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Why You’ll Never Get ‘Toned’

The next time you’re standing next to a magazine rack, glance at the headlines. I can guarantee you’ll come across more than one cover that promises exercises to “tone” your arms, legs, abs and more. And it’s not just magazines: The word “tone” or “toned” has become ubiquitous when we talk about exercise and fitness, especially as it relates to women. Nearly every woman I know has mentioned the word to me when talking about her goals. “I want to look toned” is a common refrain. But the word “toned” is misused and misleading. Here’s why:

1. The word is misused.

Toned is not how muscles look; it’s something they do. Muscle tone is defined as the continuous partial contraction of muscles. So since we all have muscles, we all (already) have muscle tone. When you say you want to “get toned” or “tone up,” what you usually mean is that you want to see your muscles and have visible muscle shape. The thing is, your muscle already has shape and tone, it’s just covered up by fat. So as long as it’s hidden under that layer of fat, no amount of “toning” will help you get the look you want.


2. Advice on how to get toned is wrong.

Most of the widely-circulated articles about getting “toned” tell women to use light weights or their body weight and to do a high number of repetitions. They say that doing so will allow you to get toned without looking too bulky or muscular. While you may be thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do,” this advice couldn’t be more wrong.

Solid muscle mass is what makes your body look firm and shapely. To achieve shapely muscles, you need to build muscle mass and lose body fat. Bicep curls with 5-pound dumbbells won’t get you anywhere. To build muscle, you need to challenge your muscle fibers, which means your lifting sessions need to feel hard. You should pick a weight that allows you to do no more than eight to 12 repetitions, after which you feel like you can’t do anymore.

3. It assumes heavy weightlifting will make women “too” muscular.

The idea of being “toned” revolves around the assumption that if a woman lifts more than a 5-pound weight, she’ll look like a bodybuilder. This fear is unfounded: Women don’t have enough natural testosterone to build bulky muscles. Sure, there are some women who put on muscle faster than others. But for the majority of women, lifting heavy weights will make them look smaller, not bigger, since muscle takes up less space than fat. Plus, since muscle burns more calories than fat, the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism will be. A higher metabolism helps to burn more fat, even at rest, which means those shapely muscles will show up more and you will look – yes – “toned.”

4. You can’t spot reduce body fat.

As nice as it would be, we can’t tell our bodies where to shed fat. There is no way to only get rid of the fat on your arms or your stomach; the body chooses where the fat loss comes from. What you can do is incorporate exercises that work all the major muscle groups. This is the most effective way to lose body fat. The more muscles you use during exercise, the more calories (and fat) you burn. And the more muscle you build, the higher your metabolism will be and the more fat you will burn – even at rest.

If you want your muscles to show up, you need to incorporate regular weight training with heavier weights at least three days per week. Incorporate exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once, including squats, lunges, deadlifts, chest press, rows and overhead presses. Pick a weight that feels hard to lift more than eight to 12 reps, and perform two or three sets of each exercise.

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