A critical Look at the Word Toning (via Katy Bowman)

I’ve been on a kick lately in terms of promoting Katy Bowman’s work as a biomechanist. She has a great podcast called Katy Says “You Are How you Move”. The other day I was listening to her episode on “The Skinny on Fat”. This episode literally blew my mind in terms of thinking of the words “toning” and “spot reducing”. Every week I get new people asking me how to “tone” a certain area of their body, and I always struggled with an answer- because I never had a simple way of explaining how “toning” wasn’t an effective way to talk about what these people were looking for (losing fat in the area, and seeing a bit of muscle). I always knew that simply performing one isolated exercise for a certain area wasn’t going to help them achieve the ‘toned’ look they were after, especially because most people’s endeavours to exercise average about 1-3 times a were just not enough to truly blast fat and build muscle. I also knew that without overall fat loss from cardio and nutrition they weren’t going to get the ‘toned’ look they were looking for, because most people have a layer of fat over their muscles, and without dietary and cardio changes they most often won’t lose that layer of fat. I never quite knew how to explain that just exercising one certain muscle over and over a few days a week at the gym isn’t going to give you the result you want.

This specific podcast with Katy Bowman helped me to find a good explanation to why ‘toning’ exercises technically don’t work. Within this podcast episode were many gems of information, but most of all I liked how she broke down a variety of research findings in journals to explain how we CAN in fact TONE our muscles- or “spot reduce” areas, but it is an extremely ineffective approach to trying to decrease fat and increase muscle mass in a certain area.  Katy refers to spot reducing as “localized fat loss as a result of exercising a particular part of the body” The way she explains it:

  • Spot reducing means working a muscle in a certain area, and causing that one particular area to burn more fat at a cellular level.
  • Katy explains that toning is in fact possible if we did thousands and thousands and thousands of reps in a day/week.
  • When studied in research when people do these exercises to spot reduce (aka a tricep exercise as an example) a couple of times per week for even a relatively high number of reps (100’s of reps), people still didn’t see a change in muscle/fat in the area they were looking to spot reduce- AKA we need a tremendous amount of volume of one specific muscle to see a change in body fat in that specific area.

As a conclusion what these studies showed was the spot reducing as a concept is biologically sound (Aka the muscle will burn fat in the area you work), but when put into practice is ineffective as the movements are often not done enough to see a result. Even people who worked those muscles 2-3 times a week for 12 weeks saw NO RESULTS in terms of “Toning”.

What to do instead? Instead of focusing on spot reducing one area (abs, arms, legs etc.) focus on big movements that work all the muscles at once. This way if you have overall fat to lose, and muscle you want to build, you can end up getting a ton of volume for each area of the body worked at the end of each exercise session, at the end of the week. (This is always on top of cardio and nutrition). Make the majority of your exercises large compound exercises that work lots of muscles, and do these frequently, and then add in a few on top of that to isolate certain muscle groups.

To simplify it further, here are two options for “toning” or “spot reducing”;

  • You want “toned” back of the arms. You would have to specifically work your tricesp muscle doing hundreds of reps of exercises, many days of the week (like a body builder routine who spends 1-2 hours in the gym a day 6 days a week doing isolated exercises).

~ Considering most people struggle with hitting the gym 3-5 times a week consistently I don’t see using this High volume regime for toning as very effective.


  • You want “toned” back of the arms. Choose a handful or two of full body exercises that are going to not only challenge the arms, but the rest of the body. Do a good solid workout with intensity using all your muscles for roughly an hour let’s say 4-5 times a week. At the end of this program you have spent less time exercising, and more time focusing on getting overall body tone and strength (leaner muscles) rather than just ending up with some nice looking arms.

Katy put it herself like this: “Yeah. So spot reduction – biologically, spot reduction is how it works. However, the frequencies of movement are so so slow, that even if you’re doing 2-3 workouts a week over a period of 4 months, that’s still quantitatively so low that you probably wouldn’t notice any physical reduction in the shape of your fat deposits”.


So would you look at that! After 10 years of refusing to use the word “toning” in the industry I find a nice scientific way to bring it around full circle.


What a perfect segway to me telling you about a program I am starting on Tuesday April 12th from 6-7 pm at the YWCA Health and Fitness Centre.

I teach a women on weights training program. It is an advanced women’s only small group training program where you learn compound lifts and advanced strength-training exercises. These exercises are great because they work every muscle in the body at once, giving you an efficient, metabolic boosting, strength gaining, fat blasting workout!  

The class is $150 for members and $186 for non members. It runs for 6 weeks on Tuesday nights from 6-7 pm. Call 604-858-5777 to sign up.


I hope this blog made sense for you- please let me know if you have any questions!!


If you don’t have Itunes or listen to podcasts, you can also read the entire interview Katy did about this topic (including references to the research studies) here:


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