A couple weeks ago, we received one of the most common questions that we hear over and over again, from one of our old clients.
“What exercises should I do to tone my arms (or any other body part)?”
What Exactly is Toning?
Before we begin, let’s establish what does “toning” or “looking toned” even mean. Fitness instagrammers are great examples of fit and toned bodies that many folks desire.
While googling for “toning exercises”, I frequently come across claims such as ‘elongate the muscles to create a sexier look’, ‘define & tighten the muscles without bulking’, ‘sculpting effect on the muscles’, etc.
Unfortunately, these are all nonsense, misinformation.
Myth of Toning
Let’s get this straight, TONING is a MYTH! Now allow me to elaborate.
The general idea of “toning exercises” is that by doing specific exercises, or doing exercises a certain way, we’re able to shape an area of the body the way we want it.
For example, there are secret ab exercises that are particularly effective for sculpting the lower abs, and doing bicep curls with pink dumbbells for 100 reps can tone and tighten flabby arms. (NOT TRUE)
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Problematic areas (like lower abs, flabby arms) aren’t problematic areas if the solution is that simple. Anyone who have tried doing the workouts that magazines claim can help you “tone” and “shape up” can attest… it doesn’t work!
Here’s why fitness instagrammers and models look toned — they have a good amount of muscle mass, and have low enough body fat for the muscles to be visible. Which means, “toning up” actually refers to two things that must happen concurrently:
- Losing body fat
- Increasing muscle mass
And simply put, there is no exercise that can achieve these two specific results in one fell swoop.
What You Should Do Instead
As mentioned, to look toned or actually tone your body, two things must happen.
Firstly, the most important thing to look toned is to lose body fat.
For many people, simply losing some body fat can give the toned look that they’re looking for.
The key to losing body fat is taking care of your diet and nutrition.
So many people make the mistake of fussing over their choice of workouts (cycling or swimming, cardio or weights), but all the exercise in the world will make no difference if your diet is poor.
If you want to lose body fat, you must be in a calorie deficit. The trouble is many of us overestimate the calories we burn from exercise, while at the same time, underestimating the calories we consume from food.
Another common myth that many people still believe in, is the idea that you can “spot-reduce” — that is, losing fat from a specific area of the body. For example, how often do we hear people doing countless crunches every day with the hope of getting six-pack abs?
It’s never going to work! When we lose fat, we lose fat from our bodies as a whole. Some people will lose it from their tummy more than from their necks, and vice versa for the others. It depends on the individual’s body.
There are guys who are really skinny, and have never done a single sit-up for the past 5 years of their lives, yet they’ll still have visible abs.
The reason? They simply have low body fat. That way, their abs can easily show through the thin layer of fat that they have on their bodies.
Everybody has abs, they’re just waiting for their time to shine (after you’ve lost some fat).
Secondly, you must build some muscle.
Now I know, ladies are going to yelp at the thought of building muscle.
“I don’t want to get all masculine-looking.”
“I just want firmer arms and thighs, not muscles.”
RELAX. Ladies, you won’t look like this even if you tried with all your might. Women have a significantly lower amount of testosterone (a KEY component in the muscle building process) compared to men, which is why it’s much harder for women to gain muscle.
Simply put, women were never designed to look like men. (the woman in the above photo has to take anabolic steroids, a.k.a artificial testosterone, to look the way she does)
The reason why these models all have toned-looking bodies is because they have well-developed muscles, coupled with low body fat.
This goes back to the question “What exercises should I do to tone my body?”
There is no exercise that specifically “tones” the muscles in our body.
Our muscles can only change in size and not in shape. Whether you do 50 crunches or 500 crunches, neither has a better toning effect — the only difference is the rate of muscle growth.
And there’s definitely no such thing as “gaining muscles too quickly”. Don’t be afraid to lift weights (or other forms of resistance training) and lift hard. If you want to get fit at home, you can incorporate bodyweight movements instead. Stick to the basic exercises such as push ups, dips, squats, hip thrusts, etc. — no need to get fancy!
You can’t exactly “tone” a specific part of your body. If you want to look toned, you have to lose body fat from your body as whole.
To do that, the most effective way would be to take care of your nutrition. Start by managing your portion sizes; you don’t have to count calories, but ultimately you have to be at a consistent calorie deficit to lose body fat.
To complement that, make sure you develop your muscles as well so that it will pop out from underneath that layer of fat. The most basic resistance exercises will do wonders for achieving that toned look.