Weight Loss: “Toning” versus “Strengthening”

When someone asks me about losing weight, there are usually two main approaches I discuss with them. I refer to the first as “Toning” and the second as “Strengthening.” Many things factor into deciding which method to use, and sometimes they overlap. I am going to describe how they are similar and how they are different, and what type of client is suited to each approach.

Toning

When people talk about “toning,” they usually mean losing fat and gaining visible muscle tone in a relatively short amount of time; say, three to six months. This is a perfectly reasonable goal to have, but it requires something special on the part of the client. It cannot be achieved haphazardly, passively, or by accident.

This is because toning requires a higher level of caloric burn than strengthening does. The process of losing fat in a rapid way is only achievable if the client follows a strict regimen of exercise and diet. If one of these elements falls behind, the results can be unsatisfactory.

Put differently, more changes in the person’s life are required to successfully “tone.”

Toning is also harder because it is harder to maintain. Once the goal has been approached or even reached, the diet and exercise regimen does not stop. It must continue in some form or the results will go away completely. There is no way around this.

Let’s say your goal is having visible abdominal muscles. You’ve been sticking to your meal plan and watching every calorie for three straight months, and doing your cardio homework three to five days per week. On top of that, you’ve eliminated alcohol from your diet (yes, this is necessary for toning), respected your cheat meal parameters, abstained from the donuts and cakes that show up in your office on a regular basis, et cetera. And one day, you notice something in the mirror that could be referred to as the beginnings of a “sixpack.” You smile big, and feel amazing.

Now that you’ve reached your goal, that doesn’t mean you’re “done.” You can’t stop watching what you eat. You can’t stop exercising. You can’t start going to the bar every night after work and drinking nine Miller Lights. I mean, you could, but everything you’d worked so hard for would disappear in a much shorter time than it took to achieve. I’m sorry but this is the truth.

Despite what “fitspo” memes would have you believe, dieting and toning is not like climbing a mountain, where you reach the top and then go back down. Instead, you must stay either stay at the top or go higher. This is why many people have so much trouble with “weight loss.” Doing it this way—the “toning” way—literally requires you to change almost your entire life. Understandably, it is too much for some people.

But I’ll tell you one thing: it works. Cutting calories, improving food quality, getting better sleep, reducing life stress, increasing daily exercise, keeping bad and self-destructive habits at a minimum or gone altogether…in other words, reorienting the majority of your life around fitness and nutrition totally works. How could it not?!

The truth is that you don’t have the body composition you have now because of one or even two or three bad decisions. You have it because of an entire lifestyle. This doesn’t make you a bad person. Our lives are unbelievably complex and full of obligations, stress, and uncertainty. But if changing your body composition is important to you, you must change your lifestyle, no matter what approach you use. That, again, is the honest truth.

Toning is one way to do this. It is best for people who are already active and comfortable with exercise (therefore requiring less overall life alteration), and who are disciplined in that they more or less stick to a course of action once they have committed to it. Toning is a hard way, an effective way, but not the only way.

Strengthening

Now I’ll discuss strengthening. By “strengthening,” of course I’m referring to strengthening the muscles themselves, but in addition to that, I’m using the word to mean strengthening the mind of the exerciser.

Why strengthen the mind? The amount of people who are willing to do everything I describe above is very small. That’s partly because “toning” requires a level of effort and focus that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. If you’ve a) never exercised before, b) haven’t exercised in a long time, c) are uncomfortable with strenuous activity, d) deal with chronic pain, including psychological pain, or e) would describe yourself as lacking self-control or discipline, you’re in no position to vastly alter your way of being, not because you couldn’t handle it (it’s amazing what the human body can handle) but because you couldn’t stick to it.

One main challenge that some people have with accepting this reality is the moral judgment they attach to it. They feel that because they can’t or won’t completely alter their daily lives and live like the beautiful, fit people on Instagram ostensibly do, that means they’re “bad,” “weak,” “worthless,” or worse.

Unfortunately, this is the standard to which many people hold themselves: comparing themselves to fitness models who are often 10 to 20 years younger, who were probably engaged in exercise from a younger age, who may very well have fewer external obligations like jobs, houses, families, car payments, et cetera, and who essentially work in the (often harshly critical) fitness industry, which can be, needless to say, a strong motivator.

This is why strengthening the mind is so important. Many people lack what I call a “physical identity.” There is no context involving physical activity in which such people feel “like themselves.” Exercise is always a foreign activity, unwelcome, odd, an imposition. And by definition, uncomfortable. Dieting often comes to be viewed the same way. Hence, they have virtually no chance of ever becoming “toned” as I describe above, meaningfully, safely, and sustainably. They have no “way in.”

This is where strengthening the muscles comes in. The term “strength training” refers to the organized and structured process of increasing the amount of weight you can lift in a given exercise.

“But Coach Mark,” you might ask, “how do I lose weight by increasing strength?” Well, I should come clean. You may not lose a ton of weight through strengthening alone. But you will lose fat.

Increasing the size of a muscle by exercising it increases what’s called your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. This term refers to the number of calories your body burns simply by existing. In burning the calories, your body is maintaining its tissues.

Muscle burns many, many more calories in this way than fat. Therefore, if you increase your body’s “lean mass,” which is a fancy term for muscle, it will burn more calories, which will in turn lead to the loss of body fat.

In addition to this, you will have better, safer movements, healthier joints, a stronger back, better posture, more useful strength for daily activities, higher bone density, and greater self-reliance as you age. And if that wasn’t enough, any fat loss you do accomplish will be more evident because of the presence of toned muscle underneath it. These are some of the many benefits of regular strength training.

So, if you engage in this organized and structured process, and each week, you increase the amount of weight you lift even a just a little bit, over time, your muscles will grow bigger and stronger, your BMR will increase, and you will have a healthier, more “toned” body composition. Simple, right?

Well, you can’t outrun a bad diet. If your diet stays the same, there’s a good chance that, although you will feel stronger, more “solid,” and more robust, you will look more or less the same, at least most of the time.

But one of the beauties of strength training is that it helps people develop a positive relationship to exercise. It does this by teaching them useful skills, specifically the squat, the deadlift, the overhead press, and the bench press, among others. It motivates them through the prospect of OBJECTIVE weekly progress: if you lifted more weight, you improved. Simple.

These skills and motivation start to form a competency that can produce a level of comfort with physical exertion that was never there before. In other words, strength training helps them develop a physical identity.

Based on this newly developed physical identity, it can become easier to implement dietary changes. You have seen the results of your exercise in the form of strength gains and you want to maintain them, so this motivates you to change your behavior, even just a little bit: drink more water, go to sleep a little earlier, eat a little less junk food and a little more lean protein or leafy greens, drink a little less alcohol, take your multivitamin, et cetera.

From there, you might want to add some extra cardio work during the week to keep your “work capacity” (which governs your energy levels during a workout) a little higher, or a designated stretch interval during the day to keep your knees and back and hips and shoulders healthy so that you can keep lifting each week without any obstacles.

You might never quite make the jump towards an “active lifestyle,” but you will be objectively healthier, stronger, more aware, more empowered, and more capable of making that decision with an informed mind, specifically regarding whether it’s something YOU actually want or need, and not that person on Instagram with two million followers.

So who is suited to “strengthening” in this way? Everybody! Whether you’re the “get up and go, can’t sit still” type, or you like to chill on the couch with a book to unwind, whether you’re young or old, tall or short, happy or unhappy, injured or sound, strength training is achievable by virtually anyone.

There are so many wonderful lessons that are learned from strengthening your muscles in this way that I will save them for another article. Suffice it to say that even if squatting your bodyweight is not your goal, you will begin to see your body and yourself as the amazing and powerful things that they really are, capable of doing whatever you put your mind to, and the goals that you do have will become that much more achievable.

A Final Note on Female Strength Training

A lot of female exercisers worry about becoming too muscular. I’m going to put your minds at ease in two ways. The first is biological: with very, very few exceptions, women simply do not naturally possess adequate testosterone to ever become “bulky” with muscle.

The second point is a general rule: no one ever got bulky by accident. Doing three sets of five repetitions of squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses two times per week (or some variation of that) is not going to change you into a She-Hulk overnight, overmonth, or even overyear. Getting big, blocky-looking muscles is achieved using many more exercises than just squats and deadlifts and with a much higher amount of sets and reps, often utilizing fairly extreme dieting methods on top of that.

If a woman, including you, wants to look “jacked,” that is totally fine. In fact, it’s awesome. But strength training alone generally won’t accomplish it. So rest easy. You can have stronger, more toned legs, better hip and back health, higher metabolism, and more useful upper body strength without having to look like a “bodybuilder.” At least, not until you want to. :)))

And if you don’t believe me, check out this 19-year-old world-class female powerlifter. Strong, solid, but not exactly a she-hulk is she?

A reply to Breaking Muscle’s “A Frank Assessment of the Plank”

Breaking Muscle is a website and social networking presence that I follow and read a good amount. I respect their standpoints and expertise and like a lot of what they say. So consider this a respectful critique of author Charles Staley’s recent article “A Frank Assessment of the Plank: Just a Way to Burn Time?”

Coach Staley’s first criticism of planks originates in their supposed inability to improve body composition. He bases this critique on his belief that “this is by far the primary benefit that those who do planks expect to experience.” I can’t fault him for what other people expect; however, he could have pointed out that the plank serves most effectively as an activation exercise for most of the people who use it as such, not as a muscle-builder.

Additionally, the type of plank that Coach Staley is probably critiquing involves nothing more than basically maintaining a static pushup position on your elbows. When there is no attempt to actively engage the main core musculature (abdominal wall, intrinsic core stabilizers, glutes, erectors), perhaps because the exerciser is not able to actively or deliberately engage them, naturally there would be a reduced level of functional improvements and a decreased level of calorie-burn. Again, I can’t fault Coach Staley for the fact that most people don’t know to activate these muscles while planking, which would make the exercise 1000x more effective for all possible uses.

However, he is wrong in saying that “planks involve no actual movement, they don’t burn a significant number of calories, nor do they disrupt homeostasis enough to cause muscular hypertrophy.” An isometric muscle movement, of which the plank is one, is defined as an exercise in which the muscles are contracted but there is no joint movement. However, this contraction of the muscles certainly IS movement, which leads to both calorie-burn and muscular hypertrophy. Isometrics are not the most effective way to build muscle, but it is downright wrong to characterize them as being unrelated to either calorie burn or muscular development.

Furthermore, any movement intended to build muscular development shouldn’t be criticized further on the basis of how well it burns calories. The muscle that is gained increases a person’s BMR and burns the lion’s share of the calories, not the compound movement itself. That’s why increased BMR should be the end-goal of weight-training, not calorie burn. But that’s a sidenote.

Again, as an activation movement, and one that is properly progressed to include contraction of the abdominals AND glutes and a retraction of the shoulder blades, the plank has the ability to build the mind-muscle connection necessary for the average person to safely perform the compound lifts that Coach Staley asserts are the best or only way to build necessary core strength, and it does so in much safer and more controlled environment (which he later does acknowledge in the section titled “The Cost of Doing Planks”).

One question Coach Staley asks to plank practitioners is, “what type of real-life challenges will the plank make you better at? Don’t look at me [for answers].” The need to be able to activate and isometrically contract the core musculature is an absolutely ESSENTIAL skill for various functional activities. I don’t believe using deadlifts or squats to activate these muscles is as effective as planking because there are so many other mechanics in play while learning how to deadlift or squat, it is too easy to reinforce poor movement patterns/muscular imbalances at best, or screw up and injure yourself at worst.

In other words, the plank—which is itself a compound movement, yes, a movement—is also a kind of regression of compound movements like the squat and deadlift, the latter of which should not necessarily be implemented until adequate core activation has been achieved through such regressions. I’m not saying planking is the only example (here’s another: the glute bridge), or that other regressions more similar to actual deadlifting and squatting can’t be implemented as well. But a person who lacks the ability to activate the core shouldn’t be deadlifting, at least not any amount of weight necessary for “burning calories” or improving “body composition.” How is such a person supposed to build core strength by deadlifting if he or she can’t even activate those muscles? Any core strength built this way would be practically incidental. Maybe it worked out okay for the Coach, but for a lot of people, trying to deadlift without this skill will lead to injury.

After his apparent inability to identify any real-life challenges that planks help you improve upon, Coach Staley concludes, in all caps, “IF YOU CAN HOLD A PLANK POSITION FOR TWO MINUTES, YOU PROBABLY HAVE ENOUGH CORE STABILITY AND THEREFORE, DON’T NEED TO DO PLANKS. IF YOU CAN’T, IT’S LIKELY THAT YOU’RE SIMPLY WEAK OR OVERWEIGHT, WHICH MEANS THERE ARE FAR BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN PLANKS.”

How about, “if you can hold a plank for two minutes, progress it?” or “if you can hold a plank for two minutes, you’re doing it wrong in the first place”? If I can deadlift 320 or snatch 205 for 15 reps at 6’6″ tall and 175-pound bodyweight, I’m probably doing it wrong: jerking, flipping, jumping, flaring the S out of my ribcage, hyperextending the F out of my lower back. The same is true of planking. If it’s too easy, you’re doing it wrong. It’s just that planking is 1000x less dangerous than those other movements when done wrong.

“If you can’t [plank for two minutes], it’s likely that you’re simply weak or overweight, which means there are far better things to do than planks.” Like what? Since Coach Staley didn’t as yet mention any alternatives, I can only guess. Situps? Crunches? Hanging Leg Raises? Let me say that one or two of my favorite articles I’ve seen on Breaking Muscle are about how to spot a bad personal trainer. One telltale sign is, “does that trainer have you doing crunches or situps?” I agree with this. And hanging leg raises are completely inappropriate for most novices and many intermediates. Why? Because these folks are unable to activate their core musculature. Teaching how to activate it is what the plank is meant to do.

As far as alternatives go, I can safely assume that Coach Staley does NOT mean situps, crunches, or hanging leg raises. He means compound lifts. Another telltale sign of a bad trainer is having a client do compound lifts without having built up the proper body mechanics necessary to safely perform such lifts. Core strength, like strong abductors, shoulderblades that retract, a neck that doesn’t tip the head back, and heels that stay down, is just another one of these body mechanics.

Again, I can’t fault Coach Staley for only being aware of, or only choosing to criticize, the plank that most people do. I appreciate his critique of fitness professionals who have clients perform the boring “get on your elbows and wait” plank instead of applying any progressive, regressive, or functional principles to it at all. Seeing people planking like the woman pictured in the article, with absolutely no core or glute activation whatsoever and a bored look on their face, is probably what makes Coach Staley’s blood boil (my words, not his) when it comes to planking.

But I think a more worthwhile critique would have been to critique exactly this type of plank, the useless type, not planking in an absolute sense. When he does address the issue of alternatives to planking, Coach Staley says, “If you’re looking to improve body composition, I’d dial your diet in and lift weights. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned about your core stability, I’d first ask yourself why you feel your core stability is lacking. If you come up with a reasonable answer, I’d do things like this…”

And then he includes this video:

I’m not sure whether Coach Staley means to imply this or not, but the Stirring the Pot exercise is none other than….a plank progression. It is a difficult movement, not to be tried by novices whose core is unable to adequately contract to protect the lower back. As you can see in the video, this person’s back is completely flat and not dipping down at all. It wouldn’t look like that for a lot of less-fit people, I’ll tell you what. It’s irresponsible, in my view, for Coach Staley to suggest the Stirring the Pot exercise as an “alternative to a plank” for someone who “feels their core stability is lacking.”

Plus, Stirring the Pot IS a plank.

In conclusion, perhaps a greater point than the faults I perceive in Coach Staley’s article is how important it is that fitness professionals in general —trainers, class instructors, coaches, et cetera—stop telling people to plank without giving them any real understanding of what the plank is supposed to do: build activation and core strength by encouraging isometric contraction of the core musculature. Of course, that’s dependent on them KNOWING what the plank is supposed to do. The standard for fitness professionals must continue to increase, and I appreciate Breaking Muscle’s contributions to this dialogue, including the critiques that Coach Staley himself has made.

Still, a critique of the poorly-performed plank is needed. Coach Staley should try planking with his abs and glutes completely contracted and his shoulderblades retracted, if he hasn’t already. Then, he can write an article about planking that tells people what to do, not what NOT to do.

How To Combat “Workout Burnout” (and not the good kind!)

For many people who leap onto the exercise bandwagon with both feet, working out is often super-fun for the first few weeks, but no matter great it feels, no matter how excited and enthused and eager you consciously feel, within a month, maybe two, old habits of inactivity set in and that beautifully short period in which you were an “exerciser” comes to an end, yet again.

The best way to combat this habit is….GO EASY ON YOURSELF!! Burnout is a part of working out in the same way that you’d get tired of your favorite foods if you ate them everyday. The answer is variety. Find alternative methods of working out and staying active, and if you can’t find one, make it your BEESWAX to ALWAYS just get to the gym and do SOMETHING. Or workout at home and do something. Just do something!

That way, you’ll feel better that you did SOMETHING, even if wasn’t exactly what you’d planned on doing. Along with that, PLAN those alternative methods into your workout routine. If you know or have a good feeling that what you’re doing in the gym will get tiresome in a few weeks, plan in advance to change it up somehow.

For instance, instead of doing the treadmill for one hour (blah), learn about some resistance-training methods, design a little program, and do them instead. Something like this: plank for one minute, do 20 glute bridges, and then do 10 pushups, 20 seated machine rows (or standing dumbbell rows, or elastic rows…), 30 bodyweight squats, high incline treadmill run for 2 minutes, and then plank again for 1 minutes with your abs and glutes clenched. And do this circuit, I don’t know, five times. Maybe reverse it once or twice. Trust me, this WILL git ‘er done.

And there are a million other things you could be doing to get your sweat on: bodyweight progressions, cycling, cross-training, suspension training, sleds, battleropes, medicine balls, landmine training, elastics, interval training, doing 50 burpees just ‘cuz. Research them online and try them out at home if you can or in a private corner of the gym first if you are self-conscious. The key is to at least LOOK like you know what you are doing, while minimizing risk of injury by using good form.

So that’s one thing that causes exercise dropoff: lack of variety.

Another cause that I have seen time and again is stress. Our lives are complex; our health and well-being often take a backseat to other concerns, like our jobs and families. It is this willingness to prioritize a client’s health and well-being that decides if she is “ready” to really make lasting changes in her life. And a lot of the time, she isn’t. But that’s not her fault.

Stress keeps us from going to the gym, a lot. Unless exercise has served you for a long time as a positive outlet for stress (which is usually dependent on it either being a character-building experience for you, or on seeing substantial results from it), it probably won’t serve you as one now. In fact, it may have negative connotations to you, symbolizing bad experiences in gym class when you were younger, or something that everyone ELSE seems to be good at while you “SUCK at it,” or just the pain and discomfort of subjecting your body to hard work.

No; old ways of dealing with stress—video games, Netflix and chill, glass of wine, a few slices of pizza—these will crop up as your stress outlets, because they are more comfortable. They don’t demand that you step OUT of a comfort zone, like exercise seems to do both physically and mentally.

If this is the case, the answer is not to beat yourself up about it. The answer is to try to deal with the root causes of the stress in your life and minimize it so that you can devote that energy to healthy activities. Why is this or that thing in your life constantly disorganized or overdue? Where are areas in which you need more support from the people around you? What are you devoting time to that is actually bad for your health and furthers your stress and sense of disempowerment?Developing positive/creative means of dealing with these sources of stress is part of entering and sustaining a healthy lifestyle, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

But, doing so will help you overcome any negative associations with exercise and cultivate a positive relationship to it, empowering the hell out of you.

As I said, a lot of people aren’t ready to make their health a priority and, in so doing, completely change their lives: maintaining a daily exercise habit in perpetuity, eating both plentifully and healthily, drinking enough water and getting enough sleep, and dealing with stress in beneficial ways, perhaps even learning to love challenges and adversity. Changing your life in this way requires making specific promises to yourself that are, by definition, not easy to live up to. The main promise is that fitness and health must become an absolutely crucial and central part of your lifestyle. There must never be a reasonable excuse to not work out, or eat in a mindless fashion.

But this promise—“I will because I want to, because I should,” or however you’d phrase it—can’t be the only reason you do it. You must learn to derive some enjoyment from it, some pleasure, some feeling of empowerment.

The “one fell swoop” approach to life-changing rarely works for most people. It takes a lifetime to become the person you are now; it may take a part of a lifetime to become the person you want to be. It requires great patience with yourself to see results, and a willingness to see progress in steps, proactively addressing one aspect of your life at a time until the overall picture starts to appear radically and beautifully different. 

We have so many things in our lives to deal with. Before we try to completely change our lives, it would be super to have some of these things taken care of first. So, one step, one brick, one thing at a time. You will have to find a specific medium, one with adequate discipline and rewards to hit your current fitness goals (and you will need goals; having a way to work out without a gym is a good thing too), but with enough flexibility that you can avoid the feeling of constantly failing and all of the debilitating stress and self-castigation that can go with that.

You don’t deserve that. You deserve to feel good about yourself. So when workout burnout peers out from behind the corner of tomorrow, take a deep breath and say, “time to change it up, and think about what’s keeping me from exercising, because whatever it is, I have the power to change it.”