What is toning, and how do you get there? Read on to find out the truth.

Debunking the “Toning” Myth

When it comes to how a body looks, everyone has their own ideal in mind. Some may feel content to fit into clothes. Other want to feel unashamed of their body when in public. Maybe it’s seeing a six pack in the mirror, or having your arms and legs have a little bit of “pop”. While goals are often different, the idea of feeling like you’re “toned” and tight is nearly universal.

However, “toned” is strangely defined, and there are lots of misconceptions about how to get “the look” – not too bulky, not to defined. So let’s talk about what toning is in our minds, what it is on a physical level, and the many myths surrounding toning.

What is Toning?

When people say they want to look toned, they generally want to become a leaner version of themselves. They want to lose fat (not just “weight”, but fat, as I’ll explain) and have just enough muscle to feel defined. They want to avoid the “bodybuilder” and “powerlifter” looks, where they are mounted with lots of muscle and almost no body fat.

“Toned” isn’t really a fitness term. There isn’t a physiological basis of “being toned”. Rather, “being toned” is a combination of  two physical changes.

  1. Losing fat – not just “losing weight”
  2. Maintaining or gaining some muscle

And to be toned is a combination of two factors.

  1. Low overall body fat – this allows the muscles underneath the fat to show. We all have muscles, the shape is simply hidden underneath a little body fat.
  2. Healthy amount of muscle mass – just enough to be prominent when fat is no longer there. How much muscle is up to you.

 

Losing Fat vs. Losing Weight – Is there a difference?

I mentioned above that toning up means you are losing fat, not weight. What I meant was, when you tone up, you won’t necessarily see the scale change numbers. The ideal is that you lose fat and keep some muscle. Well, losing weight means the goal is simply to change the scale number – to move from a bigger number to a lower number. It doesn’t take into account body composition, or what the weight is comprised of! So a person who weighs 250 pounds, and has lots of fat-free mass looks totally different from a person who weighs 250 pounds and has only moderate fat-free mass.

Here’s a visual example of two men.

Difference between BMI and Body Fat Percentage

At the same height and weight, the first person looks:

  • Leaner around the entire body
  • More muscular
  • Much healthier (I’m sure he is!)

Yet, they have the same weight. That’s all because muscle and most fat-free tissues weigh more than fat! Of course, there’s another lesson here about ignoring the numbers on the scale, but I’ll save that for another day. So the ultimate goal, pretty much for everyone, is to lose fat, not just weight! This is especially true if you’re trying to get toned.

Now that you know what being toned is, and what it actually is physically, let’s debunk some myths!

 

The WORST Myth: Women and men should do different exercises.

Somewhere along the line, people abandoned the idea that men and women were of the same species. So now, when I go to the gym, I see women sticking to cardio machines and doing high rep, low weight exercises. Press 3 pound dumbbells 100 times may burn you out, but it won’t be stressing your fitness enough to adapt. The same exercises that improve mens’ muscles – big, compound exercises – will improve womens’ muscles.

My message to women: don’t fear the weight differentials. Men are naturally a little stronger, but not that much stronger, and women can certainly crush some men in weightlifting with a little training. You won’t see yourself getting toned pushing up too-light weights.

So if you’re trying to lose fat, or build muscle, or get toned, make sure you have a plan for strength training.  For beginners, I recommend 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, where the last few reps feel difficult to complete, but not impossible. That will force your body to adapt with more muscle and fat burning.

For the best training experience, and to get toned rapidly, you’ll want to do the big compounds – squats, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, rows. And, if you have no gym or want to go gym-free, stick to exercises like push-ups, pull-ups/chin-ups, dips, and squats. I’ll post about each exercise in an upcoming post, with a focus on the gym-free exercises.

Even if you want to focus down on single vanity body parts, like the abs or legs, you will see better fat burning and toning if you stick with the exercises above. After doing those, you can do “finishing touches” on especially desired muscle groups. Strength training has a place in everyone’s routine.

 

Myth: High reps with light weights will tone your body. Lifting heavy weights will make you bulky.

This is simply untrue. Muscle is muscle. What determines if you are “toned” is the combination of having muscle, and losing fat to expose it.

Here’s what the different rep schemes really do.

  • High rep (able to do 12+ reps per set), low weight exercise will not “make you more toned” than heavy weights, but it will increase your muscular endurance, the ability for muscles to lift the same weight more times. It will also build stronger muscles. I explain why in the next myth.
  • Low rep (able to do 5-12 reps per set), higher weight exercise will primarily help increase muscle size and strength. You will see increased muscular endurance, but not as much as high rep, low weight exercise.
  • Very low rep (1-5 reps per set) create strength by training your Central Nervous System (CNS). That is, it trains your brain to lift, rather than creating a metabolic environment to produce more muscle. You’ll see major strength gains, but less muscle development in this rep range.

So, both men and women who didn’t desire a “bodybuilder” look avoided lifting heavy weights, believing they would explode into muscle. This is untrue. While heavy weights will help you build muscle and strength – and can certainly increase the muscle size – it will not make you look like Arnold. Remember that guys like that train 5-6 days a week, eat inordinate amounts of food, and dedicate their lives to the pursuit.

Not to say your body is hard to reach. For example, having a body like mine is possible without that level of dedication. I got to this level with 3-4 workouts a week, with a flexible diet. If you want less, then it’s even easier!

45 degree - Jan 2015
Side Shot – January 2015
Frontal Shot - Jan 2015
Ab Shot – January 2015

Lifting any weight has awesome benefits for fat burning. Having more muscle means your body burns more calories. Muscle, simply by existing, burns more calories than fat does! So say goodbye to endless running that gets you nowhere. Lift your body, or weights, and thrive.

 

Myth: High rep, light weights don’t build (much) muscle.

Now here’s a tricky question. A lot of bodybuilding circles say that anything over 20 reps does nothing for strength, and may even hinder strength development. Let’s explore this.

Growing stronger and building muscle is mostly due to diet and forcing your body to adapt. Lifting heavier weight is definitely conducive to building more muscle and getting stronger.

What is less known is that high rep, light weight workouts can contribute to building muscle. A 2010 study at McMaster University demonstrates evidence that high rep, low weight exercise to failure produced similar muscular adaptation as low rep, high weight exercise. A similar conclusion was found in a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

So you can recruit the same muscle fibers used in heavy weights, as long as you force your body to use them by fatiguing your smaller muscle motor units. In plain English, if you work your lighter weights to  failure, you can make your muscles bigger and stronger.

 

Myth: “Building muscle” means getting way too bulky.

Building muscle and bulking are drastically different. Here’s why:

Let’s define building muscle first. Building muscle is a physiological change where you gain muscle tissue. This happens when your body moves against resistance, either lifting weights, or simply lifting up your own body like in push-ups. Lifting creates micro-tears in your muscle fibers. This tells your body that it needs to repair and strengthen that muscle. With rest and food, the tears are repaired, and the muscle comes back stronger and slightly larger.

I want to emphasize “slightly larger”. It’s a common mistake to think that lifting heavy a few times a week will make you Arnold. It won’t. Bodybuilders can train 5 times a week, sometimes multiple times a day. They take an array of supplements and have bulletproofed diets with every meal planned out and prepared.

If you’re among the genetically gifted who notices you lose fat and maintain muscle that easily, you can simply dial back your lifting. That’s what I call a “high quality problem”. An analogy – being scared of working because you don’t want to become “too rich”.  you can always stop working out when you feel amazing.

 

So there you have it! Hopefully this clears up what “toning” really is. Next article I’m planning will be a look at cardio, and how it relates to body recomposition. I’ll see you then!

 

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About the author

Aaron Dear

Aaron Dear is a fitness advocate, bodyweight athlete, and product manager from Berkeley, California.

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