Why Muscle Toning Workouts Are Overrated for Fitness Plans
HERE’S A NEW practice to level-up the sources you go to for fitness expertise: If a trainer or influencer starts pitching you the greatest “muscle toning workout” on the market, politely walk away—and head straight to the nearest place you can pick up some heavy weight and start lifting.
The concept of “muscle toning workouts”—typically presented as a routine that uses low weights and high reps to make a specific body part or muscle group look leaner—has become embedded in the fitness mainstream. The term is used not only as a sales pitch by fitness flimflam artists, but also by gym newbies or others who remain committed to getting in shape via any means other than what’s required: hard work and long-term commitment.
According to Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and Mathew Forzaglia, N.F.P.T., C.P.T., founder of Forzag Fitness, the concept of muscle toning workouts is a lazy lie, and actually quite the opposite of what is needed to achieve the type of physique in question. However, if you really want to get “toned,” you’d want to utilize the concepts that engender muscle building, strength gains, and fat reduction while enhancing cardiovascular endurance—just like an elite athlete or bodybuilder.
One reason the term has so much staying power is that there is a not insignificant number of people—both men and women—who hold on to the fear that “lifting heavy” will result in the development of a freakishly massive bodybuilder-type physique. Instead, they latch onto the concept of “muscle toning” because it feels like a softer, gentler approach to obtaining the physique they desire.
“Muscle toning is a marketing idea,” Samuel says. “It’s nothing you’re actually going to learn in any fitness book ever. It’s just not a real thing—it’s going to prevent you from reaching your goals.”
Why You Shouldn’t Do Muscle Toning Workouts
“Muscle Toning” Does Not Exist
From a scientific standpoint, there’s not formula for “toning” a muscle.
No matter if you’re bench pressing 500 pounds or curling a 12-ounce weight in each hand, your muscles can only change in two ways—they’ll either adapt to grow or shrink without the proper stimulation. No matter how many times you may hear the term tossed around, “toning,” which could mean any number of things depending on who is making claims, will never be a third option.
In fact, too much emphasis on the practices usually employed by trainers using the term (tiny weights for massive amounts of reps of isolation exercises) may actually provide the opposite effects of your desired aesthetic goals. While it may not take world record numbers, moving weights more challenging than light dumbbells is what is needed to encourage muscle growth—which will in turn help to burn fat and lead to that desired lean look.
Muscle Toning Workouts Don’t Challenge Your Muscles
If you’re constantly asking yourself how others are creating the chiseled physiques you’re aiming to achieve, the answer isn’t the quick routines questionable trainers share via a few video slides on Instagram. Getting fitter comes down to forcing your muscles to adapt, and that requires load.
What does this mean? Knocking out 50 reps of curls with 2.5 pound weights is actually providing little stimulus to your muscles—not to mention wasting most of your time. Pushing your way through a handful or two of reps at a challenging weight is going to push your body to the point of creating muscle (and burning fat, too). This is the weightlifting win-win you need.
Spot Reduction Is a Myth
The claim that you can home in on one specific place on your body and reduce fat—referred to in fitness spaces as “spot reduction”—is false. Still, it’s a tempting idea for desperate exerciser hoping for quick, easy results, and sham trainers take advantage of easy marks.
Losing body fat is a process that is equally distributed in your body—in other words, 1,000 reps of side bends will not burn away the fat around your love handles. You can build muscle, however, which will lead to burning fat throughout your body, paving the way for the development of your desired body shape.
3 Alternatives to Muscle Toning Workouts
Focus on Muscle-Building Workouts
Adding a whole lot of muscle to your frame will never be an overnight process, so don’t worry that too much training will have you looking like an NFL linebacker the next morning.
But adding more muscle to your frame is going to help reduce the pesky excess body fat you may be carrying—a proper nutrition plan helps as well, to be clear—which is the start of getting lean and “toned,” to use the term in question. Also, from a practical perspective, adding muscle is going to help protect your bones, keep you stronger much longer throughout your lifetime, and help to keep you functioning at a top level.
Focus on Building Strength in Your Workouts
There are no downsides to gaining strength—and no, you won’t end up looking like a cartoonish strongman if you add a few pounds each week to your bench press or deadlift.
Strength gains over time, will lead to muscle gains, the same road that leads toward getting more chiseled. Don’t be afraid to lift heavy: The more weight you squat, deadlift, press (and even curl) is going to help increase strength and muscle without “bulking” you up.
Focus on Cardiovascular Fitness in Your Workouts
Still hellbent on toning? Adding some cardio to your routine is about as close to a “toning” workout as you can come without wasting your time. Going for a light run, hitting the rowing machine or ski erg, or riding a bike for about 20 to 30 minutes is going to help facilitate blood flow as well as help burn calories and, ultimately, fat. You’ll not only potentially end up leaner, you’ll also improve your stamina, increase your endurance, and enhance your athletic and real-world performance.
“Don’t be afraid to hone your cardiovascular fitness to build strength and build muscle,” Samuel says. “It is going to be a lot harder for you to gain the size that you might not want… so back off of those toning workouts of 100 reps of biceps curls with light weight. Stop wasting your time and try these out.”
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.