Why everything you think you know about toning in fitness is wrong

The word ‘toning’ is seriously overused in the health and fitness world, and people refer to it incorrectly all the time. It’s not necessarily their fault, though. The epidemic of nonsense plaguing the industry has resulted in a widespread lack of clarity, not helped by masses of contradicting information. This piece aims to rectify the problem with some jargon busting — or perhaps jargon changing is more accurate. So, sit back and prepare for some major clarification on what being toned actually means.

What do people think toning is?

Many people believe toning means burning fat and building muscle at the same time, but this isn’t true. As a general rule, to build muscle mass, you must be in a caloric surplus (consuming more calories than you burn). But in order to lose fat, you must be in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than you consume). Clearly, it’s impossible to do both simultaneously. (There is one exception: body recomposition. However, this is super complicated and only applies if you are an absolute beginner, detrained, obese, or on steroids).

Often people may confuse doing both at the same time for one of two reasons. Firstly, if you have a high fat percentage and then burn some of this fat, your muscles become more exposed. Therefore, it appears like you have gained muscle when in fact there is just less fat covering them. The same applies if you build muscle. If your muscle mass increases, it looks like you have lost fat when in reality the fat tissue content has remained the same — your muscles are simply more visible.

Another misconception is that the muscle fibres themselves can be ‘toned’ and change shape. This is also incorrect. There are only two ways you can affect muscle: build muscle mass (by resistance training and being in a calorie surplus) or lose mass (by not resistance training and being in a calorie deficit). Neither of these impacts the shape or tightness of the muscle.

What is the true definition of toning then?

Before defining what toning is, let’s consider what it means to be toned. To be toned is to have defined muscle that shows through the skin. As an equation, it would be muscle mass + low body fat.

This is important. You can see here that significant muscle and a lack of fat are both features of a toned body, and this is where the confusion stems. Building muscle and losing fat are two different activities and, as we have already established, it is not possible to do them both at the same time. Muscle building and fat loss are separate things that— in combination— create a toned body.

How do you get toned?

As already mentioned, toning just means having defined, visible muscle. Put simply, if you’re skinny and want to become more toned, that would involve increasing muscle mass. If you’re overweight and want to become more toned, you would need to lose fat. In this regard then, toning’s definition changes depending on the person’s body composition.

In other words, toning is a relative word. It is relative because it depends on the composition of muscle or fat in an individual’s body. It does not concern muscle or fat exclusively, but their relationship to each other.

Think of your body as a garden. Maybe your flowers (muscles) are covered by overgrown grass (fat tissue). In order to expose those beautiful flowers, you just need to cut down the grass. Alternatively, perhaps you have short grass (minimal fat tissue), but few flowers (low muscle mass). So, to expose the flowers, you just need to grow them.

If you’re looking for a structured training programme to help you get toned, you must of course consider which will be best for your body type. Do you want to lose fat or build muscle? There are thousands of plans out there to help you achieve either of these goals.

To build muscle, there are decent programmes available for free on sites like Bodybuilding.com. For fat loss, you could go for high-intensity (HIIT) workouts or low-intensity. HIIT is helpful if you want to go easy on your joints, whereas low-impact exercises such as running or walking, also bring good results. If you’re not a fan of these conventional types of training, you could also try something different. For example, why not try a barre workout or a hula hooping workout? It is just as impactful as normal practices, and if you enjoy it more, will keep you doing it consistently. Make sure you don’t forget diet in this equation too— it’s just as important as your training.

Whatever exercise plan you follow, be careful not to get bogged down in believing you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. The best approach is to focus on one at a time. Then, when you’re in a balanced state of body composition, alternate between the different modes of training as you please. It is difficult to achieve, but this is probably your best bet for staying toned all year round. It’s a tenuous game held together by a balanced diet, consistent training and a hint of old-fashioned discipline.

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