Spot Toning Revisited

Why You Should Work Your Butt Off to Sculpt Your Arms

In my experience of working with women, I think that spot-toning is one of the most alluring – but counterproductive – misunderstandings of exercise science that persists among the general female population.

Exercise science can be complex, and misinterpretations of health research abound. There are tons of urban legends that I could seek to debunk. So why do I pick on spot-toning as particularly harmful to women?

Here’s why:

Trying to lose fat from one specific, focused area holds women back from overall health and fitness goals, and can even hold them back from the body composition goals that they want to achieve. 

Spot-toning assumes that – if you exercise a specific part of your body regularly – that you can “target” that area. Examples would include doing inner thigh leg lifts to get slimmer legs, performing bicep curls to get thinner arms, or crunches to burn fat off of the midsection.

It makes sense that lots of us get bamboozled into this mindset, because it’s heavily emphasized in women’s fitness magazines, blogs, and social media. The fitness industry feeds into it. Also, getting smaller, shrinking, and “burning off” excess weight is a heavy focus of women’s fitness, which – in terms of a balanced mindset – is not necessarily mentally healthy.

Plus, “spot-toning” is an intuitive, physical, but misattributed feeling – when you exercise a certain area of your body, you “feel the burn” in that spot and it’s easy to assume that you’re melting fat off of that one area.

But it doesn’t exactly work that way.

Body Composition

As a women’s fitness expert who works mostly with general population women (a.k.a. non-athletes), I know that when women want to “spot-tone” an area, they are really asking for a change in overall body composition. 

You may think you just want to sculpt your arms or see your abs, but you may be surprised at how much total body composition affects specific areas.

What is body composition? It is a factor of fitness and health that goes beyond (but is connected to) scale weight. It is literally what your body is made of – muscle, bones, fat, fluid, and more. In fitness terms, “body composition” is the percentages – the distribution – of these varying components. It is often expressed in percentages, and a healthy fat percentage for women can be anywhere from 15%-30%, but most “fit” women end up in the 20%-25% neighborhood.

Getting your body composition into a leaner range is the path to looking tight, sculpted, and toned.

While there are a myriad of exercise and diet plans that can help you achieve body composition change, it all boils down to this fact:

There are only two ways to change body composition: building muscle and losing fat. 

Here’s why, in light of body composition strategies, “spot-toning” an area is largely ineffective:

You can “spot-build” muscle, but you can’t “spot-burn” fat. 

I want you to read the above statement a few times, and let it sink in.

It’s one of the most important aspects of body composition change. You can build biceps by doing bicep curls, but bicep curls do not burn fat off of your biceps. Muscle is a local issue, while fat is an overall body issue.

This means that if you spend your time in the gym endlessly doing inner thigh exercises to slim your legs or deltoid lateral raises to tone your shoulders, the best case scenario is that you will build muscle, but you won’t necessarily see the visible results you want.

The end product can be frustrating, because many “spot-toning” exercises don’t build significant strength or stamina or burn a meaningful number of calories (more on that later). If you successfully build muscle in that area but don’t address overall body fat (because remember, fat can’t be “spot-burned”), you may end up increasing in size instead of slimming. Now that’s maddening.

In this blog post, I am going to aim to break down the real secrets to spot-toning common “problem areas” for women, and how to achieve the body composition changes that you really want, while improving overall health and fitness. 

Building Muscle

The first step to body composition change is to increase your lean muscle mass.

Women often back off, a little worried, when I start talking about muscle. They picture the most extreme version of a female bodybuilder that they can imagine, and become concerned that they are going to bulk up. “I just want to tone up,” is a common, cautious request that I hear during consultations.

I address this misconception in another blog post, but for this post, I want to argue that putting on lean muscle mass should be at the top of every woman’s list of fitness goals, for both health reasons and aesthetic reasons.

Lean muscle, directly or indirectly:  

  • Increases the rate of your metabolism
  • Improves multiple markers of health
  • Makes life easier
  • Develops shape and overall aesthetic appearance

Besides, the higher your percentage of lean body mass, the more energy your body expends to maintain itself overall. This makes weight maintenance (or loss) easier.

But aesthetically speaking, muscle is what is going to improve your shape and appearance. Sometimes, even if you don’t lose a significant amount of body fat, building muscle creates an effective optical illusion in terms of proportion – a rounder, perkier butt and more muscular shoulders create the overall feminine effect of a smaller waist, even if you can’t see a visible six-pack.

Unlike fat loss location, you can target muscle shape in particular areas of your body. You can specifically work on lifting your butt, developing your shoulders, firming your midsection, and building sexy leg muscles. But unlike most traditional “spot-toning exercises,” the exercises that will actually build visibly significant (a.k.a. defined) muscles often require heavy weights and/or significant bursts of effort.

When new clients discuss body image and aspiration with me, they often say, “I don’t want to get big, though. I want a Pilates body,” they wave vaguely at me, “… like you!”

I hate to break it to people that a tremendous contributor to my “Pilates body” is pretty heavy weightlifting.

It is unlikely that the Barre class or Pilates class alone – while fatiguing (and often part of a well-rounded wellness program) – are going to give you the optimal results you want to see. For the kind of muscle definition that will make a difference, you need to be doing exercises of sufficient intensity that you cannot do more than 8-12 reps at the most. Classes like Barre, Pilates, and yoga should be the icing on the cake of an exercise program that emphasizes heavy-ish lifting 3-4 times per week.

I say “heavy-ish,” because unless you actually want to, you do not need to pursue truly heavy weightlifting. There is a middle ground between tiny pink dumbbells and screaming, grunting Olympic powerlifting. For many, many women, deadlifting and squatting up to about 100 pounds (or up to their own bodyweight) is sufficient to elicit muscular growth.

To sum up: focus on building muscle in key areas (butt, legs, abs, arms) to improve health markers and aesthetics! It’s the first step to seeing the results you want!

Burning Fat

The second part of changing body composition, after building muscle, is burning fat.

Dropping body fat is important for “spot-toning” because it reveals the muscle beneath. However, fat-burning is a global body phenomenon, not a local occurrence. You have to burn fat all over your body in order to see progress in one area.

You need a certain amount of fat to be healthy and for your body to function correctly, but most of us have too much of it for health. Dropping body fat is a good plan for most people. The key to losing body fat is to prompt your body to use stored fat reserves for energy in three ways:

  • Expend calories through heart-pumping, effortful exercise
  • Expend calories by being more active overall
  • Decrease the number of calories you eat so that you are eating “below maintenance”

Using these three strategies in tandem is key, because it contributes to a weight-loss-inducing “energy balance.” Energy balance is a succinct (and more scientific) way to express the common phrase “calories in, calories out.” If you want to drop fat, it is essential that you are using all three of these strategies to cause your energy balance to require the use of fat stores.

I should also note that the way we store fat is often genetic. For women, losing fat from the hips is often more difficult than losing fat from the waist. But these three strategies are still key:

Heart-pumping, effortful exercises that burns a high number of calories include heavy lower-body weightlifting routines (hello again), steady-state cardio, intense power exercises, and cardio “sprints.” It is my philosophy that all four of these should be featured in your weekly routine – weightlifting 3-4 times a week (including power exercises), steady-state cardio 2-3 times a week, and sprints 1-2 times a week.

It should also be noted that the most metabolically active muscles in your body are in your lower body – your butt and legs. In other words, you can tone your arms by lifting heavy with your legs, because of the whole-body fat loss that is elicited by challenging lower body workouts. These large muscles burn far more calories in action than the smaller muscles of the shoulders and arms, especially for women. This is why I say you should “work your butt off to sculpt your arms.”

Being more active overall contributes to having a “faster metabolism.” This means walking everywhere, standing up and walking as much as possible, walking to lunch, taking a walk after dinner instead of sliding right into mindless TV time,  and generally being a “busy body.” Not in the gossipy way – in the literal way. Be fidgety. This non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) contributes more to your overall metabolism than exercise!

Finally, eating below maintenance while maintaining a vigorous exercise routine will create significant fat loss. I recommend getting an accurate beat on how many calories you need to maintain your weight, then following either a specific meal plan (or tracking your food) to make sure that you are in a slight deficit. This will elicit weight loss, whether you are high-carb, low-carb, keto, paleo, or anything in between.

Side note: beware of fad diets. My advice is: stick with a whole-foods-based, plant-based, protein-rich, fiber-rich diet that keeps you feeling great but also keeps you in a deficit, and make adherence as easy as possible. I have personally had great success with tracking macros (and calories) and carb cycling, but it depends on your personality. Keep it simple, and do what works for you!

One more side note: if you are very lean already (in the 20% range), decreasing your body fat can be very difficult, and the importance of diet is impossible to exaggerate. Contact me if you have questions about improving your fitness at this level!

Spot-Toning Revisited

Finally, my exercise philosophies are largely based on Pareto’s law of 80% of results coming from 20% of your work. If you spend all of your time trying to lightly spot-tone your butt or arms, then you are spending 80% of your time to get 20% of the possible results. If you switch your focus to improving your overall muscle tone and increasing the number of calories that you burn in order to elicit fat loss, you will indirectly tone the spots that you want to address. In other words, you will do 20% of the work to reap 80% of the results that you want to see.

This kind of efficiency is important, because (1) most of us don’t have endless time to spend in the gym doing 80% of the work for 20% of the possible results, and (2) we often give up on efforts when we don’t see the results we want. In order to see visible muscle definition and “tone up,” we need to focus on the 20% that impactfully delivers results, maximizes our time spent on fitness, and is a long-term sustainable endeavor, so that we can enjoy a well-balanced lifestyle!

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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