So, you want to 'tone up'; but what exactly does this mean?

Many clients come to me with the simple goal of 'toning up'. This classic fitness phrase harks back to days gone by in our industry: The days of leotards and leg warmers; thigh masters and vibrating massage belts. Toning up is the goal of those that seek a somewhat athletic look without any unwanted muscle growth or ‘bulking’.

The phrase 'Toning Up' harks back to more colourful days of the fitness industry.


I have always been confused by the use of the term in the context of proper exercise though. When I began my career in the 90's, the general prescription for 'toning-up' was to do one or two sets of very high repetitions, using predominantly isolation exercises (single muscle movements), and minimal loads. These types of exercises lack functionality, and target such small muscle areas that they have minimal cardiovascular or calorie burning effect. So just what is their purpose? Maybe the strategy is to achieve minor muscle growth in the targeted areas (because even light resistance work will cause slight hypertrophy initially); but then wouldn't it be better to do this with a proper functional routine and simply less volume or gym visits? Having watched many committed 'toners' in gyms, pulsing away with their side leg raises and reverse crunches, I came to the conclusion that 'toning-up' was really just the transient muscle tightness or 'burn' experienced immediately after such exercise, and actually had no lasting effect at all, apart from a little extra muscular endurance.

The kind of moves that suited the toning phenomena were classics like the kneeling leg lift, where common cues from instructors would be phrases like "squeeze it at the top", "keep it tight" and "feel the burn" - as if they knew these words were just part of the 'toning' facade. You might remember the legs, bums and tums classes of this era, that could have 30 to 60 exhaustive minutes of every mind numbing isolation exercise you could imagine. These sessions are still around, if you look hard enough, although some have morphed into more functional and useful routines. And don't get me started on 'toning tables'...

Now you could argue that there's nothing really wrong with these activities, and if there's a demand for uninspiring workouts with little progression and few lasting results, so be it. It's worth saying also, that some of these 'toning' moves might be useful in muscle activation work, or for injury rehabilitation; but these are are both very separate and more specialised areas of therapy, far removed from the aesthetic benefits that such exercises were, and still are promoted for in mainstream fitness. But to me, the established strategy for 'toning-up' seems a little bit fraudulent.

Perhaps the best way to look at toning up is as a combination of fat loss and muscle development: reducing body fat will expose more muscle, and growing that muscle will help parts of the body to become more defined. If you get the combination right, and you aren't too lean to start with, then there may be no overall change in your size, just a more athletic look. But to achieve this involves a two pronged attack in terms of exercise, and not just hours of leg lifts and tricep kick-backs without a drop of sweat being shed.

Firstly, you'll have to get up off the mat and do some effective fat burning activity. This might involve steady-state cardio, or some high intensity interval training, depending on your current fitness and limitations. Secondly, you will need to drop those 1/2 kg hand & ankle weights, and train with some proper resistance if you want real and lasting results. This combination, together with sensible nutrition, will not only achieve some pleasing aesthetic changes, but it'll also give you the many other benefits associated with effective cardiovascular and resistance exercise: increased resting metabolic rate, improved heart and lung function, better blood sugar control, and decreased risk of disease, to name but a few.

The best way to 'tone-up' is to drop the ankle weights and leg lifts, and work with some decent resistance in a progressive strength programme.


So if you are really serious about 'toning up', find a good personal trainer to devise a tailored programme of fat burning and resistance exercise... and drop the butt squeezes and leg warmers.