- It’s impossible to “tone” your body – muscles can grow or shrink, not get firmer or softer.
- The concept of “toning” was created as a marketing term to appeal to women.
- Building muscle with heavy weights and losing fat with a calorie deficit creates the “toned” look.
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Four years ago, I started lifting weights, building muscle and strength that I’d never had, and I fell in love.
Two years later, I decided to lose some weight, shedding the layer of fat that had been covering my growing muscles.
And as a leaner version of my body emerged, there was one word that people kept saying to and about me: “toned.”
How had I “toned” up my body, people asked. What had I done to get “toned” arms and legs, they would say.
But here’s the thing: The concept of “toning” is a complete myth. You cannot “tone” a muscle.
Muscles grow and shrink, they don’t ‘tone’
Many people believe that you can “tone” your body, AKA make it firmer and less wobbly, by working out in a certain way.
This is not true.
Muscle is firm, fat is soft. Muscles can grow and shrink, but they cannot become harder or softer.
The “toned” look actually means having muscle on your body and low enough body fat to see it. Do remember that being super lean isn’t healthy though; we need some fat on our bodies to be healthy, and women more so than men.
“When we speak of tone, we are talking about our body looking firm (which is a result of an increase in muscle tissue) as well as defined (which is a result of a low enough body fat percentage) where we can see the shape of the muscles and the absence of ‘the jiggle,'” Pete Geracimo, a trainer who has worked with Adele among other stars, previously told Insider.
You can’t spot-reduce fat, which means you can’t choose where your body loses fat from (often a disappointing realization for women who want a flat stomach without losing their butt and boobs).
Doing endless lunges will not “tone” your legs, much like doing endless pulses will not get rid of any wobbly upper arms.
‘Toned’ is a marketing term designed to appeal to women
There are so many workouts and exercises that are branded as “toning,” particularly those targeted as women. And it makes my blood boil because it’s misinformation that preys on women’s insecurities.
Wanting to look “toned” is the goal for so many females, we just need more understanding about how you actually achieve that physique because what’s popularly believed is wrong.
According to personal trainer Sal Di Stefano of Mind Pump, the concept of “toning” the body was made up as a marketing term designed to lure women into traditionally male-dominated gyms in a gentle way.
Many women are scared of getting “bulky” (another myth, as Insider’s Gabby Landsverk explained), but getting “toned” sounds more appealing.
These “toning” workouts usually involve small weights and high reps, but this actually isn’t the best way to create the look most people are after.
Focus on building muscle and losing fat
When people suddenly started saying I looked “toned,” they presumed I’d been working out with 1-2kg weights. But this could not be further from the truth.
I like to lift heavy – I can deadlift twice my bodyweight – and my workouts are generally aimed at achieving performance-based goals and building strength. This means I lift heavy weights in lower reps.
By training in this way, I was able to hold on to my muscle while losing fat through a gentle calorie deficit, and thus emerge looking “toned.” Bear in mind that building muscle takes a long time though, and you need to be patient.
The most effective way to build muscle is to eat in a calorie surplus while focusing on compound movements in your training. When eating in a surplus you’ll gain some fat at the same time, so for achieving a “toned” look, aim to eat at maintenance or in a slight deficit, depending on how much fat you have to lose, as personal trainer Sohee Lee explained.
Heavy weights won’t make you ‘bulky’
Women are scared of getting “bulky” by lifting heavy weights, but this will only happen if you’re working out as much as professional weight-lifters and eating a diet designed to encourage muscle growth, thus in a calorie surplus.
Looking “toned” means building muscle and losing fat, and lifting heavy weights helps you do both those things (the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest).
To get scientific about it, most forms of steady state cardio and workouts like pilates and barre work your slow-twitch muscle fibers. Lifting heavy weights and explosive movements like sprinting work your fast-twitch muscle fibers. It’s the latter that have the greatest growth potential, so if you want to see visible muscle and create the “toned” look, that’s what you should be focusing on.
There’s nothing wrong with doing workouts branded as “toning” – they won’t do you any harm and are a great way to get moving if you enjoy them – but you shouldn’t go into them under any illusions about what they’ll do to your body.