What Exercises Do I Need to Do to Tone?

by Michael Plank

Let’s get this out of the way: this post is going to be a huge disappointment. I’m sorry.

When people ask: “What exercise should I do to tone?” what they almost always ask about is abs, glutes, or arms (maybe triceps specifically). What they almost always mean is: “how do I make my waist/hips/arms look skinny and/or get some visible muscle definition?”

Because we live in a consumer-driven economy, they’ve seen a million articles and posts and videos and magazines that promise six-pack abs with this secret-Navy-SEAL-sit-up-variation, or toned arms with the-one-exercise-you’ve-been-missing, or a behind-the-scenes-look-at-J-Lo’s-favorite-booty-workout (OK, that last one is a little dated).

Here’s my point: marketers know that people are desperate for a quick fix, so that’s what they offer are exercises that promise to give you the body of your dreams.

In the fitness industry, we call this “spot training,” which is the idea that you can use one exercise to change the shape of a certain part of your body. And it’s not total BS, because you can absolutely do one exercise to build muscle in a certain place. But people (marketers and consumers both) play that out and assume that that means there’s an exercise that will be sufficient – by itself – to give you all the visual results that you want.

Are you ready for the disappointment?

That exercise doesn’t exist.

You can do a million sit-ups, curls, triceps extensions, and squats and not have visible muscle definition.

Exercise is about building a muscle’s capacity to do work, first and foremost, and often also about building a muscle’s size (those are two different things). Exercise absolutely helps build muscle. But you can have big, strong muscles capable of incredible feats and not have visible muscle definition. This is true for many heavyweight athletes.

Visible muscle definition is largely about bodyfat percentages. Someone with less bodyfat will have more visibly defined (or “toned”) muscles than someone with more bodyfat. That’s true of their abs, arms, and glutes, as well as thighs, calves, forearms, chest, back, neck, elbows… everything.

Bodyfat percentage is about some things that are out of your control (like genetics) and a lot of things that are fully or partially in your control (like nutrition, sleep quality, and stress management).

But the bad news in all of this, that I have to tell you, is that “spot training” for fat loss doesn’t work.

Doing sit-ups is great. It’ll absolutely make your abs stronger and there are so many benefits to that. But it won’t magically give you a six-pack (unless you’re already very, very lean when you start doing them).

The good news is that lifestyle changes, especially to nutrition, are every bit as powerful and effective as you could hope.

So if you want to get more toned – whether you mean toned overall or toned in a specific area – exercise. For sure. It’ll help build those muscles you want to show off.


If your goal has to do with tone, definition, or changing the way your body looks, make sure you add some nutrition work in there too. Nutrition Coaching is a great place to start.