1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Can You Really 'Tone' Your Body?

Why toning is a myth

By

Updated May 27, 2014

Toning Upq
Paul Conrath Collection/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"I really need to get toned up." I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that. You've probably said it a million times...heck, I've said and I even know better. What I'm talking about is the idea of 'toning' your body. Most people think that toning means getting more definition and firmer muscles. And how do you get more definition? By doing more reps with lighter weight, of course! But what you may not know is that this idea of toning the muscles is only a myth.

What 'Toning' Really Means

So what is toning? The word tone simply describes the state of your muscles. When at rest, your muscles are in a constant state of partial contraction in order to be ready for action. The 'tone' of your muscles is involuntary, so you can't change it by lifting weights a certain way.

Over the years, people have taken the word 'tone' and redefined it to mean how lean we are--how defined our muscles appear. In fact, it's even a gender specific word. Women go to the gym to 'tone up' while men go to the gym to lift weights and build muscle but, the truth is, they are the exact same things. Becoming lean and building muscle requires lifting weights, the difference is in how much you lift.

While you can lift weights to change your body, you're limited as to what you can really change about your muscles. In a nutshell, this is what your muscles can do:

1. Grow larger and/or stronger
2. Shrink smaller and/or get weaker

You can't make a muscle longer (without surgery) and you can't etch it into a certain shape or look. If your goal is to see your muscles, your goal isn't toning--it's losing body fat. And, whether you're a man or woman, wanting to bulk up or slim down, you'll do the same kinds of exercises and training methods. The difference lies in the weights, reps and sets you'll do, as well as how many calories you take in (more if you're building muscle, less if you're trying to lose fat).

You may be wondering why it matters if you believe in toning or not. The problem with the idea of toning is that it leads to that other stubborn myth...

Spot Training

The myth of toning is often tangled up in the myth of spot training. Someone might say, "I want to tone the back of my arms, so I'm going to do triceps exercises." Fine...you can (and should) work your triceps muscles, but that isn't going to get rid of the fat around your triceps, which is what keeps you from seeing that muscle. If you reduce your calories, lift weights and do some cardio, you can lose body fat. Can you lose it over your triceps? Sure you can...but only your body will decide when (or if) the fat over that particular area will go.

So, What's the Point?

If I've convinced you that toning doesn't exist and that you can't spot train, you might be wondering why you should even bother lifting weights. If a bicep curl isn't going to make your biceps more visible, why do it? This is where a shift in perspective needs to happen. Instead of focusing on individual body parts (i.e., I need more defined shoulders), you need to focus on the whole body (i.e., Working my whole body--with cardio and weights--will help in my overall goals). To make this shift in perspective, it helps to know what strength training will do for you:

  • You'll build muscle, which helps with fat loss in the long-term. A pound of muscle can burn about 20-30 calories a day. A pound of fat burns about 5 calories a day. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn all day.
  • You'll strengthen muscles and connective tissues which helps you perform better (whether in daily activities or physical activities) and reduces risk of injury.
  • You'll preserve muscle mass as you age. We naturally lose muscle over time, unless we lift weights.
  • You'll build stronger bones.
  • You'll improve your flexibility, stability and balance.
  • You'll feel better about yourself.

Getting More Definition

After all you've read here, you may be wondering exactly what to do to get more definition in your body. The answer is simple: Lose body fat. To lose body fat you need 3 key elements: Regular cardio exercise, consistent strength training for all your muscle groups and a healthy, low-calorie diet. Check out these Weight Loss Resources for some tips on getting started.

One last note: Whatever your goal or gender, don't be afraid of heavy weights. It takes a lot of hard work to bulk up--even men can find it difficult, never mind women (who don't have enough testosterone to get huge muscles).

For more information and ideas, visit these resources:

Related Video
Learn how to Strengthen and Tone your Triceps Muscles

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.