A 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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