How many times have you seen the front of a magazine claim to get you the ‘abs you want’ by summer? How many times have you heard someone say they don’t want to gain muscle mass, they just want to ‘tone’?
We recently concluded our fireside chat series with Tim Ferriss, but the conversation on fitness never stops! Something Tim said about ‘toning’ and ‘spot reduction’ struck a chord, and we thought we’d let our audience know once and for all: the concepts behind these terms are myths!
The Problem With Toning
First, let’s look at what the word ‘tone’ actually means in relation to muscle. It’s simply defined as the current state of a muscle. So when you are resting, for example, your muscles are relaxed. While on the move or lifting weights, your muscles are contracting. These different states are different ‘tones.’
Regardless of what the word is supposed to mean, we should still address how most people use it today. When someone says they want to ‘tone’ their muscles, they usually mean they want it to be more defined, shaped in a certain way, or look more appealing overall. There is some gender connotation with it as well. Often men go to the gym to build muscle, while women go to ‘tone up.’ In fact, both are doing the same things, they just don’t know it.
It is perfectly possible to alter the appearance of your muscles, but the way we use ‘tone’ is misleading. It implies that we can change something fundamental, like the shape, length, or density of our muscles, when in reality we only have ‘control’ over the size and strength of our muscles.
As for muscle definition, that’s totally up to body fat! For example, if a woman wants to go to the gym to ‘tone’ her upper arms, she might spend all her time doing arm extension movements. Surely, the stimulation will develop the tricep muscles, but will it be sufficient for the look she most likely wants to achieve? Probably not.
Why? The answer lies in spot reducing . . .
Spot Reduction – The Real Travesty
While the concept of ‘toning’ has some validity to it (depending on how one thinks about or utilizes it), spot reduction is a complete myth. The idea behind spot reduction is that you can pick and choose where your body decides to burn fat. Unless we’re talking surgery, this just isn’t true.
A classic example of spot reduction is when someone performs thousands of sit-ups a day because they want to achieve a six-pack for summer. Here’s the thing about six-packs: whether you have one or not is mostly based on your bodyfat percentage. That is to say, you could have the biggest, strongest abdominal muscles in the world, but if they are covered by layers and layers of fat, then no one will ever see them.
But isn’t that where the sit-ups come in? To get rid of that ab fat? Yes and no. Like any other exercise, sit-ups require energy, will burn calories, and with the right combination of other factors (diet, for instance), can technically lead to fat loss. But your body decides where to take this fat, not you. Just because your ab muscles required the most energy to function during the movements doesn’t mean your body exclusively taps into the fat surrounding that area: the entire body’s fat supply is fair game.
What does this mean? You could very well do sit-ups from sun-up to sun-down everyday just to find that your legs look a lot more defined than your mid-section.
To be clear, direct muscular stimulation does help. If your abdominal muscles are under-developed, for example, working them to promote hypertrophy (muscle growth) will result in slight compression of fat against the skin, which can give the illusion of less fat. However, this effect will be diminished as the skin stretches to adapt to the added tension. In addition, larger muscles are naturally more easily seen through fat. Even with these in mind, the best way to gain definition is to decrease bodyfat!
A Little Bit of Science
Two studies were cited on AceFitness.org back in 2004 as evidence against spot reduction:
- “In one study, the circumferences and fat deposits in the arms of high-level tennis players were compared. The investigators proposed that if spot reduction worked, the playing arm of a tennis player should have considerably less fat than the inactive arm. This prediction, however, was not the case.”
- “In a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-1980s, 13 male subjects participated in a vigorous abdominal exercise training program for 27 days. Each participant in the study was required to perform a total of 5,000 sit-ups over the course of the research project. Contrary to what spot-reducing proponents would have you believe, the results of the study revealed that fat decreased similarly in the back, buttocks, and abdomen.”
To be thorough (and fair), one study has suggested that during weight-training exercise, the body might be more liklely to tap into the fat cells surrounding the muscles being used. The degree to which this happens, however, is unclear. And since fat reduction effects of activities like High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) continue long after muscle stimulation has ceased, it’s also unclear (and unlikely) that the bias during the short window of training has much significance in the grand scheme of things.
Really, though, common observations can be the most telling. When is the last time you’ve witnessed an overweight person with a six-pack? If it were possible to just zero in on the mid-section to be ready for the beach like many glamour magazines claim, you’d have seen at least one by now, right?
The Bottom Line
It’s okay to want a certain look and to set your goals to achieve that look. But the more educated you are about what’s possible, what isn’t, and the best route to achieve your goals, the more likely you are to reach success.
Here are some take-aways:
- Your body, not you, decides from where fat is burned or stored.
- There is no such thing as an exercise regimen specifically for ‘toning up.’
- There are much better ways to spend your time than doing a thousand sit-ups.
- Resistance training strengthens and enlarges the muscle. Any fat loss as a result will not be exclusive to the area of training.
- If you want firmer and more defined muscles, your goal should be weight loss.
Keep these in mind, and happy training!
The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.