Why Toning Workouts Suck

A body like this isn't made by using one of those "toning" workouts you seen on the cover of a magazine.
A body like this isn’t made by using one of those “toning” workouts you saw on the cover of a magazine.

When it comes to starting a new workout or fitness plan, there are certainly an abundance of options to choose from.  With enough varieties and variations out there to make your head spin, does finding the “right” plan feel like an overwhelming challenge in and of itself?  Naturally, you want something that works – there’s nothing worse than starting a plan that ends up being little more than a time-waster; crafted by some teenage meathead living in his mom’s basement, and passed off as expert knowledge.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, just because a fitness plan is emblazoned in bold ink on the front of a magazine or is coming from a celebrity trainer, doesn’t mean it’s going to work.  You’ve got to pay attention and read between the lines, and one such catch-phrase you’ve got to be weary of is the classic “Toning Workout”.  Today, we’re going to look at what a “toning” workout really is, show you want to avoid it at all costs, and give you something in its place.

What “Toning” Really Means

First and foremost, you’ve got to understand what toning really means.  Poorly educated trainers and snake-oil salesmen/women will often tell you toning is the result of light weights and high reps.  Alternatively, they’ll mention heavy weight and low reps add bulk.  This is bullshit.  If someone tries to tell you this, stop listening, divert their attention, and make a quick escape.  What they’re feeding you is nonsense fitness information that continues to leave people confused, frustrated, and left with poor results.

First off, all “toning” really means is a reduction of body fat.  When someone says they want to look “toned”, they really mean they want to look more defined.  They want shapely arms, legs, core…fill in the blank.  To achieve this defined appearance, there needs to be a reduction of body fat covering the muscle.  The arms of a person with 12% body fat look a heck of a lot different from a pair of arms dangling off a body covered in 30% body fat.  And no, it’s not because they are doing different strength exercises….it’s because the body fat covers up any definition, or “tone”.

Why Toning Workouts Suck Reason #1: They’re Single-Minded

While strength exercises will go a ways in helping you spike your metabolism, they don’t do much for immediate caloric burn or reduction of body fat.  In order to get that “toned” appearance, one must include consistent (and intense) bouts of cardio into their routine.  It’s amazing how many “toning” workouts fail to include any element of cardiovascular work – far too often they focus on simple, isolation exercises (think tricep kickbacks).  This is a sure-fire way to put in a bunch of effort and get little to nothing in return.

If you want to get lean and defined, you’ve got to burn more calories than you currently are.  Adopting a HIIT themed cardio plan, adding in a couple of intense lift days a week, and maintaining a clean diet are three great steps you can take towards achieving the appearance you want.  Isolation exercises which focus on one tiny muscle group at a time do little for your immediate caloric burn OR your long term metabolic spike.  In short, they’re wasting your time.

Why Toning Workouts Suck Reason #2: They’re Too Simple

These “toning” workouts you see plastered on the front of magazines or on infographics around the web are created to be easy to understand, easy to complete, and easy to share with a friend.  Unfortunately, all this ease is designed to suck you in, get you to stick with the program, and pass along to another unfortunate soul.  They are NOT designed to produce real results.  These workouts are created for people with little to no fitness knowledge, who assume because it’s coming from an authority figure, it has to work.

It’s much easier to tell someone to do 15 bicep curls followed by 15 tricep kickbacks than it is to instruct someone to superset 8 heavy deadlifts with 10 upright rows.  The job of these eye-catching “toning” workouts is to sell more magazine copies or land more page views.  When things are clean, simple, and easy to complete, they’re more likely to catch on with the masses – but please don’t mistake this for thinking they’re more likely to actually work.

Why Toning Workouts Suck Reason #3: They Forget Your Metabolism

The “toning” workouts you come across more or less concern themselves with the things they know YOU are thinking.

“Well, if I do lots of bicep curls, I’ll have toned arms”.

Like clockwork, they give you lots of bicep curls.

But these type of workouts forget an important piece of the puzzle – your metabolism.  As I briefly mentioned above, while strength training won’t do a ton for immediate caloric burn, it more than makes up for that with the effects it has on your metabolic fire.  This comes with one caveat – strength training needs to be done RIGHT to have any sort of effect on that metabolism.  Doing little isolation work isn’t going to get it done.  What you need is a series of compound lifts, preferably performed with a weight that brings you to the brink of all out muscle fatigue.

Exercises like deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and bent over rows are all examples of compound exercises.  These movements target more muscle groups in your body, contribute to elevating your heart, and when mixed in with some uptempo cardio, can do wonders for your EPOC.  Bottom line, if you’re looking to get ripped up and looking great, you’ve got to include a healthy dose of heavy, compound lifts in your fitness routine.

Why Toning Workouts Suck Reason #4: They’re All Fluff

As I’ve alluded to above, these “toning” workouts are designed to look pretty and be incredibly easy to follow.  No serious exerciser would genuinely follow along with any one of the workouts found in on the cover of those health magazines that line the shelves of your grocery store check-out lanes.  Now, being a “serious” exerciser doesn’t mean you’re fit – it simply means you have a base of knowledge that allows you to steer clear of the nonsense that is the modern-day “toning” workout.

Heed the actions of people who know better – if they’re staying away, you should too.  While there are few black and white answers in the fitness world, it’s safe to say you should probably follow the lead of those who know better.  You’ll never see a professional fitness competitor using a “toning” workout to get cut up before a show.  Nor will you see that really fit guy or girl at your gym using this bogus crap.  Find yourself a fitness source you can identify with and trust.  Maybe it’s here on our blog, maybe it’s somewhere else.  The point is, you need to vet whoever you take your fitness information from very carefully, and be sure to steer clear from the quacks.

Why Toning Workouts Suck Reason #5: They Forget About Diet

These toning workouts are often paired with low-calorie/low-carbohydrate diet plans that again, play on the sensitivities of their audiences.  A bunch of easy, light lifts, couple with a low-calorie diet is key to spinning your wheels and absolutely going nowhere.  Sadly, this is what a bulk of women WANT to see.  They want someone to tell them doing their easy at home strength exercises with their dinky 5 pound weight will make a difference.  They WANT someone to tell them not eating will help get them toned up.  More often than not, people simply want their personal choices validated by a seemingly knowledgeable authority figure.

This is the trap so many fall into.  When it comes to your workout plan, whatever it is, you must understand it needs to be paired with a great diet.  A great diet means avoiding the crap you know you shouldn’t be eating (sugar, fried foods, simple carbs) and loading up on the good stuff (lean protein, veggies, fruit, fiber).  Remember, muscle doesn’t grow out of thin air – if you want to see some results from all the lifting you’ve been doing, you’ve got to fuel yourself properly.  The greatest workout in the world is worthless when paired with a poorly fueled body.

So for all you guys and girls out there wanting to get “toned”, ripped, lean, shredded, defined, or whatever buzz word you like to use, we’ve got you covered.  Consider this a general, anti-toning workout, which will lead to great muscular definition, defined abs, and an overall improvement in your health and fitness levels.

  • Day 1: HIIT Cardio/Hill Sprints – Switch between :30 sprints and 1:30 jogs.  Gradually bump the incline of your treadmill or find a nice hill and continue with the back-and-forth tempo for 20-40 minutes, depending on your current abilities.
  • Day 2: MetCon Challenge
  • Day 3: Do something awesome to help add flexibility and strength – YOGA.  Check out our OnDemand library of full-length yoga classes.
  • Day 4: HIIT Cardio/HIIT Biking – Let’s go with that :30/1:30 sprint interval for 15 minutes.  Next, jump on a stationary bike and go for something a little shorter interval – use a :30 sprint/:45 second relaxed pace interval for an additional 20-30 minutes.
  • Day 5: Take a look at this list of The 8 Best Exercises you Should be Doing, but Probably Aren’t.  Combine these eight movements into one killer workout.  Shoot for 8-10 reps of three to four sets per exercise.

Take in enough protein, give yourself ample rest time, and stay consistent.  You do those things, in conjunction with the above sample plan, and you’ll be well on your way to that tight and “toned” body you’ve been seeking.




7 thoughts on “Why Toning Workouts Suck”

  1. Aww this article made us sad… really, ‘toning workouts’ are what you make them. Losing fat~ increasing your metabolism, doing HIIT, increasing your weights, proper nutriton– I could go on and really get into it, but this was a little broad and harsh. Women love the word toning- think of it as a descriptive word; that yes, includes insane workouts, nutrition plans and high intensity interval training. We promote deadlifts, compound moves, sprints and proper nutrition, but we also promote long 6 mile runs, fine toning moves that work just one body part at a time that feel oh-so-good and we also promote the word toning. Toning has done wonders for our community of over 1 million strong~ and growing.

    A fan of yours!




    1. Katrina –

      Thanks for your comment. First off, you know I like the info you guys are putting out there and happily recommend to our readers from time to time. I certainly didn’t have Tone it Up in mind when I wrote this.

      I had something like this (http://glmr.me/h6PUsx) in mind when I wrote today’s article.

      I think the word toning has different meanings for different people. Seems like your definition of toning is more inclusive than a lot of what is out there. There are several big name fitness mags which push those 4-week toning plans consisting of a bunch of iso-work and no real mention of anything you (and I) preach. Then you’ve got people like Tracy Anderson who scare women into exclusively using a low weight/high rep sequence because, “it tones”.

      That said, I could see how this came across as a little harsh. Truth be told, I did get a little fired up writing this one, but I’ll blame it on that third cup of coffee before 10.

      Thanks again for the comment, always happy to hear another point of view on any subject.

      A fan in-kind.


      1. We only wrote in because we’re equally great fans of yours too! The information you put out is always so informative. Hopefully, this article doesn’t scare women to stay away from all toning workouts- not all toning workouts are created equal. I have to be honest too… not all women should lift heavy weights of 10-12 reps. I’ve had a lot of clients that actually DID get bigger muscles than they wanted. They didn’t want the blocked abs, the bulging biceps or the shredded quads… at first I promised they wouldn’t get that result and could lift as heavy as their body would allow them too. I have since changed my practice and understand that some women do gain more muscle than others, and some women love the more athletic look (like myself) and some women don’t want to show up their husbands too much 😉 You and I could have debates every week! Love it. -Kat

      2. Hi Matt, Karena, and Katrina! I’m an 18 year old who loves yall’s workouts and this site and Tone it Up. What you just described actually did happen to me, from lifting 10-12 reps and working up to 15-20lb dumbells. I love lifting and running, but I build muscle easily, and after about two years of lifting I’ve built muscle I’d consider too bulky for me, in my upper body. I used to think it didn’t matter how much I lifted, that I wouldn’t bulk up, and I always felt so good during and after, but I actually did bulk up a bit after a period of time in which I was “just right” (when I did mostly insanity and bodyweight movements, but still lifted lighter weights) How should I lose some of the mass? I still want to be “toned” or have great, ripped arms, and be strong, but in a more feminine way.

  2. Hi Matt! Love the website. I had a knee injury for a while and pretty much fell off any exercising for half a year. Do you think I can follow the weekly plan you outlined in this article to get back in shape? Or should I start with something easier? Thanks!!

    1. The weekly plan included in this article would be a great routine to adhere to. All of the workouts in this routine are easily adjustable to suit a beginner. Typically you’ll just want to adjust the weights and interval times listed if things are too tough for you.

      That said, I’d definitely recommend getting clearance from your doctor before beginning any sort of fitness routine. The last thing you want is to re-aggravate that knee injury and put yourself back out of commission for a while.

      Hope that helped and please let me know if you’ve got any other questions. Thanks for checking us out and hope to keep seeing you around here!


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