Toning: the Fitness Industry Lie That Does Not Want to Die

Nothing makes me more angry as a personal trainer than seeing lies being spread by unscrupulous people in an industry that is supposed to help people feel better. One of the most popular ones is that women should and can target fat in "trouble areas" with specific exercises.  Other terms used around the same concept are "tone", "shrink", and "trim".

Here are some examples of posts and ads that help keep the myth alive:

Shrink Your Waist Exercises
This "5-minute fix" type of post is one of many that can be found on Pinterest.

Thinner Thigh Machine

Apparently, they know all the reasons why women want to start exercising...

If pushups helped make arms skinnier, soldiers would have the tiniest arms out there!

My Problem with "Problem Areas"

First, what do you mean by "problem"? Every body is different. Trainers should focus on listening to their clients to help them achieve their individual health and fitness goals. They should understand that well-being and fitness come in many shapes. They should not encourage the false belief that if a woman does not look like in the magazines, it is because she is too lazy to do certain exercises. Finally, they should not be posting online about what women should work on making smaller or bigger! It is called personal training, not female-object shaping!

About the Idea of Spot Reduction... and why it is Impossible

Spot reduction means attempting to remove fat stored in specific areas of the body by doing exercises (often in high repetitions) that target the muscles under that area. It is an idea that seems to have started spreading in the 80s and was very popular in the 90s with all these "toning" exercise videos being marketed to women. I remember my teenage-self being tired of my thighs chafing when doing sports and of jeans that were so big at the waist, but so small at the thighs that no belt could help. Naive as I was, I decided to try out exercising with a Thighmaster machine.

It did not work, of course, but I just blamed myself for it. It is likely what many people who did not get the expected results did and why the lie is still alive today. But after completing my training as a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor, I now know better.  It had nothing to do with me: using a Thighmaster simply cannot make someone's inner-thighs smaller. Here is why.

Strength Exercises Build Mass

One of the first thing one learns as a personal trainer is that strength exercises help you build muscles. More muscles mean more mass, not less! That is actually exactly what happened to me when I used the thigh master as a teen: even more chafing issues. Yes, my legs were more "defined", because you could see the shape of my bigger adductor muscles, but they were definitely not smaller. The same applies to any other area targeted with exercises: it will not become smaller unless the overall body mass becomes smaller. 

Higher Repetitions Does Not Mean Toning

Doing higher repetitions of an exercise helps you improve your muscular endurance for the muscles used and adds a little bit of a cardio component to the workout. You will burn more calories doing 50 bodyweight squats instead of 5 squats with a barbell, but the first exercise will not help you make your legs thinner while the other will make them bigger. 
Doing exercises in the 8-12 repetitions to exhaustion range leads to faster and bigger muscle mass gains than doing 15 or more repetitions. Still, high repetition exercises also lead to some muscle gains. It is especially visible for beginners. When someone's legs do get leaner after doing hundreds of squats and leg raises, it is not so much because they did "leg toning exercises", but because they burnt more calories than in the past and became leaner overall. They would have had similar results with any other (possibly more fun) calorie-burning activity, no matter what muscles they used. 

Your Muscles Cannot Directly Burn the Fat Around Them

There are many studies out there that have proven that it is not possible to reduce fat in a specific body area by exercising it. My favourite study is one that looked at tennis players. If doing high repetitions of a movement would lead to the muscles used burning the fat around them, then tennis players would have one arm significantly leaner than the other. Measurements showed that it was not the case. 
Additionally, a basic understanding of human physiology (which I believe fitness instructors should have), can give some hints as to why it is not possible. Muscles cannot use the fat around them as fuel. I will not bore you with the details, but stored fat needs to go through the liver and be broken down into other molecules before going back into the blood and being used as fuel. This means that the body has no reasons to break down the fat stored the closest to the muscles being used over fat stored in other places.

Let's Stop Body-Shaming Lies!

Please, if you ever see anything on social media, or even mainstream media, talking about targeting specific body parts, toning, trimming, shrinking, etc., ignore it or share links to the studies in the comments. If the person who posted it is known to you, share them privately: it will help them become better personal trainers or just workout buddies. I will start doing so myself...

To End on a Positive Note...

There are also many great personal trainers and gym owners out there! For example, Alyssa Royse is focused on promoting the idea that "you should feel good in your body, and your body should help you do the things that make you feel good". People like her makes me keep hope in the fitness industry and in humanity in general. Check out this article about her:

Scientific Studies and Other Additional Ressources