What is “Toning” Really About?

I want to tone my: Ass, arms, hips, thighs, abs, shoulders, cheeks, my other cheeks, my left pinky, my right big toe, and my oboe.  Oh yea, it’s tune my oboe.

Toning is a hot topic, with over 25 million Google search results, nearly infinite chatter on message boards, and lots of whispers amongst those in the back row of your local spin class.  “Is this going to help me tone my [Fill in the blank]?”  “Only if you’re vegan, according to Dr. Oz.”  That’s right, I see you back there:


Discussing the origin and meaning of words is more fit for a literature debate than a workout, yet we should clarify something.  Toning doesn’t really mean anything.  That is, in academia, there’s no such thing as toned.  In popular culture, though, that’s a different story.  I’m sure that everyone has their go-to image of what a “toned” body looks like, or how “toned” they want their body to be.  In our slang culture, “Toned” is a completely normal word to use.  Now, if only the fitness oligarchy would catch up.

See, in school, what most people refer to as “toned” is best described as lower body fat percentages and the presence of muscle.  Toned is low body fat percentages and the presence of muscle.  Let’s differentiate now:  If you like to use the word toned, repeat after me: “Low body fat percentage and the presence of muscle.”  If you’re a trainer who seeks to eradicate this word from our vocabulary, repeat after me: “What people really want is to be toned.”

Great, now we’re all on the same page.

As a trainer, I’ve spent too much time trying to “re-educate” my clients about what toned means.  I’ve tried to explain that we’ll reduce body fat and strengthen muscles, and that combination will give the toned look.  This conversation served really well at making my female clients believe I didn’t understand their goals, and it wasted precious minutes from the “toning” exercises that we should have been doing.

Can I let you in on a little secret?  Exercises for toning are no different than other strength training exercises.  Dieting for toning is no different than the small adjustment made for fat loss, and sometimes, hypertrophy.  It’s that simple.

Doing one without the other doesn’t work as well as you’d like to believe.  Strength training without adjusting your diet may mean that we’re under or overfed.  This could lead to us feeling more tired than we expected, or if we’re in a caloric surplus, perhaps we build more muscle than we want.  On the other hand, a lack of strength training fails to tell our body that muscle is important to maintain, so dieting without strength training can make it easier to achieve the “skinny fat” look, rather than a toned one.

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In my opinion, this stream of toning-centric quick fixes miss the big picture.  This is about sustainable and maintainable change, not a weekend of feeling sexy before we rebound.  (Click to tweet!)  This means that most training is more similar rather than it is different.  If you have the focus to work on the body that you want, here are my top 5 tips for how to get the body of your dreams, including toning:

  1. Eat appropriately to support your goals.  This may be a caloric surplus, or it may be a caloric deficit.  Within your calorie total, consume an appropriate amount of protein
  2. Sleep 8 hours per night, drink an appropriate amount of water.
  3. Focus on major movement patterns.  This includes exercises such as deadlifts, pull-ups, squats, push-ups, hip thrusts, rows, single leg work, and core stability work.
  4. Include an appropriate amount of high-intensity interval training after you’ve gotten stronger at the ‘big lifts.
  5. Balance high-intensity work with appropriate low-intensity work.  This includes walking, cycling, dancing, or ellipticizing.  These workouts should be energizing more than they’re exhausting.

These 5 tips are the key to “toning” your body as you dream.  It’s also the 5 tips that are most suitable for fat loss.  And for getting stronger.  And for hypertrophy.  And for virtually every health and hotness goal you can possibly have.  When you’re making exercise a part of your life, that list should help direct you towards where your priorities should be.  “Toning” isn’t about body fat, and “toning” isn’t about muscle.  It’s about creating a look that let’s us feel confident and sexy.

If you’re working out solo follow this framework for success.  If you’re a trainer, take a moment to trainbefore you engage in a semantics discussion about “toning” not being a real word.  It’s real enough that our family, friends, and clients are using it, so that means it’s something we should talk about.

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