Health Nut: Get off the elliptical, train to get toned

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November 9, 2010

12:45 AM

The most common fitness goal I see on personal training registrations is, “I want to get toned.” What does getting toned even mean? Most people understand the toned look as visible, but not too bulky, muscle definition. To achieve this look, many women who exercise will lift very light weights. Borrowing from a workshop I recently attended, “light weight” is an oxymoron. Weight, by definition, is supposed to be heavy.

So, really, how do you get toned?

To better understand what it takes to get toned, it is necessary to clear up a few misconceptions. It is quite common for people to say they want to put on lean muscle. Here’s an early Christmas present for you: All muscle is lean muscle. The second common misconception is that to get toned you must do weight exercises with very high reps — 25 biceps curls, for example. With the exception of intense high-rep workouts such as body pump, you should consider increasing the weight you are lifting if you are able to do 25 repetitions of just about anything. You will reap few benefits unless you reach momentary muscle fatigue, that feeling that you can barely do another repetition.

“But I don’t want to get huge, muscular shoulders,” you may say. Don’t worry, you can’t. Not without a huge surplus of calories and maybe supplementation. Women do not have hormones in the same proportions as men do, which makes it very difficult to get the bulky, muscular look desired by many men. The good news is that you can still get stronger and add muscle without looking like a body builder. Muscle is also about five times more metabolic (calorie-burning) than fat, so not only will you feel better knowing you can kick more butt, but you will also burn more calories while you are sitting in class or sleeping.

OK, so you want to get toned in the most effective way? If you agree that getting toned means having a lean, athletic look, then you need to do things that make you lean and athletic. As you probably know, to lose body fat you must have a caloric deficit. Although genetic factors may affect your basal metabolic rate, you can control how many calories you burn through exercise and how many you consume through eating. As mentioned above, if you incorporate weight training into your regimen, your caloric expenditure throughout the day will also increase. The American College of Sports Medicine recommended range for body fat percentage in healthy women is between 20 and 32 percent. With some exceptions (such as athletes), deviating from this range on the high or low end can lead to negative health implications.

Now that you are lean, let’s talk about being athletic. The elliptical is exercise. You will burn calories; and it is good for your overall health. However, you will not gain coordination or functional athleticism by reading your econ notes while you pedal away, burning 8.5 calories per minute. Consider changing your workout. Your body responds best to changes in stimuli and works the hardest when it must use more muscles in stabilizing actions. If you are most comfortable on the cardio equipment, that’s ok, but change which machine you use each time you work out. It is more beneficial to be an athlete. Train like an athlete by doing sprints and running stairs. Be an athlete by playing sports with your friends.

Finally, for women especially, it is important to start thinking about bone health now. Adding smart resistance (weight) training to your exercise program now will help to increase bone density and decrease the risk of osteoporosis in the future. It won’t be easy to get toned later in life without strong bones.

So, go to the Student Recreation Center, run sprints at the track, or do dips off of your dorm room chair. Just do something different.

__Mike Coulter is a Health Nut columnist. He went to Body Pump this morning and was lifting less weight than about half of the women in the room.__

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