The Problem With The Word “Tone”

I’ve been a Personal Trainer for a long time and as a result, I’ve completely lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the word “tone”. It isn’t gender specific (though there is a tendency for women to use it more often) and it isn’t specific to any age range. Everyone knows the word and many use it but as a trainer, I’ve never liked the word.

There’s a good reason for it, and it has everything to do with specificity. When I hear the word “tone” it usually shows up after I ask something like “What are your fitness goals.” and I get the general idea of what people who use the word are looking for – they want to have their muscles show more and lose fat. They want their body to jiggle less and have more defined abs…but they almost never say that.

Also, not everyone wants exactly those goals when they say they want to tone their body. Some of those items will be missing from their wish-list and others will be right on the money. There might even be some that aren’t included at all. The point is that this term often comes from a place of ignorance, so let me educate you, the reader, so that there is no longer any excuse to use this vague word to describe your goals ever again!

Here’s the scoop – the only way to get more muscle definition is to either increase your muscle mass so the muscles can be more easily seen, or decrease your fat mass to make the muscles you do have more visible. See, fat mass is the thing the separates an arm that looks more like an amorphous blob from one that looks like it was chiseled from marble by Michelangelo himself. If you’re looking for muscle definition and could care less if your arm stays the same size or gets smaller, then decreasing your fat mass with a great nutritional plan and some moderate cardiovascular work is all you really need.

That being said, most people who think they only want that tend to panic as their body shrinks to reveal how much of their body weight and size was made up of fat mass and actually do want their limbs to have a better shape. This requires the increase of muscle mass to replace the size that is lost as you lose fat mass.

The funny thing is, I always have a much easier time working with people who know they want more muscle definition and more muscle mass as I can build the muscle on them, then use the muscle to shred it off more easily. This is possible because muscle is an active tissue which means it consumes energy (aka calories) when being used and even at rest! That’s how exercise works – your muscles are activated which causes them to use energy which leads to the rending of fat from your body as it uses the fat as a fuel source. Basically, I build a better fat burning engine first, then I use the engine to send the fat packing. It’s a pretty simple and reliable method in my experience and the better the engine, the quicker the fat is burned off – but I digress.

To return to my point, when someone asks to be toned, I usually have to ask a great many questions to figure out what that actually means to them. It’s kind of like if a friend asked you for something, but used a word they made up in place of the thing they wanted causing you to have to probe them with questions to figure out what the word means so you could give it to them.

You might be wondering, what do I replace the word “tone” with? The best answer I can give is more words. Get really specific, dig really deep and really assess what it is you want. You have a wedding coming up but your belly is too big to fit in the dress? Then you probably want to lose fat so that your stomach is small enough to fit in the dress. Do you have a tropical vacation coming up but your body looks shapeless right now? Then you probably want to increase muscle mass and/or definition to strut your stuff in tank tops and on the beach. The more you say to us, the better. A trainer can NEVER have too much information to build the best program for you.

So what are your least favorite words from the fitness world? Let us know in the comments below and as always, stay fit and have fun!