Undoubtedly, when I consult with clients and ask about goals, I hear “I want to lose “xx” pounds and tone my “xx”.  While weight loss is certainly a very real goal to tackle, the idea of “toning your muscles” is one of the most misused phrases in fitness. There is no such thing as “toning your muscles.” Sorry, it doesn’t exist and although I understand the concept of what “toning” really is, for most people, it’s quite the opposite.  The concept of “toning” is a combination of two very real things: gaining muscle mass and reducing excess body fat. Let’s dive in and breakdown this concept.

Over the years, people have taken the word tone and redefined it to mean how lean we are and how defined our muscles appear. 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. The truth is, they’re the exact same thing.

In this context, muscle tone refers to having a sufficient amount of muscle mass, plus a low enough body fat percentage for that muscle to actually be visible.

So, the less fat you have covering your muscles, the more “toned” and “defined” and “sculpted” you’ll look. The more fat you have covering your muscles (or if there’s simply not enough muscle present), the less visible your muscles will be and the less “toned” you will appear.

So, whenever a person says they want to “tone up,” they’re really just saying they want their muscles to be more visible than they currently are.

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 another stubborn myth called spot training.

You see, spot reduction is the idea that you can burn fat from one specific area of the body by doing exercises that target that area. For example, arm exercises will supposedly target the fat on your arms, and leg exercises will supposedly target the fat on your legs.

And this will supposedly burn the ugly body fat that’s covering your muscles, thus revealing those pretty muscles and making them look toned.

Unfortunately, this isn’t actually possible, because exercises target muscles, not the fat on top of those muscles.

Spot reduction is just another myth that has been dis-proven over and over and this makes every training method built around it a myth just the same.

This is the most common reason why someone isn’t as toned as they’d like to be: Their body fat percentage is too high and there’s a layer of fat sitting on top of the muscle they want to see. This makes the person look “soft” and “flabby” rather than lean and toned.  Other times, the person will have a low enough body fat percentage, but they’re just lacking a sufficient amount of muscle mass. This makes the person look “thin” and “skinny” rather than lean and toned.  And in other cases, it’s a little of both. The person is lacking muscle and has too much body fat.

Here’s The Truth About Muscle And Fat

The truth is, in terms of your appearance, the only thing you can do to a muscle is make it bigger or lose muscle.  That’s it.

So how do you achieve the traditional notion of “muscle tone?” Simple: strength training and proper nutrition.

You can’t tone it, or sculpt it, or shape it, or define it, or “do anything else” it. 

Muscle is muscle. You can only increase or lose how much of it you have, or increase or decrease how much body fat is covering it.  And, like I explained earlier, getting “toned” is all about building enough muscle and losing enough body fat so the muscle you’ve built is sufficiently visible.

How Muscle Is Actually Built

Research shows that building muscle requires a particular type of stimulus – specifically tension, fatigue, and damage (scientifically speaking).

Building muscle also involves gradually getting stronger over time (aka progressive overload), and using the same super light, not-at-all-challenging weights over and over again for months/years is the opposite of that.

In addition, muscle is most effectively built when using a well-designed weight training program that incorporates optimal amounts of volume, frequency, and intensity. The typical “toning workout for women” takes none of this into consideration.

So, How Do You Get Toned?

It’s a simple 5 step process…

Step 1: Define your Goals.

You can’t achieve any results if you don’t know what goal you’re aiming for. 

Step 2: Work with a qualified professional to assess and evaluate what your starting point should be.

There’s nothing all that magical or complicated involved here.

Step 3: Program design.  Here is where people tend to trail off.  IG, FB and YouTube are fine media channels for information, but does that apply specifically to you?  Most often not.  True program design is specific to each individual in the following areas:

  1. Nutrition/Supplementation
  2. Resistance (strength) training
  3. Cardio
  4. Flexibility
  5. Coaching/Accountability

Step 4: Program implementation – 21 days to form a new habit

Step 5: 4-week follow up assessment

There you have it.To get the results of being “toned” you must change your body composition…period.  It all comes down to working out and eating right for your body type. That, along with minimizing body fat so your toned muscles can show through, is key.

Comments (2)

  1. Tabia


    Thanks Archie! This was very enlightening and encouraging to hear. It helped me understand the why’s and how’s to achieve certain transformation goals.

    • archiejr


      Tab, I’m here to help. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment…

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