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Why Workout Routines for Toning Fail | Fitness Tips

Posted Sep 26 2008 3:21pm

If your fitness goal is to get a ‘toned body’, you’ve probably been doing all the wrong things with your workout routine. Learn what “toned” really means and how you can achieve it.

It’s almost impossible to pick up a fitness magazine and not find a reference to “toning your abs”, “toning your butt” or “toning your legs or thighs.” Picture of Fit Woman Toning Her Body on a Cable Weight Machine

But I’m going to let you in on one of the best kept secrets in fitness: There really is no such thing as “toning” or being “toned” — at least in the sense of what people normally associate with ”toned muscle” or a ”toned body.”  

There is a concept in anatomy and physiology called residual muscle contraction or tonus, but it refers to the continuous and partial contraction of a muscle to help stabilize posture and balance. It has nothing to do with the outward appearance of your body or whether you have tight glutes and washboard abs. You can be out of shape and struggle to climb a flight of stairs and still have muscle tonus.

So what’s the story? What is this “toning” that everyone is always talking about?

How the “Toned Body” Myth Got Started

At some point years ago, fitness writers, personal trainers and people who really ought to know better started using the term “toned” to describe individuals with high muscle mass to low body fat ratios. Instead of saying that an athlete, fitness model or highly-in-shape person was “lean and muscular” they started saying the person was “toned.”

Why this happened isn’t exactly clear. My theory is that the words “muscle” and “muscular” are scary and intimidating for some people, especially to many women who have been conditioned to run as fast as they can from the dreaded “M-Word.” The seemingly endless stream of articles online and in major fitness magazines instructing women how not to ”bulk up” and avoid become “muscular” via workout routines for “toning” is a major contributor to this myth.

So fitness writers and trainers started to use “toned” as a way of describing being muscular, without actually saying the word “muscular.” It seemed innocent enough, and it allowed them to not have to get into big, long, involved and uncomfortable discussions with their clients about why they should top obsessing on becoming too “bulky.”

You Can’t Diet or Treadmill Your Way to “Toned”

The problem is, to get a body that fits most people’s definition of “toned”, you have to weight train. And you generally have to go heavy. And you need to put on muscle mass. And you’ll have to drop your body fat ratio.  That’s the secret. Those four things. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a male or a female. It applies equally regardless of gender.

This may seem like an issue of semantics and a little thing, but it’s not. The problem is that “toned” has become a euphemism for “lean and muscular”, yet most people don’t realize that. They think “toned” is something you achieve by dieting, doing endless bouts of cardio and maybe occasionally doing some pilates or high-rep, low-weight resistance training.

So by obscuring what “toning” really means, we’ve doomed all kinds of people to pursuing toning workout routines that will likely never allow them to achieve their fitness, physique or body-shaping goals. They’ll continue to avoid any kind of serious weight training, go too light on the resistance, focus on high reps that only improve muscle endurance (not size or shape),  put way too much time and attention on ”functional” exercises and try to stair-step their way to a “toned” body.

And when it doesn’t work, they’ll go seek out the newest “30 Minute Body Toning Workout” and get right back on the hamster wheel again, only to be frustrated in three weeks when nothing has changed.  Maybe that’s how you sell fitness magazines and personal training sessions, but I’d prefer to think we’re in the business of helping people succeed, not just pushing services or content.

There’s A Whole ‘Lotta Toning Going On

So how pervasive is this term or concept of “toning?”

It’s probably one of the most frequently asked questions in the Diet and Fitness section of Yahoo Answers — especially among women (although I do see some men using it.) Typically, it will come in the form of a question like: “How can I get toned without becoming bulky?” or “Does anyone have any toning exercises that won’t make me put on muscle.”

Of course, if they hadn’t been sold the “myth of toning” and understood exactly what that term really meant, their questions would be absurd.

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