It’s summer, and as always, I’m being bombarded with messaging from every direction about how my most valuable asset is my bikini body. Since I’ve lived through at LEAST 3 different phases of the “ideal” body type for women at the ripe old age of 23, I struggle to even conceptualize the ideal body anymore. Nevertheless, my social media algorithms seem to want to give me the latest “BEST Toning Exercises for Arms”, “Two Weeks to A Flat Stomach”, and other not-scientic, vaguely body-shamey content.
Toning exercises don’t work, and anything that claims to tone your arms or give you abs in 30 days is bogus, and that’s on science.
Toning Exercises for Arms (Or Legs, Or Anything Else For That Matter) Don’t Exist.
To understand why “toning” is a particularly irritating bikini body myth, we first need to talk about how muscles work. Muscle cells can grow and muscle cells can shrink, but they don’t change their texture. Muscle cells feel like muscle, and fat cells feel like fat.
When you resistance train, the fibers in muscle cells are damaged. This is often referred to as microtrauma— not enough to cause long-term pain or damage, but enough to encourage the cell to do something about it. To repair the microtrauma, the cell activates satellite cells that fuse together and fuse to the damaged area in the cell.
As this fusion occurs, the satellite cells begin to link together and across the muscle fiber. As more satellite cells are recruited, some satellite cells fuse with muscle fibers. This results in more nuclei in the muscle fiber, allowing the body to synthesize more protein (some articles where I go into a bit more about protein and the protein synthesis process here and here). What’s cool about this is that the increase in satellite cells never goes away—even if you lose muscle cell mass, making it easier to gain muscle later on.
There are other complex processes here, and it’s still an open research topic. However, this is to say that muscles grow and muscles shrink. They don’t change texture. What we think of as “toned” usually just means a low enough body fat percentage that muscle becomes visible. This is different for everyone, leading me to my next point.
Abs Are Made in the Kitchen…Kind Of.
For another bikini body myth, let’s talk about the idea that “abs are made in the kitchen”. This is somewhat true but inaccurate for a few reasons. I think the main logic behind this phrase is that we all have the same abdominal anatomy, and that it’s easier to create a caloric deficit by eating fewer calories.
But, this view is pretty reductive and fails to account for the fact that abs are muscles.
And since abs are muscles, they grow in the same way as other muscles. Hypertrophy, and muscle growth, can occur at either high reps and low weight, or low reps and high weight. There’s some debate about which one is more important, but it’s likely that neither is “more” important, and both are important parts of a varied training routine.
This is to say — doing 200 sit ups a day isn’t going to do all that much to change your physique if you’re doing nothing else.
Also and most importantly, there’s the fact that we’re all different. Some people may have visible muscle definition at a higher body fat percentage than others. I am not one of these people, and tend to carry weight in my midsection even when I’m pretty lean. That’s just my body! It’s still a bikini body!
Abs in 30 Days is Not Realistic
There are three main issues with “ab challenges”:
1) They generally aren’t that varied, and as a result, don’t do much for muscle growth. Like I mentioned above, varied exercises are the best way to grow muscles and gain strength.
2) All muscles (even your abs) need rest days. Since abs are involved in our posture and most of our movement, they’re a little more resilient and less likely to be overworked. That said, too much ab work can make you sore and can also make it difficult for you to engage your pelvic floor (responsible for stopping/starting urine flow), or cause tight hip flexors.
3) There is no way to get abs in 30 days or two weeks. Yes, you can grow your abs over the period of 30 days, and they might be more visible! But to expect that some YouTube video of thousands of crunches will get you there is likely going to leave you disappointed.
Fitness isn’t just aesthetic
While fitness can certainly be used to change your physique, it shouldn’t be the sole reason for doing it, and perpetuating bikini body myths is harmful. This is my biggest gripe with body-image and “toning” related trends.
These trends pop up to make people feel bad about their bodies so someone can promote unscientific “remedies”. It’s creating problems that aren’t there to sell people something or waste their time. And I HATE that. There are already too many companies and individuals trying to capitalize on people’s insecurities.
Alternatives to “Toning” Exercises
Here are some actually effective strategies to increase your muscle strength and crush perpetuators of bikini body myths/sellers of pseudoscientific remedies.
I know I’ve made my love for her clear, but Caroline Girvan, the creator of the free EPIC Program that I love so much, has also created an EPIC Heat program. I’m currently in the middle of it (Day 37!) and it consists of shorter workouts than the original EPIC.
If scheduled workouts aren’t your thing, take your resistance training to the park with ankle weights or resistance bands (no need to have heavy weights for muscle hypertrophy!). These ones are only 1 lb. and can be easily thrown in a bag, but can make a big difference if used for exercises like leg lowers.
Over-the-door pull up bars have been a LIFESAVER for me during the pandemic. I couldn’t do a pull up in March 2020, and I’m up to 5 (!!!) in a row now. If you’re struggling to get one like I was, you can modify with a large oval resistance band wrapped around the bar. The less stretchy the band, the more of your weight it will offload.
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