If your fitness goal is to get a ‘toned body’, you’ve probably been doing all the wrong things with your workout routine. Learn what “toned” really means and how you can achieve it.
It’s almost impossible to pick up a fitness magazine and not find a reference to “toning your abs”, “toning your butt” or “toning your legs or thighs.”
But I’m going to let you in on one of the best kept secrets in fitness: There really is no such thing as “toning” or being “toned” — at least in the sense of what people normally associate with ”toned muscle” or a ”toned body.”
There is a concept in anatomy and physiology called residual muscle contraction or tonus, but it refers to the continuous and partial contraction of a muscle to help stabilize posture and balance. It has nothing to do with the outward appearance of your body or whether you have tight glutes and washboard abs. You can be out of shape and struggle to climb a flight of stairs and still have muscle tonus.
So what’s the story? What is this “toning” that everyone is always talking about?
How the “Toned Body” Myth Got Started
At some point years ago, fitness writers, personal trainers and people who really ought to know better started using the term “toned” to describe individuals with high muscle mass to low body fat ratios. Instead of saying that an athlete, fitness model or highly-in-shape person was “lean and muscular” they started saying the person was “toned.”
Why this happened isn’t exactly clear. My theory is that the words “muscle” and “muscular” are scary and intimidating for some people, especially to many women who have been conditioned to run as fast as they can from the dreaded “M-Word.” The seemingly endless stream of articles online and in major fitness magazines instructing women how not to ”bulk up” and avoid become “muscular” via workout routines for “toning” is a major contributor to this myth.
So fitness writers and trainers started to use “toned” as a way of describing being muscular, without actually saying the word “muscular.” It seemed innocent enough, and it allowed them to not have to get into big, long, involved and uncomfortable discussions with their clients about why they should top obsessing on becoming too “bulky.”
You Can’t Diet or Treadmill Your Way to “Toned”
The problem is, to get a body that fits most people’s definition of “toned”, you have to weight train. And you generally have to go heavy. And you need to put on muscle mass. And you’ll have to drop your body fat ratio. That’s the secret. Those four things. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a male or a female. It applies equally regardless of gender.
This may seem like an issue of semantics and a little thing, but it’s not. The problem is that “toned” has become a euphemism for “lean and muscular”, yet most people don’t realize that. They think “toned” is something you achieve by dieting, doing endless bouts of cardio and maybe occasionally doing some pilates or high-rep, low-weight resistance training.
So by obscuring what “toning” really means, we’ve doomed all kinds of people to pursuing toning workout routines that will likely never allow them to achieve their fitness, physique or body-shaping goals. They’ll continue to avoid any kind of serious weight training, go too light on the resistance, focus on high reps that only improve muscle endurance (not size or shape), put way too much time and attention on ”functional” exercises and try to stair-step their way to a “toned” body.
And when it doesn’t work, they’ll go seek out the newest “30 Minute Body Toning Workout” and get right back on the hamster wheel again, only to be frustrated in three weeks when nothing has changed. Maybe that’s how you sell fitness magazines and personal training sessions, but I’d prefer to think we’re in the business of helping people succeed, not just pushing services or content.
There’s A Whole ‘Lotta Toning Going On
So how pervasive is this term or concept of “toning?”
It’s probably one of the most frequently asked questions in the Diet and Fitness section of Yahoo Answers — especially among women (although I do see some men using it.) Typically, it will come in the form of a question like: “How can I get toned without becoming bulky?” or “Does anyone have any toning exercises that won’t make me put on muscle.”
Of course, if they hadn’t been sold the “myth of toning” and understood exactly what that term really meant, their questions would be absurd.
I took a look at what the top searches were on Google around the term “toned,” “toning” and “muscle tone.” Here’s what people are looking for every day on Google:
- “Tone Abs”
- “Toned Body”
- “Toned Women”
- “Toned Legs”
- “Toned Belly”
- “Get toned legs”
- “Tone butt”
- “How to get toned fast”
- “15 minute routine for toned arms”
- “get ripped and toned in 2 months” (love this one)
- “toned muscle”
- “workout routines for toning”
- “toning exercises”
- “muscle toning”
- “tips on toning muscle”
You get the picture. Cumulatively, you are talking about nearly a thousand searches a day by people who have bought into the “toning myth.” They know what they are searching for, they just don’t know how to do it or what it is.
So what do they find when the do those searches?
Well, not surprisingly, they find a lot of fitness writers perpetuating the myth by talking about “workout routines to tone” this or that body part or your whole body.
I did a quick survey of the Top 10 websites for the term “fitness” on Google. Every single one of them used the term “toned” or “toning” in at least one exercise or fitness-related article.
“Look sexy in shorts: The Workout. Get your legs ready for their big summer reveal with these butt-firming, thigh-sculpting, and calf-toning moves.”
From Fitnessonline.com (via Fit Pregnancy):
“Pilates helps maintain your abdominal muscle tone, which will support your growing belly, minimize back pain and give you more oomph for pushing during labor.”
“Finally! Love Your Hips. This plan challenges them to do both, so you get a more well-rounded workout to ensure speedy results. Top off the toning and cardio with a healthy diet and you’ll see svelte hips in about a month.”
“Bodybuilders always accompany this kind of training with low-carb, calorie-restricted diets; that’s what accounts for their rapid fat loss. ‘A toned appearance is dependent on your level of body fat and muscle development,” says Jim Smith, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Sayre, Pa. In other words, to see more muscle tone, you need to get bigger muscles and lose flab.’”
In the case of the Men’s Fitness article, you actually have a NSCA (National Strength Conditioning Association) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist using the term “muscle tone” as if it was something that actually existed, versus a purely subjective, physical aesthetic.
I’m not trying to beat up on Jim Smith, since he at least provides an accurate definition of what he’s really talking about in terms of appearances (more muscle, less fat), but why use this term at all and continue to put fuel behind this myth of “tone” and “toning?”
Here’s how I would have phrased it:
“Bodybuilders always accompany this kind of training with low-carb, calorie-restricted diets; that’s what accounts for their rapid fat loss. ‘A lean, muscular appearance with good definition is dependent on your level of body fat and muscle development … In other words, to see more muscle definition, you need to get bigger muscles and lose flab.’”
Interestingly enough, the term “toned” or “toning” isn’t used as widely by males as it is among females. Again, I think this is because men aren’t as afraid to add muscle (and it’s arguably part of the traditional male aesthetic) as women are. So we’re dealing with a fairly ingrained issue here that cuts to the idea of changing peoples perceptions of what “fit” and “healthy” is – especially when it comes to women and body composition.
So Why Not Just Stop Using the Term “Toned?”: A Personal Trainer’s Perspective
Denver-based personal trainer, functional training expert and fellow fitness blogger Jamie Atlas says that he uses the term “toned” sometimes because he needs to ease clients and readers into the idea that muscle is a good thing.
“Sometimes I write to speak to people where they are at rather than where I would like them to be – which has its pros and cons,” admits Atlas. “My style is sometimes to get the person on board and THEN try to bring them around. But, yes, women shouldn’t be afraid of ‘bulking up.’”
There is again. No matter how much we agree to try to avoid that term, it keeps coming up. And that’s the problem.
Jamie does have good point, however. It’s hard to combat the fear of becoming a female-version of Conan: The Barbarian when it comes to women and weight lifting, but I offered him a friendly challenge to join me in my crusade to banish the words “toning” and “bulking” from our fitness vocabulary going forward.
If we keep writing articles that telling people how to weight train without “bulking up” — we’re part of the problem, not the solution. If you are losing fat and adding muscle you will NEVER look as bulky as you did when you had high body fat and low muscle, no matter how much muscle you add to your frame.
So What Is A Toned Body?
So if there really is no such thing as “toning”, what are people talking about when they use that term? I think the best way to illustrate this is with pictures, since things like scale weight, BMI and even body fat ratios are usually too abstract for people to get their heads-around (and they are often inaccurate, as well.)
I picked two female Hollywood celebrities – Keira Knightley and Britney Spears — and actress and fitness model Amanda Carrier to contrast against each other (don’t worry, I did the same with men.)
I chose celebrities because it seems that everyone is trying to emulate their bodies and many people view them as paragons of fitness, beauty and attractiveness (and I’m not saying this is correct, just that people have that perception.)
So take a look at them and ask yourself you most typifies the “toned” aesthetic?
First, actress Keira Knightley:
Next, Britney Spears:
And finally, fitness model and actress Amanda Carrier:
Keira Knightley is lean, no doubt, and she’s sporting a pretty good set of abs. But she is carrying very little muscle through her arms, shoulders, chest and legs. Lean? “Yes.” But “toned?” Probably not. Some people would say she is far too thin, but I’m not going to make judgments here. That’s not my point.
Britney, on the other hand, is fuller and curvier, but she’s carrying a fair amount of body fat which obscures any muscle she might have. I don’t think anyone would consider Britney ”toned” in this photo. She’ll get there I’m sure.
Amanda Carrier, on the other hand, is probably closest to what people have in mind when they think of a phrase like “toned body.” I deliberately picked a candid of Amanda from the “Rich Jerk” set so that it was apples-to-apple with the other two photos. Their is zero airbrushing, touch-up or fancy camera angles or lighting effects going on here. This is the real thing without painted on abs or enhancement of her curves in Photoshop.
Amanda is lean, like Keira Knightley, but she is packing a lot more muscle. So instead of looking straight and flat, she has great curves and muscle definition. And guess what? She doesn’t look bulky at all, despite all the muscle she’s carrying.
So let’s take a look at a couple male examples, just to make things fair.
First, professional soccer player and Metrosexual poster boy, David Beckham:
Next, actor Hugh Jackman:
And finally, former-Calvin Klein model Tyson Beckford:
So who typifies “toned” among these men?
David Beckham is lean and athletic, but he’s not carrying much muscle mass on his frame. Hugh Jackman has the muscle mass, but his body fat levels are just a little too high to probably qualify him as “toned” in most people’s books.
Tyson Beckford, on the other hand — like Amanda Carrier — is carrying plenty of muscle mass along with very little body fat. He has good definition and isn’t “bulky” at all.
No doubt there is some airbrushing or photo touch-up going on with Tyson Beckford, so the comparison with candids of celebrities on the beach might not be exactly apples-to-apples. However, there are plenty of candid photos out there of Tyson Beckford that show his natural muscle and definition without the aid of any Photoshopping.
I suspect that if you randomly chose a hundred people on the street and asked them who had the most “toned body” among these six examples, Amanda Carrier and Tyson Beckford would win hands-down.
A Matter of Personal Preferences and Goals
Realize also that we’re talking about aesthetics here, and one person’s vision of the “ideal” amount of muscle will not necessarily match another’s.
Some people aspire to have the kind of crazy muscle mass that pro bodybuilders have and find that “ideal” and attractive. Others aspire to a less massive physique that emphasizes smaller musculature along with leanness — similar to what you would find on a female fitness model or male model. Others train primarily for health concerns or to improve their conditioning or sports performance, so appearance isn’t a primary concern for them (and they typically won’t be the ones doing searches on Google for “toning”)
My point is that whatever your goal is in terms of appearance or fitness, you need to specifically train for that goal. You need to find out what their workouts are, or at least understand that if your goal is to get “toned” you need to lift weights and reduce your body fat. I’ve rarely saw a person who had that “toned” aesthetic who didn’t do that.
“Toned” Equals Muscle and Low Body Fat
So let’s repeat it again: A “toned body” is simply low body fat coupled with muscle mass.
You can’t have one without the other and build the physique you want. You have to have both parts of the equation. And to do that, you have to stop worrying about becoming “bulky” or overly muscular.
If you are getting too muscular for your particular goals (whether you are male or female) than it’s easy to take it down a notch. Muscle is hard to build, but it’s relatively easy to lose — just don’t work it as much, or you lower the weight and increase the reps. Before you know it, you’ll start to lose mass. But you can’t get that ”toned look” people are always talking about unless you take it up a notch in the weight training department.
The Magic Formula to Getting the Body You Want & Being More Healthy
So now that we’ve shown a “toned body” for what it is: low body fat and high muscle mass, let’s talk about how you can build muscle and lose body fat.
“Body Toning” Tip #1: Don’t Fear Muscle
First, if you are a woman, you need to set aside your fears of getting too muscular and “bulking up” and start lifting weights. The bottom line is that most women — unless they have unusual genetics that cause them to put on gobs of muscle or are on anabolic steroids — will never build the kind of “freaky” muscle mass you see in professional female bodybuilders.
I’m not talking about the muscle you see on professional fitness or figure competitors or fitness models like Amanda Carrier or Jelena Abbou – most women with enough dedication and the right training can look like that. Rather, I’m talking about the massive amounts of muscle you see on someone lik pro female bodybuilders Kris Murrell:
Most women, no matter how heavy they lifted or how frequently they performed resistance training, would never put on Kris Murrell’s level of muscle. Most women just don’t have the hormonal environment for that kind of mass (hell, neither do I.) In fact, I’m pretty sure Chris Murrell is carrying more muscle on her than I am — and I’m a male who trains like a fiend with plenty of heavy weight.
So stop worrying about ”bulking up” – it’s probably keeping you from reaching your fitness goals and it’s inhibiting your ability to build that muscle definition and shape that you are likely looking for.
“Body Toning” Tip #2: Moderate Your Cardio Exercise and Consider HIIT
Take a close look at your cardio exercise routine: How much are you performing and for how long?
If you are currently performing 60 minutes or more of cardio a day and NOT dedicating at least three days a week to weight training, it’s going to keep you from getting a ”toned body.” You cannot run or stair-step your way to muscle (unless your are using some major resistance on the stair stepper or elliptical, and even then, your gains will be modest.)
If you are performing long-duration cardio on a daily basis along with your weight training, you are going to have difficulties adding much muscle. In fact, it may actually cause you to lose muscle, which can lead to the “fat skinny” syndrome, where you have low scale weight, but higher body-fat-to-lean-muscle ratios. This is not going to give you a tight, “toned” look.
There are exceptions, of course. For instance, if you are already carrying a large amount of muscle on your frame, you may be able to afford some muscle loss as part of an effort to strip off additional body fat with more cardio. But in general — especially among women — most people put too much emphasis on long duration cardio. Yes, it’s good for your heart, helps you burn calories and makes you feel good, but it needs to be kept in check.
One approach that many people find effective is to limit their cardio to no more than 30 minutes, but increase the intensity by either adding resistance, speed, or in the case of a treadmill — incline — to work out harder, but for shorter periods of time.
This is known as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and there is some research that indicates it may be more effective at burning fat — especially abdominal fat — while preserving lean tissue than solid-state long duration or distance cardio. Interval training has you literally alternating between high-intensity bursts of 1-2 minutes, followed by a recovery period of 2-3 minutes, and then another burst of higher intensity. You can accomplish a similar effect during running by increasing your speed to a sprint for a short period, or running 100 yard dashes at a local track or field.
Before undertaking HIIT training, however, you should already be in good health, have already built a good cardiovascular conditioning base and consult with a physician just to be safe.
“Body Toning” Tip #3: Start Weight Lifting!
If you aren’t including 45-60 minutes of weight or resistance training at least three times a week in your workout schedule, it’s time to change that. To get “toned” you need muscle — and the only way you will add muscle is by weight training.
“Body Toning” Tip #4: Go Heavier with the Weights
Building muscle mass and size requires constantly challenging your muscles with increasing levels of resistance — this is also known as “progression” in weight training jargon. This applies to both men and women.
This means you need to continually increase the amount of resistance you are using. If you are always using the same amount of weight for the same amount of reps, you aren’t going to add muscle or “sculpt” anything. All you’ll be doing is maintaining the status quo. That may be a fine approach once you hit your goals in terms of what you want your body to look like, but you probably wouldn’t be reading this article if you’ve achieved that.
So if you are already weight training and not seeing the results you want, try increasing the weight slightly during your next workout. You probably won’t be doing as many reps, but that’s okay. You need variation to grow.
“Body Toning” Tip #5: Stop Thinking High Reps will Make You Look “Toned”
I’m sure you’ve heard people say that the way to get “toned” without becoming “bulky” is to perform high reps with light weight. There is probably no other single piece of fitness advice that has caused more people to NOT get “toned” than this little gem.
To add muscle you need to train with progressively more weight or resistance. As I mentioned above, this will probably result in you performing less reps. It’s not a problem — embrace it. The trick here is to pick the right combination of weight, reps and sets for your “toning” goals — and that combination is probably going to be different from what you see in “toning workouts” in fitness magazines.
Continually training with high reps and low weight will not only prevent you from adding muscle (which, remember, you need to get “toned”), but it will prevent you from increasing your strength, which has other health and fitness benefits.
Performing high reps (we’re talking 15-20 reps or higher) will increase muscle endurance, allowing you to train at your current resistance level for a longer duration without fatiguing, but it won’t create size. One possible exception to this is when training legs and calves, where higher reps can be productive because you already work those muscles daily just walking and climbing stairs. The trick is to play around with different weights and rep ranges to see what is effective for you.
The reason people think high reps are good for “toning” is because they can temporarily cause a “pump” in the muscle that makes the muscle look fuller and can bring out some definition. However, this “pump” is short-live (sometimes lasting only a few hours at the most) which means that it’s not going to permanently add size or muscle definition. Once the pump is gone, so goes the definition.
This isn’t to say that you should never perform high-reps — it’s always good to change up your rep ranges and weight to prevent the body from adapting and to continue making progress. However, if all you are doing is countless reps with 3 lbs dumbbells under the illusion that this will get you a body like a fitness model, you need to change your approach. It’s probably the reason you still haven’t hit your goals.
Beware: What You See In The Fitness Magazine Isn’t Necessarily What You’ll Get
Another word of warning: You can’t assume that the models in the “toning” workouts you see in fitness or women’s health magazine spreads are necessarily following the workout routine they are demonstrating.
They are models, and they are there to illustrate the workout routine the editors or writers are discussing. They typically aren’t actually working out. And they themselves may never train with kettle balls, stability balls, resistance bands or the myriad of other gadgets and novelties they are paid to demonstrate.
Editors and fitness writers need to offer new things to their readers to keep interest and readership up. You can’t run 12 separate articles on barbell squats and still keep people’s interest, despite the fact that squats will almost always give you better results than the ”Campbell Soup Can squat and thrust” or whatever novel exercise the writer or trainer came up with this month.
More than likely, the model’s own training routine is much more fundamental and simple: Lots of dumbbell, barbell and cable work, heavier weights, compound exercises and some high-intensity cardio thrown in to keep body fat levels down. In fact, this is exactly the type of routine Amanda Carrier says she follows. And who is going to argue with her results?
I’ve never seen a great physique built on rubber bands or medicine balls alone. These types of exercises have their benefits, especially around improving balance, coordination and stabilizer muscle development, but they aren’t going to get you much muscle mass or help lower body fat levels — and that, remember, is your goal if you want to look “toned.”
The Seven Rules of Getting A “Toned Body”
Now that we’ve thoroughly debunked the idea of “body toning” let’s sum them up in five easy to remember rules:
- The first rule of body toning is that there is no “body toning”. Having muscle shape and definition and looking lean and trim requires two things: muscle mass and low body fat.
- The second rule is that to get shape and definition, you need to add more muscle.
- The third rule is that to get more muscle, you need to lift weights.
- The fourth rule is that when you lift weights, you need to lift heavier and using lower rep ranges (8-10 reps per set.)
- The fifth rule is that in order to bring out muscle definition, you need to also strip off body fat. Adding muscle will help with this because it burns calories at rest, and performing moderate or high-intensity cardio on your non-weight lifting days will help burn fat.
- The sixth rule is that these rules apply to both men and women.
- The seventh rule is that women typically will not become huge and muscular from lifting weights, unless they are using anabolic steroids or have unique genetics.
Want to Get “Toned?” You Need to Experiment
So now that I gave you my Seven Rules of A Toned Body, I’m going to throw in a curve ball. You are allowed to break the rules. While these rules are based on experience and some research on optimal rep ranges and exercise specificity for building mass and strength, there can be considerable variation from person-to-person in terms of what their bodies respond to. Some people will put on muscle mass with higher reps, while others experience better results with lower reps (sometimes as low as 4-6 per set.)
The key here is to mix your routine up frequently (at least every 4-6 weeks) with different exercises and rep ranges to find what you respond to the best in order to hit your goals. If you find something that works, stick with it until it seems to stop working (which will happen) and then try a different approach — maybe a lower rep range or higher reps, or different exercises.
Also, understand that some muscles groups may respond differently to exercise based on each person’s unique genetics.
For example, some people find it very easy to put on muscle mass in the legs, but struggle to add mass to the upper body to balance things out. If this happens to you, you will want to modify your workout to preference upper body development, while maintaining or reducing lower-body mass through higher-reps (provided higher reps don’t add mass to the lower body for you.) Again, this is very individualized, and sometimes it requires a personal trainer to help you sort things out and find the right combination for you.
Consider Keeping a Workout Log and Getting “Visual” to “Get Toned”
Keeping a workout log can help you track your progress in terms of strength, but if you are trying to sculpt or change your appearance and put on more muscle, the best gauge of your progress is a visual check.
Because these changes take place gradually over time, you often don’t even notice them.
You may want to consider taking some “before and after” pictures of yourself to better visually measure how effective your training is. Do you have more muscle mass? Better muscle definition? Less body fat over all or a more “toned” appearance in your abs? Many people are surprised to look at themselves four or five weeks later and see something very different (and very good) from the “before” pictures. Over longer periods of time, these regular “progress pictures” can demonstrate some pretty radical transformations and help keep you motivated.
If you don’t see any real difference, show the pictures to someone else for a second opinion. We are often our own worst critics, and our own self-perceptions can literally cloud what we see. If, on the other hand, you really don’t see much progress, then it’s time to try a different approach.
Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, with the same result. If you want to add muscle, lose body fat and get that “toned body” you have to avoid that trap at all costs. Now that you understand how to actually get there, you’ve already made half the journey in achieving your fitness and body sculpting goals.