“I want to get toned” is a ubiquitous statement in the personal training and weight loss arena. I don’t know how many times I have had clients say it or the number of times I have seen it written. But what does it really mean? When I ask people what they mean when they say it I get a number of answers. After a brief discussion with them, the general conclusion is they want to lose fat, and look lean and fit. They also stress that they don’t want to get “muscular” or “big and bulky”. They don’t want to look like a bodybuilder, as if it was as easy as lifting weights a few times a week for 30 minutes. There is no problem with wanting to get “toned”. The problem has to do with being clear about what that really means and how you can actually accomplish it.
First, there needs to be a clear definition of what being “toned” is. Although there will be varying views and preferences, I think most people would agree with the following definition of “toned”;
“Having a body fat level that is low enough so that the contours of the muscles have a greater level of visibility resulting in a more fit or athletic look”
So looking “toned” comes down to how much body fat is covering the muscles. Therefore, depending on where people hold their fat stores, some parts of the body will more “toned” than others. Why certain areas will have more or less fat, at a given level of body fat, is largely due to genetics/gender/hormones. For example, it is common to see a guy with “toned” arms but still have a good size belly. In females, it is common to have a more defined upper body, but still have a good amount of extra fat in the lower body. As a side note, when it comes to health, extra fat in the lower body is typically NOT a health risk (Janssen et al). The resulting distribution of fat stores on a particular individual will usually lead to a desired to lose fat in a specific area or areas. In general, men want to lose weight from their midsection and women want to lose weight from their backside and thighs. It is an understandable goal, but can you really “tone” a specific area?
Toning a specific area, which means losing fat in that area, leads to a discussion of “spot reduction”. There is no lack of programs and gadgets, such as The Contour Belt©, 6 Minute Abs©, Brazil Butt Lift©, Hip Hop Abs©, and many others that promise to help you “tone” a certain part of the body. But can these really deliver on their promise? The short answer is NO, but here is why. Spot reduction is based on the idea that if you work the muscles in the area that you want to “tone” (lose fat) the body will specifically breakdown or burn the fat in that area ONLY, or to a much higher degree than working other muscles. Sounds good, but it really does NOT work that way. There is some increase in fat breakdown but it has such a minor affect that it has no real-world benefit (Stallknecht et al). When it comes to those electric “ab belts” there is no evidence that they will help you lose fat in the midsection (Porcari et al; Porcari et al). This is well known physiology and anyone who calls themselves a health and fitness professional should know this. As mentioned before, what dictates what fat will be burned is largely dictated by genetics/gender/hormones. Diet and exercise can have an effect, but not in a spot reduction way. What I mean is that exercise in GENERAL and a low carbohydrate diet can help the body specifically use or burn fat that is in the midsection (visceral fat) (Freedland). Again, to be clear, working a muscle that is next to the area you want to “tone” will NOT have any REAL-WORLD affect on the amount of fat that will be burned in that area, therefore it will NOT reduce the fat in that area any more than exercise that works another area. (Please memorize that last sentence).
Associated with this discussion is the idea that you can build muscle from exercise and that this affect will make you look more “toned”. There is no doubt that increasing the amount of muscle has the potential for improving one’s appearance. However, unless the amount of fat that is covering the muscle is reduced, you will NOT look more “toned”. When it comes to gaining muscle, exercise, particularly weight training, can be a good stimulus for it. However, for those people that are trying to get more “toned” typically they need to lose a good amount of weight, probably 30 pounds or more. This means that the person will have some level of calorie deficit which will hopefully be compensated by an increase in the utilization body fat. But, what often occurs during weight loss is that fat and muscle are broken down, to varying degrees, to make up for the calorie deficit. One benefit of exercising during weight loss, getting “toned”, is that it can help preserve muscle tissue and make the body burn more body fat (Stiegler et al; Volek et al). This affect seems to be enhanced with a low carbohydrate diet. In fact, there is some research that demonstrated the ability of a low carbohydrate diet with resistance training to elicit fat loss and increase lean tissue (Volek). However, this affect will probably not occur in most people and even if it did the amount of lean tissue gained is only a very small fraction of the amount of fat that would be lost. The point here is that you should do some exercise on a regular basis, it has numerous health benefits, and it may help you lose weight, particularly fat. But, when you are trying to lose fat, get “toned”, it is not likely you will increase the amount of muscle you have.
A final aspect about getting “toned” is loose skin. There are no hard numbers on the occurrence, but having loose skin after losing a substantial amount of weight is possible. The likelihood of this occurring is due to genetics, age, how big you were, how long you were big, and how much weight you have lost. If this should happen to you I am afraid to tell you that it is not likely that you will be able to modify this with exercise, diet, or other lifestyle habits. Your best bet to help modify this problem is to gain some muscle. After you have reached your goal weight you should focus on an intense weight training program, along with the proper nutrition plan. However, for most people, particularly older people and women, it is not likely that you will gain a lot of muscle tissue. Therefore, you can help fill-in the loose skin by building muscle, but it is not likely you will be able to have a substantial affect on the looseness.
Here is the take home message, if you want to get “toned”, follow a quality eating plan (read SPEED), and do some weight training for the whole body a few days a week and do some cardio two or three days a week. The most important thing is sticking to it (read SPEED). This is certainly not exciting, and it will likely not turn into a million dollar infomercial, but it may save you some time and money and will actually get you “toned”.
Freedland, E. (2004). Role of critical visceral adipose tissue threshold (CVATT) in metabolic syndrome: implications for controlling dietary carbohydrates: a review. Nutr & Metab; 1(12).
Janssen, I. et al (2004). Waist circumference and not body mass index explains obesity-related health risks. Am J Clin Nutr; 79: 379-384.
Porcari, J. et al (2002). Effects of electrical muscle stimulation on body composition, muscle strength, and physical appearance. J Strength & Conditioning Research; 16(2): 165-172.
Porcari, J. et al (2005). The effects of neuromuscular electrical stimulation training on abdominal strength, endurance, and selected anthropometric measures. J Sports Science & Medicine; 4: 66-75.
Stallknecht, B. et al (2007). Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? Am J Physiol Endo Metab; 292: E394-E399.
Stiegler, P. et al (2006). The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports Med; 36(3): 239-262.
Volek, J. et al (2004). Comparison of energy-restricted very low carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women. Nutr & Metab; 1(13).