Some Myths About “Toning”

20269516_700x700min_1A primary fitness goal for many people is to “tone” their muscles. This is a confusing word that is associated with some very large misconceptions about the way muscle responds to exercise. I am hardly the first to point out this problem, but it is so ubiquitous that I thought I should do my fair share to help remedy it. Here is brief explanation about some toning myths for those not already in the know.

The myth of the pink dumbbell

Many people use the word “toned” to refer to muscles that appear attractively fit, defined and healthy without being too bulky. Women are usually more interested in toned muscles than men, who are typically not averse to the development of conspicuously bulging muscles.

The most commonly prescribed exercise to make you “toned” is high repetition resistance training with a relatively light weight, preferably colored pink. Part of the reasoning here seems to be that using large weights would give an undesirable bulky look to the muscle (which apparently would be permanent). An unspoken rationale for the high reps is that this will lead to fat loss around the area of the working muscle.

Let’s clarify why this reasoning is misguided on several levels.

What toned really means

First, the real meaning of the word muscle “tone” has nothing to do with the size or definition of a muscle. Tone means the degree of its continuous, involuntary and very small contraction during rest. And this has absolutely nothing to do with the way a muscle looks. For example, a properly pumped up bodybuilding champion might have less tone in his pecs than me as I sit here typing this post.

So the difference between a toned and untoned bicep is not illustrated by comparing the arms of Jennifer Aniston to Oprah Winfrey. It is the difference between being fast asleep and using a computer mouse. Which by the way is probably just as good a workout for your bicep as many of the arm “toning” routines you may find recommended in many magazines.

How exercise affects muscle appearance

So if exercise doesn’t “tone” muscles, what can it do to change their appearance? There’s only two things that a muscle can do to change it’s appearance – get smaller or get larger. Despite what is often claimed by many pilates or yoga gurus, exercise does not lengthen muscles to give you the “long graceful shape of a dancer.” Think about it – to make a muscle longer you would have to pull apart the bones where the muscle endpoints attach.

And to make your muscles bigger, high rep light weights won’t cut it. If you can do more than thirty reps of a particular exercise, you probably aren’t using enough resistance to increase the size of the working muscles. I have seen many magazine articles illustrating muscle “sculpting” exercises with a weight no heavier than a purse.

The unspoken rationale for low weight/high rep exercise is that it will make the muscle look more defined by reducing fat around the muscle. This is the fallacy of spot reduction, which is impossible as described below.

The myth of spot reduction

Weight loss occurs as a result of a caloric deficit – expending more energy than you take in. Assuming a deficit exists, fat will be burned all over the body – not just in the specific local area where the exercise was done to help create the deficit. In other words, no matter how many arm curls you do, this won’t lead to any more fat loss around the arms than any other exercise that burns a similar amount of calories. Which by the way is a very small amount.

Muscles look defined simply because there is not that much fat around them. Increasing muscle definition is a simple consequence of losing fat all over, not doing magical exercises in the areas where you want definition. Therefore, if you lose enough weight, you will have a six pack regardless of whether you have ever done a crunch in your life. And all the crunches in the world will not reveal even a one pack if your body fat percentage never drops below the required level.

So next time you open a fitness magazine, notice how many times you see these myths exemplified. Then throw the magazine in the trash.

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16 Responses to Some Myths About “Toning”

  1. Wonderful Todd. Exercise physiologists derisively call it “the ‘t’ word” and know that its use means the speaker is clueless.

    Unfortunately, the speaker is often someone like Richard Simmons, and he is a force of nature.

    Perhaps I should say he is a force of – and that’s more powerful.

    In past seasons of “Survivor” the contestants all demonstrated better “tone” as the weeks wore on – and no one exercised.

  2. You’re mixing 2 differents ideas. It’s not “in other word”…

    Spot reduction:
    “Assuming a deficit exists, fat will be burned all over the body – not just in the specific local area where the exercise was done to help create the deficit.”

    Exercise not influencing the fat loss around the worked muscle:
    “In other words, no matter how many arm curls you do, this won’t lead to any more fat loss around the arms than any other exercise that burns a similar amount of calories.”

    I’m OK with point #1… but point #2 is hard to swallow.

    Blood flow influence fat storage/lost. _Adding_ high rep work for these _specific_ regions with poor blood flow will help a lot.

    • Francois,

      Thanks for pointing that out. I have heard that blood flow argument before, and my recollection is that it is more theoretical than practical for most people. I think a bodybuilder trying to lose those last ounces of fat in a certain area, after already getting down to the single digits in bf% might use spot reduction. But for the average exerciser my guess is that this is something that would not matter much and emphasis should be placed elsewhere.

      • I totally agree on “emphasis should be placed elsewhere”. Adressing the system first: diet and full body strength exercise is what works.
        But the stubborn fat does exist and gets people very frustrated…

        I’m just talking about doing some crunches (or whatever one like to trains his stubborn fat zone) here and there.
        Statics are good for blood flow too. I’ve noticed good results doing side planks (yes, love handles…) ~4*30sec, 3-4 times per day.

        It also plays with water retention: quick and visible effects which are good to keep someone motivated! :-)

  3. i had to have this uncomfortable conversation with my mother. she asked me why despite her toning classes, she doesn’t see her muscles being toned up. i had to tell her that it will be hard to see under a layer of fat. i also reminded her she needs to change the way she eats if she wants to SEE results. of course we have talked about food choices a million times before but it’s kinda like talking to a brick wall.

  4. Great post Todd. I hear “tone” so often. It always seems to me that people just can’t think of a more appropriate way to describe the result they are after. A few gentle prodding questions generally gets the answer out of them!


  5. Great work dispelling the “Toning” myth, but what about the “Calories in, calories out” myth?

    You are bang on that spot reduction only works for those last few percentage points, and that the appearance of”toning” is the result of lowing bodyfat, but by citing the calories in/calories out argument as an explanation you have just traded one myth for another.

    Many studies have shown that any energy deficit is usually made up through inaction, and exercise usually leads to more energy consumption.

    What is more important is whether the body is in a storage mode or not. In other words what hormetic state are you in?

    Ultimately it boils down to food quality IMHO.

    Love your blog, and your posts on movement are excellent, but promoting fat loss via caloric deficit is just another article in the magazine you mentioned, on the page after toning, and right before cellulite.

    • Devin,

      I didn’t use the phrase “calories in/calories out.” I said that you need a caloric deficit to lose weight, which is true. Even Gary Taubes will tell you that.

      Of course knowing that you need a deficit doesn’t tell you anything about how do achieve one. If I told someone they lost a baseball game because they didn’t score as many runs as the other team that would not be very helpful, but it wouldn’t be a myth.

      But this is not an article about how to lose weight, it’s just pointing out that spot reduction doesn’t really work.

  6. Excellent article, and all very true. Unfortunately, it is the very community to which I am affiliated with (Pilates) that continues promoting these myths. I can’t figure if it is ignorance, or just a sales tactic (what people want to hear). Even though I teach Pilates, I don’t subscribe to this “toning” with “pink” weights philosophy. I am actually honest with people and tell them about proper overload to the muscles to change their bodies. Now, with that being said, I have developed routines where I put movements back to back with moderate resistance and that overload (with progression) has worked like a charm! I’ve had back surgery (auto accident) and can no longer do moves like deadlifts, or heavy weights. Again, I have figured out a way to overload with lots of compound movements, and I am building muscle. The take home is that your muscles don’t know whether you lifted 3lbs or 20lbs, but you have to create an emergency so that they respond, repair, and grow stronger for the next workout. Can’t, don’t want to, or should not lift heavy? Get creative!

  7. Great post, Todd.

    @ Brian, I’d like to know some of your ways to “overload with lots of compound movements”. It might work for my restrictions, too.

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