“I just want to be toned”, we’ve all heard it before. At the gym, from your friends, on TV, and you might have even said it yourself at some point. As a personal trainer, I hear it every day. The word “toned” is misused and misunderstood, so in this article, I’d like to help clear things up. Because of the media, many in the general public seem to be under the impression that you can get “toned” by performing a certain rep scheme, a certain routine, or certain exercises. How many times have you heard “full body toning routine” or “toning exercises for women” (as if women need to exercise differently than men)?
Here are some examples:
But this headline might take the cake for worst headline of all:
The problem with these workouts, programs, articles, and the people selling them is that not only are they claiming that certain exercises will tone muscles, but that you can spot reduce fat in specific areas as well. This spot reduction myth is another one that needs to go. The idea that by exercising a specific body part, the fat in that area will be used and reduced simply isn’t true (Olson and Edelstein, 1968). It’s impossible – regardless of what that waist trainer infomercial told you.
So what does being toned mean?
When people refer to being toned, all they mean is that they want a low enough body fat percentage to see the shape and definition of the muscles. It’s that simple. And let me be clear, muscles DO NOT go from soft to hard, or hard to soft. They either shrink or grow. They CANNOT tone, sculpt, or any other adjective you may have heard. There is no other way about it. When it comes to changing our body composition, we can really only do two things. We can either gain or lose fat, and gain or lose muscle. So, if you want that “toned” appearance, you’re going to have to shed the layer of fat that is covering up your muscles.
You can certainly attain this toned look through training and diet. The myth I’m referring to is what most health and weight loss companies try to sell - that there are certain types of exercises that will get you toned, or that you can tone a specific area by training it directly. For example, most people are misled in to thinking that doing crunches will reduce their stomach fat and make their abs show. Don’t get me wrong, crunches can sure grow your rectus abdominis muscle, but it won’t decrease the layer of fat that’s covering it.
Something to be mindful of as a personal trainer when it comes to clients of yours who are looking to get toned is that a toned appearance is completely subjective. What one person may find toned and attractive, another may find too muscular, or maybe not quite lean enough. So, if your client’s goal is to “get toned” or some other variation of toning, please discuss this and get them to be a little more specific.
“But my friend told me to only lift these 3lbs dumbbells to get toned!”
What seems to come with this concept of toning muscles, is the idea that lifting any significant amount of weight will turn you in to the hulk overnight. If you lift anything heavy, you’ll become “bulky”. If it were that easy, every guy in the gym would be huge, which also isn’t true. Whether your goal is to reduce fat, gain muscle, or both, you’ll need to stress the muscles with relatively heavy weight. Your muscles need this stress for them to grow and show (or even to simply maintain the muscle mass you have). Simply going through the motions with little to no weight won’t produce any results.
To recap; you cannot tone, or sculpt a muscle, and you cannot spot reduce fat to tone a certain area of your body. What you can do, however, is stress your body with high enough intensity exercise for it to adapt to, while controlling the calories being consumed, which will result in getting that toned appearance. As personal trainers and exercise professionals, we need to be better than the media and not buy in to pseudoscience trends simply because it sells. Let’s back our programs by science and expertise.
Olson, A.L. & Edelstein, E. (1968) Spot reduction of subcutaneous adipose tissue. Research Quarterly. American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 39(3), 647-652.
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