“I Just Want to Tone Up”

Sound familiar?

It’s one of the most common fitness goals among new (and current) gym members, especially women. If this is your goal, you probably have an idea of what it looks like. Less flab, arm muscles that stand out (but not too much), a belly that’s firm, and a non-saggy butt.


You also have a vague idea of how to achieve this, but the barrage of information from celebrity trainers and SHAPE magazine makes it rather confusing. Not to mention – you might have personal experience indicating that all this expert advice isn’t working.

Many years ago, a respected, semi-famous strength and conditioning coach named Mike Boyle came to speak at my all-female gym. To a bunch of female trainers, about their female clients. He made a lot of statements that pissed us right off, but he was right about one thing:

He said, “there’s no such thing as tone – it’s a made up word that doesn’t mean anything.”

When you exercise, there are four major qualities your muscles stand to gain: strength, endurance, flexibility, and size. Strength comes from bearing ever-increasing weight, so your muscles (and joints) learn to adapt and bear the heavier loads.

Endurance comes from cardiovascular training (or high-rep/low-weight training). This means your muscle can function for longer and longer before it floods with lactic acid and burns out.

Flexibility describes not only how far the muscle can stretch, but how elastic it is – how easily it returns to its neutral state. You increase this with joint mobility and gentle, consistent stretching.

And that leaves size. Entire training strategies exist around increasing size. It’s a tricky, fairly complex scientific formula that requires lots of number-crunching and discipline. In other words, it’s not the way your average gym-goer trains.

Most people who want to tone up don’t want bigger muscles, they just want less flabby stuff surrounding them.

So, what you’re really saying when you say you want to “tone up,” is that you’d like to decrease your body fat percentage.

Whoa – what’s that, kemosabe?

Your body fat percentage refers to the layer of subcutaneous fat between your skin and your muscles. Cardiovascular exercise helps burn it off, but you won’t make much progress without some strength training – and you’ll have to adjust your diet.

If your muscles are underdeveloped, you can burn all the fat you want – but what’s going to be there underneath? If you want defined arm muscles…well, you have to define them, girl. And those little five-pound weights aren’t gonna cut it.

Here’s another truth: you can’t spot-reduce. Reducing body fat is like taking a cup of water out of a bucket – there’s just less. For most women, you’ll notice visual results in your upper body first, and maybe your abdomen. The hips, butt and thighs take the longest. That’s because women are naturally engineered to carry more fat here – we need it.

So how can YOU achieve this elusive goal? Well for starters, you can check out our upcoming team challenge, designed specifically to target body fat loss.

You can also attend a FREE info session on Tuesday, February 4th at 6pm, where we’ll talk all about this.

Next week, we’ll talk about dietary fat vs. body fat. Good times.

P.S. Want to read Mike Boyle’s rant on “tone?” Check it out. (Warning: it’s rant-y).


Written by Sam

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