What ‘toning’ your muscles actually means

Thin white women lifting small weights

Photo: BearPictures (Shutterstock)

The word “toning” is something of a joke in many fitness circles because it’s a word that gets thrown around when people mean something else. Sometimes it’s a code word for being lean, like when someone can promise you that a workout will tone your muscles rather than make you bulky. Other times it’s a lucrative bet, like when someone says you can do their toning exercises at home rather than buying weights or a gym membership instead.

Insofar as the word means something, we talked about it a bit when we discussed the fear of being intrusive. Being “toned” usually means having some muscle definition while still being able to see your body as feminine or lean.

What happens when you work a muscle?

When you ask your muscles to do something, they get better. While entire dissertations have been written about exactly what happens inside your muscle cells when you exercise, the way our muscles change when we lift weights mainly falls into two categories:

  • You improve the use of this muscle (neuromuscular adaptations)
  • The muscle grows (hypertrophy)

Of the two, only the second (the growing muscle) has a visual impact. Both affect your strength or, to put it another way, what you can To do with this muscle. Getting stronger and getting bigger happen together: YYou can try to favor one over the other, but strength training will give you bigger muscles as a side effect, and training for bigger muscles is next to impossible without also getting stronger.

Now the human body is complex, so of course there is no only two things that happen. But these are the main ones. Other things that happen, even if they are less visible:

  • Your muscles improve by repeatedly contracting (muscle endurance)
  • You burn calories during training

These characteristics are not exclusive to strength training. You burn calories and build endurance with cardio, like running.

These last two elements have no visible effect on your body. You can’t tell how good someone’s stamina is by looking at them. Burn calories can theoretically lead to fat loss or even muscle loss, but it also depends on the number of calories you consume. Exercise by itself does not change the amount of fat on your body.

So how do I get that “toned” look?

When we look at the visible changes we can make to our bodies through exercise, there are really only two things we can control:

  • We can make specific muscles bigger with resistance training (like lifting weights)
  • We can eat fewer calories than we burn, while doing resistance training to preserve muscle; it makes us lose fat all over our body.

Note that you can target the muscles you want to grow, but there is no way to lose fat on a specific part of the body. Fat distribution isn’t really in our control, which is why you can’t train for a flat stomach, or slim your thighs, or anything like that. You can work your muscles to make them bigger, and eating with a calorie deficit to make your whole body look smallerand see what happens.

To address a few other points discussed alongside toning: you cannot specifically build “long, lean muscle”. Lean simply means no fat, so if you want to look lean, you’re looking to lose fat.

And the length of a muscle is not something you can control: IIt’s attached to your bones. How would it be longer? Sometimes people want to say they don’t want their muscles to look rounded or have no bulge in their biceps, but that’s not really in our control either. Your attachment points and the length of your tendons in relation to the contractile part of the muscles are only things you were born with.

What is a “toning” workout for?

From what we know so far, you’d expect that if you want muscle definition while looking leaner, you’d have to lift weights and watch your diet. (You’d also be smart to do some cardio, which is good for health and won’t kill your earnings).

So what about all those “toning” workouts? Isn’t there an “invigorating” rep range? Don’t you need smaller weights to “tone up” than to get caught? Which give? Well I hate to tell you this but it’s all the bullshit people say to sell stuff.

Here’s the truth about rep ranges: Up to about 15 reps will do a pretty good job of building muscle and making you stronger. Anything up to about 30 reps can still build muscle if you take the lift to failure (i.e. at 30 reps your muscles are burning and you literally can’t do a another repetition). Beyond that — or if you do a set of high reps but land the dumbbells before you fail — you’re not doing much to increase your muscle size or strength. You’re still working on stamina, but stamina won’t change much in how your body looks.

What about the size of your weights? Well, to achieve those proper rep ranges, you have to lift weights that are “heavy” for you. Maybe you’re new to this and five pounds is a really tough bicep curl. Perfect! This is your “heavy”, for now. As you get stronger you will need heavier weights. (Keep in mind, though: different exercises use different muscle groups. Someone who uses a five-pound weight for curls will need a heavier weight to goblet squats.)

If your muscle-building exercises don’t involve weights, the same principles still apply. If you find it difficult to do 10 air squats, then air squats help you build muscle in your legs and buttocks. But if you can do 50, you’ll either have to add weight where to find a different exercises without equipment it is an appropriate challenge.

“Toning” workouts to avoid

If you’re determined to get “toned up,” the strength training you need to do is no different than what a person would do to get caught. The difference is that getting caught involves a lot of food (that muscle has to come from somewhere) and a lot of time. Even if you spend all your time at the gym, you won’t come out like the Hulk at the end of the year. That’s bad news for those who want to look like the Hulk and good news for those who don’t.

So you have to do normal weight training. With that in mind, let’s look at a few workouts that are marketed as being for “toning up”:

HIIT workouts: True HIIT workouts improve your aerobic capacity (making you a faster runner, for example) but they don’t have any particular calorie-burning or muscle-building benefits. Many popular are not even real HIITit’s just circuit training.

Circuit training: Doing a series of different exercises with little or no rest, then repeating that series, is called circuit training. It’s a mix of strength training and cardio, which makes it a good choice if you don’t have time for two separate workouts. The Crossfit WODs (workout of the day) also fall into this category. You’ll likely get better results if you separate the strength and cardio components, but if you like circuit training, this will do.

High repetition exercises without weights or with light weights: A lot of booty band and ankle weight Workouts fall into this category. If they feel hard enough to count as strength training, great! But most aren’t, especially once you’re no longer a beginner. At this point, they’re just training for endurance without actually building muscle. If you like them, or if endurance is important to you, take advantage of them. But they won’t “tone” you up at all.

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