One of the most common goals of fitness enthusiasts is to have low levels of body fat covering their hard-earned muscles. Whether the individual is an athlete that wants to look good in and out of uniform or a fitness instructor that wants to have “toned” arms, everyone is looking for the most effective exercises to reach their goals.
There is certainly no shortage of opinions when it comes to training programs and exercises that trainers and magazines seem to promote to reach these goals, so it is understandable that many bodybuilders and gym-goers can be overwhelmed by information. But what really confuses me is the claim made by gym employees and fitness authors that certain resistance training exercises are for definition and “cutting up”.
Believe it or not, but no strength coach or exercise physiologist has been able to prove that one exercise rather than others can promote more “definition” or “toning”! Can someone explain how leg extensions are a better exercise for muscle definition than squats? This article will dispel these myths and will reveal the best exercises for meeting the goals of increased muscle definition, which is the correct term for “toning”, “cutting up” or “getting ripped”. In fact, let’s just eliminate “toning” from our vocabulary all together.
First a little background for those without a long history of weight training experience. Bodybuilders (that includes any man or woman that is seeking to improve their body’s appearance!) traditionally perform a number of exercises for a body part during a single resistance training session. For example, in a chest workout one might start with bench presses, move to incline dumbbell press, and finish with dumbbell flyes or the pec-deck.
Now according to many personal trainers and fitness magazines, the rationale behind this type of program is that the pressing exercises are best for strength and mass development and the pec-deck would provide for definition. Also, people believe that these “definition” exercises should be emphasized in order to develop a “ripped” body (that is, low levels of body fat). Unfortunately, it seems bodybuilders and fitness buffs alike have been led astray, and the end result is a poorly planned program that does not lead to the desired results.
Next we need a brief, yet simplistic, review of human anatomy and physiology to reason why these “cutting” exercises (i.e. pec-deck) do not do the job. For our purposes there are 2 components determining body composition, muscle and fat. For most people it is the amount of fat that is the limiting factor for them in the development of muscular definition and not the “quality” of their muscle. If an overweight individual were to be stripped of all their fat, they too would have muscle definition.
On the other hand, a skinny individual can increase their muscle definition by lifting weights and increasing muscle hypertrophy (growth). The body cannot tell the difference between exercises! It responds according to the demands applied to the body. If you lift weights the muscle will grow so that it is stronger and can lift the weight easier the next time. If you eat too much and do not exercise, the energy is deposited as fat and your muscle definition will be lost. It is a very simple equation!
The pec-deck can still be incorporated into workout designs, but it is not the best exercise for promoting a better body composition. In fact, this isolation exercise recruits only the chest muscles and ignores the triceps and deltoids, unlike the previously mentioned presses. And remember that more muscles result in greater energy expenditure and a greater overall training stimulus.
Another myth that seems to propagate is that sets performed for a very high number of repetitions are most effective for “cutting up”. Refer back to the basic anatomical principle that the body’s appearance is determined by the amounts of both muscle and fat, and most importantly that low levels of body fat are necessary for muscle definition. Using a lightweight to do a huge number of repetitions might not “show off” your muscles better than using a moderate weight and performing a moderate number of repetitions.
Why not? Because there would likely be no difference in the amount of total calories burned between the two workouts provided each performed a similar exercise volume in the workout. The greater number of repetitions in the one workout would be offset by the greater intensity (weight) used in the other workout. However, a heavier weight will stimulate more muscle growth. More muscle results in a faster metabolism and theoretically greater energy expenditure at rest. So over the long haul the more intense (heavier lifting) workout may be the optimal choice for reducing body fat. In addition, larger muscles are easier to see!
Okay, so what is going to bring you the results (i.e. definition) that you want? Keep the exercises basic and intense (i.e. moderate to heavy weight). Most bodybuilders are better off to do 4-5 sets of bench and incline presses (for a total of 8-10 sets) rather than including 3 sets of pec-deck in the traditional manner. The volume of exercise will be the same but the difficulty of exercise will be harder and the cumulative effects will greater.
Aerobic exercise is not essential for low levels of body fat but can certainly promote greater cardiovascular fitness and help prevent excessive weight gain. Interval training has now been shown in 2 studies to be more effective than slow cardio.
So stick with multi-muscle strength exercises and interval training to burn more calories out of the gym. It really adds up to more calorie burn and less body fat. That is a far better approach than relying on cutting exercises.
And finally, make the proper dietary changes to promote muscle gains and body fat reductions. Nutrition is the #1 factor for fat loss. If you don’t have good nutrition, no exercise program will help you lose fat. In the end you will be healthier and will achieve superior muscle definition!