Real talk:

In these articles, I will do my best as a personal trainer to answer questions and debunk superstitions about exercise, weight loss, muscle gain, and health. In the process (brace yourself), I am going to use the word “fat.” When I use the word “fat,” I am referring literally to subcutaneous, adipose fatty tissue. To give you a better idea of my philosophy, I define terms like “weight loss,” “fat loss,” and “diet” very narrowly, and I support whole-body health, balance, and happiness. Ready for more?

What is spot-toning?

Some people labor under the false impression that doing thousands of crunches will yield washboard abs. Even though this is an extreme example that many people will find ridiculous, if you pause for a moment, you will realize that you have been victim of “spot-toning advertising” in the past. Some fitness methods promise that they can “sculpt” your arms, “tone” your abs, or create “long,” lean muscles. This terminology preys on the female population’s fear of “getting bulky,” and most of the advertising focuses on “long and lean” language (especially for thighs and legs). But is it possible?

Let’s take a closer look at the idea of spot-toning and true exercise science.

What does exercise really do? It builds muscles and burns calories. It does not “sculpt.” Increased lean muscle mass typically increases your metabolism, and if you pair consistent exercise with a healthy way of eating, your body composition will gradually transform. However, you lose fat all over your body consistently, with variables due to genetics and gender.

For example, doing lots of squats and other effective lower body exercises, under the best of circumstances, will contribute to fat loss and possibly weight loss.  However, what many women find is that the “Secret Angel Leg Workout” can sometimes result in a thinner face or a smaller waistline before any transformation is visible in the thighs. This is because the rate at which you lose fat from various parts of your body is not dependent on what kind of exercise you do – the results, instead, hinge largely on genetics and where you tend to store body fat. This doesn’t mean that you won’t ever see slimmer, more muscular legs if you are consistent with your lower body exercises – it simply means that you are building muscle beneath fat that is going to take longer to disappear than fat on other parts of your body, perhaps.

In fact, many women find that at the onset of a new exercise program, they get slightly bigger before they get smaller. Bigger muscles are bigger muscles, even if there is fat on top of them!

What is the solution, if spot-toning doesn’t exist?

It is smart to remember that exercise doesn’t yield results overnight. The best training plan has a long, sustainable timeline that will allow you to see results over months and years. There is no “miracle workout” – any exercise is better than none, and the exercise plan that is best for you is the one that you will do for a long, long time.

Keep it simple.

Thoroughly work legs, arms, and core at least once or twice a week using traditional, weight-bearing exercises. For arms, I would recommend a simple routine of pushups, presses, rows, curls, and flies, using a resistance level at which you cannot exceed 12 reps. For legs, I suggest challenging yourself with lots of balance work, using one-legged exercises such as pistol squats, single-leg deadlifts, and glute bridge push-ups. For the core, I would focus on plank and Pilates-style movements such as 100’s, toe taps, roll-ups.

However, the bottom line that must be mentioned is this:

A six-pack is made in the kitchen.

If you are seeking to visibly define your muscles, you will never be able to out-exercise a poor diet. Get real about your eating lifestyle by keeping a food journal and observing your behaviors around food. My experience is that most people far underestimate how much they eat every day, and keeping a log helps you gain self-awareness and schedule your meals with more mindfulness. For some people, what they discover is that they eat too much. Others discover that they don’t eat enough and that they are cuing their body to hold onto fat stores.

This doesn’t mean start a new diet. In fact, I strongly discourage dieting and instead urge my clients to examine their relationship with food instead. Small shifts often yield major positive changes.

Does this answer your questions about spot-toning? If not, start a dialogue in the comments below!



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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