Wanna get toned? Here, take these tiny weights that weigh less than your purse, wave them around in the air in little circles, and then you’ll get perfect ballerina arms. Do lots of crunches to get a six-pack, squeeze a thigh master to get a thigh gap, and do a bunch of half range squats bouncing up and down for a toned butt.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be great if you could, as many fitness snake oil salesmen would like you to believe, sculpt your body like clay?
It would be nice, but it’s impossible.
You can build muscle through a combination of exercise and a caloric surplus. You can lose fat through exercise and a calorie deficit. You can even do both at the same time, but it’s really, really hard. What you cannot do is tone a body part through repetitive isolation exercises.
Let’s think about who the target of the “tone your abs” advertisements are: women. Women, the fitness industry believes, are afraid of picking up a weight, lest they immediately turn into an unfeminine he-man muscle machines. They need tiny, pink dumbbells and a workout that promises a “dancer’s body.”
The best way to build overall strength and muscle is through compound exercises, which work several muscle groups and joints at the same time. The squat, deadlift, and bench press, among others, are all compound exercises. Pilates, as it was practiced by Joseph Pilates, also focusses on full-body, multi-joint exercises.
Isolation exercises, which work only one muscle at a time, are great for anyone trying to correct an imbalance or rehab an injury, or for a bodybuilder who is using them to supplement full-body exercises. They are not great for a beginner trying to build up a major muscle group like, for example, the glutes. The abduction machine can really make you feel the burn in your outer thighs, but it’s a waste of time for anyone who isn’t already doing full-body training.
And now we get to the really hard part: diet. Abs are made in the gym and revealed in the kitchen. You can do a thousand crunches, but if you’re not keeping your nutrition in check, no one’s going to know.
There are a lot of workouts out there, and what works for some might not work for you. But let’s get one thing straight: there’s no such thing as toning.