Episode 05: What the Hell is Toning Anyways?

In Episode 05: What the Hell is Toning Anyways?, Geof and Todd discuss what they think “toning” is (other than marketing language), how it really doesn’t have a definition, is more of a journey than a destination, and if your goal is “to tone” what steps you might want to take to do so.

When asked about their fitness goals many people will say that they want to become more “tone”.  But what does this really mean?  If I (Todd) try to define it I might take it to mean tight skin and the absence of jiggly tissue.  To Geof it means the presence of muscle and the absence of fat.  And to you it might mean something totally different from either of us.

Since there is no definition of “toneness”, no scale of toneness, and no gradient for toneness, the topic is a little abstract.  Everyone knows what it is but we also cannot define it.  If we accept that being “tone” is the absence of fat and the presence of easily identifiable muscle groups then we at least have a starting point to talk about.

Since there is no ultimate definition of toneness and no objective quantifiable measurements, scales or gradients we have no way of saying that you’re “tone” or not “tone”.  Furthermore, people come in many different body shapes and sizes.  Can a shot put athlete get “tone”?  Can a super skinny person get “tone”?  Again it comes back to your definition of what tone actually is.  Geof thinks you can get tone with enough hard work and effort, maybe more effort than you’re willing to put in, whereas I don’t think that everyone has the “right” body to look “tone”.

And without getting into a deeper discussion on body dysmorphia, Geof and I both think that no matter how tone, fit, ripped, or jacked you get, the vast majority of people (>95%) will never reach a level of toneness (body image) they desire to get, no matter how hard they workout or diet.  This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t workout or watch what we eat but to understand that fitness or toneness or whatever it is that you want to call it is really more of a journey than it is a destination. 

You’re more than likely never going to get there and if you are one of the small minority of people who do get there, it is very difficult to stay there.  This is again, another reason why Geof and I stress choosing an exercise type, amount, and intensity that you enjoy because what’s the point in killing yourself for results you’re never going to achieve anyways?  The journey has to be as important, if not more important than the destination.  If you don’t like the exercise, you’re never going to stick with it, you’re going to fall off the wagon, and then you’ll be unhappy with your lack of exercise and your body.

But back to toneness.  Geof talks to clients all the time that want to tone up their arms or abs or legs or (insert body area here), when in reality the body doesn’t work that way.  In our podcast we bring up the term spot reduction.  Spot reduction is the concept that if you want flat abs, you do thousands of sit ups.  If you want nice arms, you do tons of bicep and triceps work.  You exercise the muscles that you want to get “tone”.  The problem with spot reduction is that it is not real.  Even if you do 10,000 sit ups, you might have nice abs but they’ll more than likely still be covered up with a layer of fat that prevents you from seeing them.  The body does not exclusively utilize the fat next to the muscle you are working.  The fat comes from fat sources all over the body (through the bloodstream), not just next to the muscle or within that muscle.  It is likely far more beneficial to focus on burning fat (overall) than it is to try to burn fat in one particular area.  With all that being said, to get “tone”, Geof and I recommend

  1. Restricting Your Calories to Lose Body Fat: to reveal the muscle you have, you need to lose the fat that resides just under your skin (subcutaneous) to reveal your muscle.  If you think about your body as being in layers, the outermost layer is your skin, the next layer is your fat, the next layer is your muscle and the next layer is your bone.  If you don’t reduce the layer of fat just under your skin, you’ll never see your muscle.

    Restricting your calories is more important than exercising to lose weight.  I like to say that it is easier to not eat a calorie in the first place than it is to burn if off (calorie for calorie not psycho-social-emotionally speaking).  For example, if you eat a McDonald’s quarter pounder meal, you’ll be consuming just over 1000 calories.  It is relatively easy to consume that meal within five minutes, especially if eating by yourself.  Conversely, it will take you roughly 200 minutes (3 hours 20 minutes) of walking (10 miles at 1 mile/20 minutes) to burn off those same 1000 calories with exercise.  Again, five minutes versus 200 minutes, what is easier?

  2. Do Cardio: the best type of exercise to burn the greatest number of calories is cardiovascular exercise (i.e. walking, running, swimming, biking).  If you’re going to lose body fat, you need to burn as many calories as you can in the time that you have for exercise and cardio does that job nicely.

    Some people will worry that if they choose running as their primary mode of exercise (and primarily use their legs) that they won’t lose body fat from their arms.  But this isn’t the case.  As we mentioned above, when you exercise, body fat is mobilized from your fat stores in your arms, your legs, your butt, your abdomen, your internal organs…..it is mobilized from everywhere.  So just because you are using a major muscle group (legs for cycling, shoulders for swimming) doesn’t mean that you won’t lose fat from the place you want to lose fat as well.  You can’t reduce fat from one particular spot but you can reduce fat from all over.  I wish it weren’t the case but it is.

    There is also the fear of becoming “skinny fat” which is an idiotic bro science term made up by trainers who prefer weight training to cardiovascular exercise.  The idea is that by doing so much cardio and staying in a catabolic state (state of breakdown) that you will burn calories and lose fat but you’ll also lose the muscle that you had in the first place.  So although you will be “skinny” the lack of muscle you have will make you look “fat”.   

    This is another non-contextual, moronic association that should not be applied to the general public and is only true in extreme cases.  If you look at Tour de France cyclists and the best long distance runners in the world, they are extremely skinny.  Running 100 miles/week or cycling 500 miles/week will cause you to lose body fat and that type of activity doesn’t build muscle in the way that weight training can build muscle. 

    Without getting too lost in the weeds, runners and cyclists utilize type I slow twitch muscle fibers in their training, which do not hypertrophy (grow in size) much when stimulated.  Instead these fibers pack themselves full of mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) to be able to generate more energy (ATP) to sustain prolonged exercise.  Weight lifters muscles grow in size because the muscle creates more contractile elements that are required to produce the amount of force they need per repetition (which is a lot) whereas cyclists muscles do not grow in size because their muscles are not creating more contractile elements.  Contractile elements are not the rate limiting factor for road cyclists or runners, generating ATP is, therefore, their muscles will build more mitochondria, which aren’t as “filling” or “mass producing” as building contractile elements are.

    The runners and cyclists will also have trouble eating enough calories to stay in an anabolic (building) state necessary to build muscle, even if they weight trained on the side…which they wouldn’t have energy for anyways, running or cycling that far is exhausting.  I’ve already written more than I wanted to on this topic but the bottom line is, these are professional athletes that must be extreme to be competitive in their sports.  This extremeness gives them their skinny look.  Unless you are taking your workouts to this extreme, you’re not going to be able to look like them, even if you tried.

    Which brings me to a final point that Geof and I didn’t directly discuss in the podcast but I’ll share with you now, people are deathly afraid of losing muscle.  Muscle is a good thing.  It is metabolically active and it helps us move and perform tasks.  But the amount of muscle (and strength) you’re going to lose by doing cardiovascular exercise isn’t great enough to be noticeable in your day-to-day life, unless of course you are a laborer or a soldier.  But for the vast majority of us, we have muscle to spare.  I don’t think people should do 100% cardio, they should try to incorporate some weight training but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be 90% cardio and 10% weights and still be healthy without becoming “skinny fat”.  Skinny fat is such a dumb term made up by fitness purists that are incapable of acknowledging that peoples’ bodies come in all shapes and sizes, some of which will never be capable of achieving the purity that these trainers have in mind.

  3. Lift Weights: one of Geof’s beef’s with toning is the old school version of lifting three pound pink weights 1000 times (Jane Fonda style).  This type of workout is far more cardiovascular in nature than it is strength training.  Doing this type of workout may yield some cardiovascular benefits and some muscular endurance, but it is not going to lead to an increase in muscle size, which you will likely need to be “toned”. 

    Muscle growth (hypertrophy) is going to require you to lift moderately heavy to heavy weights (but not super heavy) in a repetition scheme closer to 6, 8, 10, 12 or 15 repetitions per set, which will not add up to 1000s of repetitions over the course of a workout.  Traditional Jane Fonda type toning classes are far too heavy on the repetitions and not heavy enough on the weights.  A common fear among women is that they will “bulk up” and look like a man if they lift heavy weights.  And this can happen in rare circumstances but even women who have been lifting heavy weights for a long period of time, still aren’t manly looking.  It’s not until you supplement with testosterone (steroids) that you’ll start looking like a man.

    I think it is worth mentioning that in the previous section I said that we have more than enough muscle and in this section I suggested lifting weights to build more muscle.  This seems contradictory…and it is.  There is a balance to be struck between focusing on losing body fat and building muscle but both are built on fear.  Will I lose too much muscle and become “skinny fat”?  Or will I build too much muscle and look like a bulky man?  I don’t believe that for the vast, vast majority of people that these fears are warranted as it is difficult to build too much muscle and it is also difficult to lose too much muscle.  I could look up some research studies to quantify these points but I ask you to take my word on it.

    Personally speaking, I have weighed 195 pounds during months long weight training and I have also weighed 172 pounds during intense road cycling.  I typically fluctuate somewhere in-between these two weights (but closer to 195).  The point is, that I am very happy with either weight, provided I am actively cycling or weight training.  I have also weighed 203 pounds during my PhD when all I did was work on my dissertation and since I hurt my shoulder (embarrassingly doing lab work) wasn’t exercising.  I was very depressed at this time for a variety of reasons but one of which was I wasn’t happy with my body.  How 8 pounds can make such a difference is pretty crazy.

Geof and I are positive that you can find someone who will gladly take your money to perform a DEXA (full body x-ray) or an InBody (bioelectrical impedance) assessment to measure the amount of fat and muscle you have in various body segments (i.e. arms, legs, abdomen), give you a body type test (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph), and prescribe a specific workout regimen of strength and cardio along with a macronutrient (fats, proteins, carbs) meal plan for your body type but this is just overcomplicating things and I personally do not believe that all that effort will really yield much more than doing it on your own.

Yes, personal trainers can be useful and yes, dietitians can be useful but in so many cases it is needless to overcomplicate things.  It may make you feel better to follow a trainer’s particular program or a dietitian’s dietary advice but if it is not simple and doesn’t work with your life, it’s not going to stick.  For truly lasting change it has to come from you, not them. 

The vast majority of us will never reach the level of “toneness” that we would like to reach, so before striving for some unachievable goal by following some convoluted workout and dietary pattern try to think about what type of diet and exercise routine you enjoy and balance that with the rewards you receive.  Life is a balance.  Life is a journey.  Life is not a destination, although the marketing experts want you to believe that is.  Think of toning as a lifelong process, not a destination.

Our podcast music was generously provided by Sheridan.

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