What It Actually Means to ‘Tone’ Your Muscles

Thin white women lifting small weights

Photo: BearFotos (Shutterstock)

The word “toning” is something of a joke in many fitness circles, because it’s a word that’s thrown around when people mean other things. Sometimes it’s a code word for being thin, as when somebody may promise you that a workout will tone your muscles rather than making you bulky. Other times it’s a moneymaking gambit, as when somebody says you can do their toning exercises at home rather than buying weights or a gym membership instead.

To the extent that the word means anything, we talked about this a bit when we discussed the fear of getting bulky. Being “toned” usually means having some muscle definition while still being able to see your body as feminine or thin.

What happens when you work a muscle?

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

  • You get better at using that muscle (neuromuscular adaptations)
  • The muscle gets bigger (hypertrophy)

Of the two, only the second one (the muscle getting bigger) has a visual impact. Both of them affect how strong you are, or to put it another way, what you can do with that muscle. Getting stronger and getting bigger happen together: You can try to favor one over the other, but training for strength will get you bigger muscles as a side effect, and training for bigger muscles is pretty much impossible without also getting stronger.

Now, the human body is complex, so of course there aren’t only two things that happen. But those are the main ones. Other things that happen, if less noticeably:

  • Your muscles get better at contracting repeatedly (muscular endurance)
  • You burn calories during the workout

These features aren’t exclusive to strength training. You burn calories and build endurance with cardio, too, such as running.

These last two items do not have a visible effect on your body. You can’t tell how good somebody’s endurance is by looking at them. Burning calories can theoretically result in fat loss, or even muscle loss, but that also depends on how many calories you eat. 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 (such as lifting weights)
  • We can eat fewer calories than we burn, while also resistance training to preserve muscle; this causes us to lose fat all over our bodies.

Note that you can target which muscles you want to get bigger, but there’s no way to lose fat on a specific body part. Fat distribution isn’t really under our control, which is why you can’t exercise your way to a flat tummy, or slim your thighs, or anything like that. You can work your muscles to make them bigger, and eat in a calorie deficit to make your whole body smaller, and see what happens.

To address a few other things that get discussed alongside toning: You can’t build “long, lean muscles” specifically. Lean just means without fat, so if you want to look lean, you’re looking at fat loss.

And the length of a muscle isn’t something you can control: It’s attached to your bones. How would it get longer? Sometimes people mean that they want their muscles not to look rounded or not to have a peak in their bicep, but that’s not really under our control either. Your attachment points and the length of your tendons versus the contractile portion of the muscles are just things you’re born with.

What does a “toning” workout do?

Based on what we know so far, you’d expect that if you want muscle definition while looking slimmer, you’d need to lift weights and pay attention to your diet. (You would also be smart to do some cardio, which is good for your health and won’t kill your gains).

So then what’s with all these “toning” workouts? Isn’t there a “toning” rep range? Don’t you need smaller weights for “toning” than for getting jacked? What gives? Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s all bullshit people say to sell stuff.

Here’s the truth about rep ranges: Anything up to about 15 reps will do a pretty good job of growing your muscles and making you stronger. Anything up to about 30 reps can still grow your muscles if you take the lift to failure (that is, by rep 30 your muscles are burning and you literally can’t do another rep). Beyond that—or if you’re doing a high rep set but you put the dumbbells down before you hit failure—you’re not doing much to increase the size or strength of your muscles. You’re still working on endurance, but endurance isn’t going to do much to change how your body looks.

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

If your muscle-building exercises don’t involve weights, the same principles still apply. If it’s hard for you to do 10 air squats, then air squats are helping you to build muscle in your legs and butt. But if you can do 50, you’ll need to either add some weight or find a different no-equipment exercise that is appropriately challenging.

“Toning” workouts to avoid

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

So you need to do normal-ass strength training. With that in mind, let’s look at a couple of workouts that get marketed as being for “toning”:

HIIT workouts: True HIIT workouts improve your aerobic capacity (making you a faster runner, for example) but they don’t have any special advantage in calorie burning or muscle building. A lot of popular ones aren’t even real HIIT, they’re just circuit training.

Circuit training: Doing a series of different exercises with little to no rest, and 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 to do two separate workouts. Crossfit WODs (workout of the day) fall into this category, too. You’ll probably get better results if you separate the strength and cardio components, but if you enjoy circuit training, it’ll do the job.

High-rep 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 are not, especially once you’re not a beginner anymore. At that point, they’re just training endurance without actually building muscle. If you like them, or if endurance is important to you, enjoy. But they’re not going to “tone” you at all.

   

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