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Toning.  Toned.  Tone.

Let’s see it used in a sentence.

Ohmygod.  Look at Stacey in that cute sleeveless top!  Her arms are so nice and toned, she must have been working out over the winter break…. 

I hate her so much right now.

Toning.  It’s exercise-speak for ‘looking fit, but not buff’

Ahh, how we love our comforts.  The sweet sound of the word ‘toning’ itself draws calm into the hearts of vigilant exercisers across the land. 

For one day, if they work hard enough, eat right enough and dream big enough, one day they will be considered ‘toned’.  You’ll never really know if you are until one day someone tells you, then all of a sudden, there you are. 


The land of toned is a somewhat mystical place, like an ethereal land when everybody walks around being toned in their white bikinis drinking from long straws while petting large african beasts.

As a personal trainer, when I hear the word ‘toning’ I picture a generic in shape woman on the front of a generic fitness magazine with a generic headline that includes the word ‘toning’.  It’s almost you could insert the word ‘toning’ into just about any madlibs game and you’d get a fitness magazine headline.

Madlibs. helping editors write fitness front page stories since 1958

The TINY woman LOOKED FOR her TONED ARMS, but all she could see was CHEESECAKE.  main story, p56.

It’s a word that has become a compulsory part of the ‘let’s get in shape’ vernacular, a word that can be applied to almost any part of the body, and can be easily understood as being a body that is ‘fit’ without being ‘bulky’.

But what is Toning, really?

Why is it that we use this word so frequently, yet if I were to use the phrase ‘lose body fat’ or ‘gain muscle’  you can almost hear the brain cells shutting down before the sentence is even finished.

Observe if you will, a classic scenario that happens in gyms around the world every day (with gymspeak and realspeak translation for those wishing to be enlightened):

Trainer:  So Mrs Johnson, what is it that you’re looking to achieve with our training sessions together?

(I’ve been trained to ask you what you want, even though we both know you’re here because your muffin intake has been transformed into a muffin top around your waistline.  But I want to hear you say it.)

Mrs J: I don’t need to lose weight, I just want to trim up my arms.

(I don’t want to talk about how much weight I think I need to lose, but I also know that I don’t want you to put me on machines and make me bulky like She-Ra, which will happen with 100% certainty if you give me any kind of weight that isn’t foam-wrapped and brightly colored).

Trainer:  We can do that.

(I understand that you are scared that me putting you through a workout will cause your body to rapidly grow as if your muscles were inciting a revolution and suddenly tried to escape your body.  I will now nod knowingly even though I’m about to put you through the same workout I put every other client and tell you it’s toning because I don’t really know what else to do other than change up the repetitions).

Trainer (after nodding knowingly):  So let’s go through a special toning workout then!

aaaannnd scene.

Remember, it doesn’t matter how many ‘toning’ movements you do if you haven’t taken care of whats covering the muscle. You can sculpt the muscle, but you’ll show the muscle by sparing your body the extra calories it doesn’t need.

What Toned Really means

Here’s what toning is, in a nutshell.  it’s a lowering of body fat so you can see the muscle underneath, and there actually being muscle underneath to see.  More often than not the muscle has shape, it’s just covered by excess calories so you can’t see it.  If I took the biggest meat castle in the gym and put and extra 10% of body fat on him, you’d see a reduction in ‘toning’.  Muscle has shape to it, it’s just not going to be seen as long as it’s hidden beneath the ‘extra layer’.

Why you don’t get Toned just through diet

However, when people try to lose weight just by dieting and not working out, the body tend to lose muscle as it loses fat.

This creates that ‘skinny fat’ look you sometimes see in that girl in accounting who seems lean but abhors the idea of anything that might make her sweat, since that makes her feel all ‘clammy and sticky’.  She has become thin, but not toned.  The fat is less, but the muscle is equally less and unless she loses a LOT of body fat (a la some of the runway models you wish would just break down and eat SOMETHING) then she’s going to be losing muscle as she loses fat and she’ll be chasing a carrot on a stick, so to speak.

So you’re telling me that these fancy gloves DON”T make my arms look fat? Oh, but they do make me look like I’m auditioning for ‘million dollar baby 2’? Ahh, I see…

Add muscle to the equation AS YOU LOSE FAT and you actually end up ideally with an equal amount of muscle at the point that your body fat starts to lean out enough that you can see the muscle beneath.

Here’s how the toning equation goes.

No workout + Diet = less muscle and less fat = same perceived level of ‘toning’ just with small size.

Workout + No Diet = more muscle and the same amount of fat = same perceived level of ‘toning’ but now with bigger arms that you hate and blame your trainer for making you look like Miss Olympia.

Workout + Diet = EQUAL muscle and less body fat (since you’ll be losing muscle as you lose fat but then gaining it back as you workout for a zero sum loss) = nirvana, the mecca, the golden ticket, the big dance, the last dance at prom with the prom king… well, you get the idea.

Babies. The ultimate toning tool. Available from a good hospital with bad security near you. Get your baby today and be on your way to sculpted, sexy arms.

So there you have it.  Why don’t you hear this from magazines?  Well, because they need to keep printing these magazines, dear devoted reader!  If I can’t come up with a different way to tell/show/demonstrate for you how to exercise, then how am I going to keep all these fitness models in employment?  Without modelling gigs and interviews to ask them how they got so ‘toned’ and ‘sculpted’ and ‘fit-looking’, how else would they occupy themselves?  We’d end up with a race of supervillian amazons, destroying all in their path, that’s what.

So please, keep reading the magazines and articles that discuss ‘toning your trouble spots’, but know that in the end it’s just exercise plus good eating.  And if you don’t see results, then you need to improve your exercise or improve your eating.

Do you feel better now you understand what the word ‘toning’ REALLY means? 

Or like you’ve been believing in Santa Claus all this time only to realize it was your dad wearing a red raincoat and a crappy cardboard beard tied around his head by a thin piece of elastic all this time.  Either way, you’re welcome.

Jamie Atlas

PS It’s been a while since I’ve written something on this blog.  I’m recommitting to it after realizing that people were still reading it and commenting on it and actually caring about the content that was written in here.  If you’re coming back after a long time away, I’d like to thank you for sticking by it.  If you’re new here, then thanks for dropping by!  We love new friends around here.

And of course, if you’d like to subscribe to this blog, then do you see that big obnoxious looking button below?  You know what to do from here, right?

  • emilysteezy Jun 23, 2012 Reply

    “Toning” is one of my biggest pet peeves in fitness, and it baffles me that even smart, fitness savvy chicks will toss the word around. Another is getting “long lean muscles”, per pilates. Really? I’m sorry, but, your muscles can only do one thing; get bigger and stronger. They can NOT get longer.

    Great post, you nailed it.

  • Chris Cox Jun 24, 2012 Reply

    Yeah! A new blog entry. I use your blog all the time. Lately I’ve been using it for pregnant clients and skinny girls who want a nice butt.

  • Thanks!

    I’ve been having trouble with my eating and working out lately since my summer classes started up again. Then there was a knee scrape I used to procrastinate.

    Time to get off my ass again!

  • jen Jul 19, 2012 Reply

    Your photo captions are hilarious, and it’s about time someone tells it like it is.

  • Caitlin Jul 20, 2012 Reply

    I giggled my way through this post. Entertaining + informative! My favorite combo. And yes, I too wish the word “tone” would die a fiery death, at least when used in conjunction with anything having to do with fitness.

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