Name: Cassie Smith
Weight: 145 lbs
Occupation: Associate editor of Bodybuilding.com, CrossFit athlete, and weightlifting competitor
It's damn-near impossible to search for anything related to women's fitness without coming across the word "toned." Magazines, television advertisements, group fitness classes, and diet books all claim to help women get those "toned, sexy arms." I can't tell you how many times I've heard a friend say, "I wish my arms were more toned."
It's an epidemic.
Although I understand what my friends want and what advertisers are selling, it bothers me that women feel uncomfortable using the word "muscular" to describe their goals. I wonder when and why the word "toned" took the place of "bigger muscles" and "less body fat."
"What's the big deal?" you may ask. "It's just a word, after all." Well, words have significance, and I think the word "toned" conveys misinformation and supports stereotypes. It's become shorthand for something that doesn't exist, and replaced more accurate adjectives.
So, here are four reasons the word "toned" needs to take a hike.
1. It's an actual thing your muscles do
Despite its mainstream definition as "something ladies want their arms to look like," the actual meaning of muscle tone has biomechanical significance. Muscle tone, or tonus, is what exercise scientists and fitness experts use to describe the continuous contraction of the muscles. In other words, your muscles are always slightly tense. So, technically, the more "toned" your muscles are, the more contracted they are.
This continuous contraction is necessary. First, tonus helps keep you upright and balanced. It also helps your muscles stay prepared for any reactive tension they might need to perform. For example, if you're walking down the sidewalk and trip on a crack, your muscles will tense and your body will work to keep you upright without you consciously having to tell it to. That's much better than face-planting on the pavement.
Tonus also helps keep your muscles warm, firm, and healthy.
2. It's limiting
Using the word "toned" instead of "muscular" to describe a goal or a woman's body reinforces the notion that if a woman picks up more than an 8-pound dumbbell, she'll somehow look like Hulk Hogan, mustache included.
Women don't have the testosterone levels to build the amount of muscle that, say, a male bodybuilder has. One of the few exceptions is the female professional bodybuilder, but she spends years building and carving her physique, and also uses hormonal aid.
Using the word "toned" also reinforces the concept that there is a specific way women should look. Heaven forbid that ladies are actually strong and muscular. I'm not sure I've ever heard a man use the word "toned" to describe his body or his goal physique. Why are men allowed to be "buff," "muscular," or "jacked," and women are only allowed to be "toned?" There's no legit reason women should be limited in their goals or the language they use to describe those goals.
3. It's a marketing ploy
Lady-focused group exercise programs like barre, pole dancing, and zumba offer "all-over tone." These classes have gotten popular because they play off the notion that women can't do the same workouts that men do. They're marketed toward women who are uncomfortable lifting weights and think that the only way to get lean is to do massive amounts of cardio.
Words to use instead
In reality, if you want arms that have shape—i.e., you can see your biceps and shoulder caps—sitting on a stationary bike isn't going to get you there.
Now, I'm not saying that group exercise class can't be effective. But it might be unwise to assume they will work as effectively as weight-training will. Classes like Zumba are basically cardio. Don't get me wrong: Cardio can be great for fat loss, but if you don't have any muscle on your arms, leaning them down won't help you show off that "tone."
I know what you're thinking: "But my Zumba instructor is hot. She looks exactly how I want to look. She's got great arms and a flat belly." I have no doubt there are some group-exercise instructors who look amazing. However, it's important to remember that your Zumba instructor probably lifts in addition to doing cardio, and pays really close attention to what she eats.
Cardio is an essential part of a healthy exercise program—your heart is a muscle, after all—but don't make the mistake of thinking your cardio-only workouts will give you those shapely shoulders.
4. Conventional "how to get toned" wisdom is flawed
People who want to learn about training either hire a trainer or look to media sources to help them out. That's probably why you're on this site and reading this article. Nobody knows everything about everything, and beginners don't know anything—we've all been there—so we have no choice but to look elsewhere for knowledge and expertise.
The problem is that clickable, wide-reaching articles like this tell women not to lift heavy, to avoid building "excess" muscle. Other articles like this tell women to do biceps curls with 5- or 8-pound dumbbells.
Articles like the two above reason that, because women don't want to be muscular, they shouldn't use heavy weights. Instead, the authors suggest that women use super-light weight for at least 15 reps, or train using only their body weight. It sounds good in theory, but in reality couldn't be more wrong.
Muscle mass is what makes your arms, shoulders, and butt look firm and shapely. But, in order to see muscle shape on your body, you first have to build muscle. Putting on muscle is no easy task; it takes a lot of hard work and significant resistance.
Sure there are lifts, like the lateral raise, that can be difficult with even tiny dumbbells. And if you've ever done a yoga class, you know how heavy your body weight can feel. You don't always have to grab the heaviest weight possible, but your lifting sessions need to be hard. If you're curling weight so light it feels like you're holding a remote control, you won't see results.
It takes some time to grow accustomed to the pain and tightness that happen in your muscles when you're lifting, but, keep going. It'll work.
Putting more muscle on your body will also help you lean down. Having more muscle mass increases your metabolic activity level. It takes a lot of extra energy to keep those muscles working, so you'll actually burn more calories throughout the day. When your body burns more calories, you get leaner. It's a trifecta of awesome.
Get Jacked, Ladies
I don't know if there's anything more liberating or more empowering than being strong and letting go of any preconceived notions about how you are "supposed" to look. Your body is yours to mold into whatever shape you want and make perform however you want it to perform.
If you want a firmer butt, shoulder caps, and a lean body, then hit the weights like an animal. Leave the word "toned" behind you, and build a body worthy of more expressive adjectives!