs. It’s easy to get hurt. While no program can ensure you won’t do something disastrous, proper form cues and educated guidance go a long way toward a happy fitness routine. That’s why I’m stoked about the Tempo Move and it’s new AI technology.

I’ve spent the last month in our basement, testing out the kit that comes with the Tempo Move Pro (more on that below). I sidelined all other workout programs in an effort to trial Tempo just as it’s designed. I’ll be honest: I really dig it for its versatility, knowledge and integration into my lifestyle. While I don’t think the AI technology is perfect, I think it offers just a tick more than traditional workout apps — and it helped me perfect my split squat. Here’s what I learned during testing.

High-quality equipment pairs with knowledgeable instruction, integrated biometric data and motion sensor-driven AI technology to make Tempo my new favorite fitness program. There is a $39-per-month membership fee after buying the equipment.

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When you commit to Tempo, you choose from one of its equipment sets: Tempo Core, Tempo Move or Tempo Studio, and each has a potential upgrade to include more weights. I tested Tempo Move, which comes with two 7.5-pound unloaded dumbbells, four weight clips and 35 pounds of assorted change plates (4 x 1.25 pounds, 4 x 2.5 pounds and 4 x 5 pounds). It also includes a sleek storage cabinet that holds everything as well as the critical device known as the Tempo Core. This is your phone’s docking station that enables real-time coaching advice (but more on that below).

I was immediately impressed with the quality of the weights. Each plate is rubber coated, which means I was less concerned about destroying our basement floors if I accidentally dropped one, and I loved how tidily they fit inside the storage cabinet. We have a big basement, so space isn’t as premium as in urban areas, but we do have a kindergartener who loves to race around the house and touch everything. Storing the equipment inside the cabinet was an easy way to keep it out of sight — and out of her mind.

I’m not used to having color-coded weights either, and I’ll admit that I first thought they were silly. But after just a few workouts, I came to love that too. It’s so much easier to do “gym math” when you’re staring at bright reds and yellows!

This is the highlight of the app for me. When you first sign up for Tempo, you answer some questions to help the app determine your goals. Once you’re in, you’ll see two options: a library of random workouts and a series of preselected programs that Tempo thinks you’ll like based on your feedback. I had knee surgery in March, so I’m still working to regain my quad strength from all the atrophy I experienced while on crutches. As a result, one of my suggested programs was a four-week, lower body build that emphasized quad muscles.

The AI assist doesn’t end there, though. Tempo syncs with a variety of smartwatches to gather your daily biometric data like how much you slept the night before, what other workouts you’ve done outside of Tempo and your overnight heart rate and HRV numbers. When you log in to the app, it will calculate your real-time readiness score based on this data using a scale of 100. In the summer, I like to lift two to three times per week and fill my other days with mountain biking or trail running. Tempo would adjust my workouts accordingly, swapping in an upper body workout after an especially tough bike day or suggesting I take a recovery yoga class two days after a long run.

I’m not unfamiliar with the concept of recovery, but I did find the timeliness fascinating. Tempo often gave me more recovery than I’d give myself — which makes me wonder if I’ve been shortchanging my muscles.

To complete a Tempo Move workout, you need two things: the Tempo Core docking station for your iPhone and a television with an HDMI port. While you’re lifting, the coach, workout and real-time data is presented on the TV screen. Tempo uses the camera on your docked phone to watch your movements and offer real-time suggestions during your lift.

To get the best feedback possible, I learned I had to stand roughly 6 feet back from my phone and stay in the frame. If I did that, the guidance was surprisingly helpful. For example, a depth gauge appeared on the screen while I was doing squats. Thanks to the sensors in the weights, the depth gauge would tell me whether I was going to 100% depth on each squat or cheating and staying too shallow.

The AI tech also helped with weight adjustments so you can continually challenge yourself. After my first set of bicep curls, Tempo asked me to gauge my “reps in reserve,” or RIR. I toggled the appropriate number on the screen, letting the technology know that I could’ve handled at least three to four more reps during that round. Based on the numbers you report and how many reps you actually did that round, Tempo’s AI will automatically calculate whether you should increase the weight for the remaining sets.

Technically, this is something we can do for ourselves, but I found it surprisingly refreshing to shut off my brain and do what it told me. There were times it suggested heavier weights and I didn’t believe it — until I actually lifted them. In a way, I found it easier to push myself when I wasn’t relying on my own personal governor to pull on the brakes.

Body composition scans to measure progress

While I don’t think this is a key highlight of Tempo, it is a nicety to help you gauge progress (but it isn’t required to use the app).

If you’re curious about your body composition, stand in front of your phone and turn the scan on. Tempo takes a series of 150 photos as you pivot in a circle, and the whole process takes less than 10 seconds. From there, the app generates your body composition data along with a 3D image of your body. In addition to your body fat percentage, you’ll learn how many pounds of fat mass you’re carrying along with your lean mass. The body scan also measures your biceps, waist, chest, quads and calves.

While I’m not convinced the data was especially accurate (or maybe I’m fooling myself?), I did find the scan useful as a relative benchmark. I did one at the beginning and end of my monthlong trial and was pleased to see my left quad gained a little more size. Baby steps!

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This is subjective, but I liked the minimalist and calm guidance offered by your on-screen coach. When doing a workout, there is a single trainer standing on a mat with a dark background on the screen with his or her weights. They offer the usual instructions and demonstrations that we’re used to from any workout app, but I appreciated the lack of overzealous energy. I hadn’t realized it, but the norm these days is for fitness instructors to yell and shout and dance and be an all-around beacon of energy. The Tempo instructors don’t do that. They offer useful advice, solid form cues and just enough chatter so you’re not grunting in silence. For me, it struck the perfect balance between entertaining and informative, but I didn’t feel like I was watching a circus act.

While the integrated technology brings a lot to Tempo, it’s not yet perfect. Our daughter came bopping into the basement while I was working out and Tempo immediately struggled to discern which human body to follow. It opted for our kid and quit counting or recognizing my squats. Once I had her sit on a chair out of frame, it wasn’t a problem. But, if you live in a smaller space with lots going on in the background, this may be a factor to consider.

I also noticed some quirks with the body scan. I did two body scans over the course of a month and both registered a body fat percentage that was nearly 8% higher than I expected. You could chalk this up to a wounded ego, but here’s the rub: I also do annual body scans via InBody and have for a few years. I’m certainly willing to believe that none of these tests are completely accurate, but the Tempo numbers were noticeably off when compared to any other tests I’ve previously completed. However, the measurements (waist, biceps, quads, etc.) were pretty decent and relatively matched what I got with a tape measure. Ultimately, I decided that the scan is a great tool for progress. While I don’t necessarily trust the specific numbers, it does show progress (in either direction) over time.

It’s an Apple world and we’re just living in it

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Tempo is fully synced with Apple products, including iPhones and Apple watches (Android users, be warned: Your phone won’t work with Tempo). But after shattering two Apple Watches, I’ve decided that they aren’t durable enough for my lifestyle. Instead, I use either a Garmin or Suunto expedition watch. While both of these still loosely sync with Apple Health on my phone, the data is nowhere near as accurate as it would be if I used an Apple Watch. This also meant that my real-time heart rate didn’t sync with Tempo on the screen during workouts.

Was this a deal breaker? Not really, and I also realize that tons of folks do use (and love) Apple Watches. But if you’re like me and use a different watch, know that the compatibility is lesser than it would be with an Apple Watch.

Most of Tempo’s competitors are cable-based resistance training, while Tempo uses actual weights, which means that products like Tonal ($3,995) and Forme Studio ($2,495) are much more expensive. Both are wall-mounted devices that require professional installation, while Tempo has varying options (Core, Move and Studio) that come in at different price points and sizes.

I’m skeptical of some of the new AI involvement in the fitness world and came into this testing process with a lot of questions. But truthfully, I’m a big fan of Tempo. I think it’s a great choice if you’re someone who needs extra motivation or guidance but can’t afford a personal trainer. I also think athletes who love data (like me!) will enjoy the real-time feedback and daily adjustments. Finally, Tempo will also appeal to folks who are ready to step up their fitness and add in catered programming in place of random daily workouts. Just make sure you have an iPhone.