I'm sure that you have heard the terms "tone", "trim" and "sculpt" thrown around here and there. They are very common terms used regularly to market fitness products or to communicate some form of desirable physical changes. Yet do you know exactly what these terms refer to?
Toning, trimming and sculpting are all synonymous in the health and fitness industry. These terms are very general terms and refer to a desirable physical recomposition whereby you obtain more shape and definition. Whilst this may be obvious, what is not so obvious is how this is related to your fitness, flexibility, strength and body composition.
What is toning?
So, what is toning, trimming and sculpting? In terms of physiological processes, the specific definitions that these words take on will vary from person to person. However as a general statement, they generally refer to two separate processes:
- Muscle gain
- Fat loss
The primary reason as to why these terms vary between individuals is because we all have different body compositions. So:
- For a large bodybuilder, to tone up may require muscle loss
- For someone who has an above average muscle mass, yet is overweight, they would require fat loss and minimal (if any) muscle gain
- For someone who is underweight, toning may require muscle gain and possibly fat gain too
Of course as you can infer, to tone up is a very subjective term and will vary from person to person. In a general sense, most people seeking to tone will require some muscle development and some fat loss. So let's discuss this aspect to toning.
Muscle tissue, fat tissue and toning
It is important to understand that muscle tissue is a completely separate tissue to fat tissue. Muscle cells (responsible for force generation and structural balance) perform completely different functions to fat cells (responsible for insulation and energy storage). So to tone, you cannot convert fat into muscle. You must treat both tissues separately by reducing fat mass and increasing muscle mass. In a sense, assuming that you can concert fat to muscle tissue is comparable to alchemists converting other compounds into gold.
Building muscle to tone
In order to develop muscle tissue, some form of exercise will be required. The most effective way to build muscle tissue is to perform some form of resistance based training (or weight training). When you have a focus on toning, your goal is not going to be to bulk up (or build large amounts of muscle). Toning requires a small amount of muscle development to provide the desired shape and definition of a toned body. Fortunately, muscle growth is a very slow process (slow for men, even slower for women due to hormones), so anyone seeking to tone can undertake a resistance training regime without the fear of becoming too bulky.
Losing fat to tone
The other side to the equation is fat loss, which is accomplished most effectively through the implementation of cardio in conjunction with weight training and an effective approach to nutrition. All three of these aspects are (by far) the most effective way to lose fat tissue.
It is a common misconception that you can lose fat from a specific area of the body to tone that in isolation. For example, to tone up the back of the arms or to tighten your stomach. This leads us to believe that tricep exercises (back of the arms) can reduce fat tissue stored in this region and that abdominal exercises (eg. Crunches) can reduce belly fat. However, this is not true. Whilst these exercises may develop muscle mass, you cannot choose an area of the body from which to lose fat. This myth is known as "spot reduction". It is quite acceptable to go for a run and lose more fat from your arms than your legs (even though the leg muscles are doing all the work!).
Some other toning misconceptions
Due to the amount of confusion with terms that are regularly used in the health and fitness industry, this has lead many of us to believe that toning can be affected by your strength, flexibility and fitness. This is not necessarily true:
Strength: Your strength is a consequence of the effectiveness in which your muscles are able to develop force. Interestingly, strength is not an indication of how large your muscles are. You may be very strong, yet have minimal muscle mass. Thus, your strength does not indicate how toned your body may be.
Flexibility: Flexibility refers to how far you are able to stretch a muscle. When you perform stretching movements, you aim to enhance the flexibility of a muscle (or a group of muscles). Your flexibility has no bearing on your physical appearance. Though flexibility is important for recovery and injury prevention, it has no direct relationship to toning.
Fitness: You can be grossly overweight and quite fit. Your fitness refers to the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and it's ability to deliver oxygen throughout your body. As a result, your level of fitness does not indicate how toned you may be.
Toning in summary
I hope that this article has cleared up what exactly "toning" refers to. To tone is to shift the fat and muscle balance within your body. Both are individual tissues and thus both need to be considered independently in order to accomplish a toning goal.