Define Your Goals: “Toning”

It seldom fails, when you ask a girl (or sometimes a guy) her goals for her fitness program.  “Oh, I just want to get toned.”  Or “I want to tone my [insert muscle/area here].”  It hurts me every time.

Why “toning” is a weak goal
  1. “Tone” doesn’t inform your decisions about exercise and nutrition.  Non-specific goals, non-specific actions.  The nebulous “tone” leads to aimless programming, often hours per week on the treadmill/elliptical and the usage of tiny pink dumbbells, which is not doing wonders for anyone’s physique fast.

    Put them down

  2. For many, it rationalizes a lack of effort.  “I’m just trying to tone” may sound like a really great reason to stick to the above (lack of) exercise program.  In reality, its a good way to make zero progress.
  3. The physiology isn’t there.  Muscles cannot be “toned”*.  Fat cannot be toned either.  Muscles grow (hypertrophy) or shrink (atrophy).  They don’t change shape (for the most part), they don’t get longer, and they don’t get leaner.  Fat can be gained and lost from the body as a whole.  It cannot be “turned into muscle.”  It also cannot be reduced from a specific area.
Defining a better goal
Let’s break down “tone.”  When someone says she wants to “tone,” what she usually wants is a leaner look – less soft, more firm.  That means 1) losing some body fat and 2) gaining some muscle, two completely straightforward and achievable goals.  From those two more-specific goals, we can adopt a more specific plan of action: eat cleaner, start weight training, maybe do a little interval training, etc.

From now on, when someone asks what your goals are, tell them you want to drop some body fat and gain a little lean muscle.  That’s what you meant all along.

* I saw your hand go up, and yes the physiological concept of muscle tone does exist, but is essentially unrelated to the popular usage in exercise.
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