Do you need more core work?

A member asked me a great question the other day if they could get more core work in their next programme. They really wanted to work on toning their midsection. 

It's an innocuous enough looking question and one that  we'd get asked quite regularly. However there's an underlying issue with toning it that I thought would be good to address.

The idea of toning exercises is misunderstood. Toning actually has 2 parts  to it. Sure we need to exercise the specific muscles so that they become more toned. This is actually best achieved when getting stronger. This activates more of each muscle and then the muscle stays 'activated'/toned for a good while after. Doing this week in week out causes the muscles to stay toned all the time.

The other part to it is fat loss. In order to see the shape and tone of a muscle it cannot be covered by much body fat. If it is then you'll never see good tone and shape because it stays hidden under the fat.

Now, when someone asks for more toning exercises there are a few things unconsciously assumed.

1. They think they aren't being given enough toning exercises

2. They think more toning exercises are needed to achieve better results

3. They think fat  loss is achieved by doing toning exercises

Let's look at number 2 first. When it comes to making improvements in our fitness more isn't better. Better is better. In my previous blog post Cardio for stress - How to increase health, wellness and longevity I spoke about how important recovery is for results. Exercise is the stimulus but without adequate recovery you won't make improvements.

Recovery is dependent on a number of factors including sleep, nutrition (fuel), hydration and stress management. So if some of these are off, as they are with many people in today's lifestyle, your ability to make improvements is diminished.

Sure if you're sleeping 8+ hrs a night, are fuelling yourself optimally with the right nutrients and calories, drinking enough water and have little reaction to stress in your life then more exercise can help. But that's rarely the case.

When it comes to toning, lifting weights 2-3 times per week is all most people need. And, as I mentioned earlier, getting stronger (ie increasing the weight lifted for each exercise on a weekly basis) is far more important than doing more exercises or sessions in a week.

In fact a  study of 72 women showed doing more sessions was actually counterproductive to results. They either did 1 aerobic and 1 resistance session a week (1+1), 2 aerobic and 2 resistance (2+2), or they did 3+3. The amount of calories they burned per day was measured and the researchers found, despite doing 50% more exercise the 3+3 group burned fewer calories per day than the 2+2 group. Not only that but outside of the sessions the 2+2 group burned an extra 200 cals per day, while the 3+3 group burned 150 fewer calories per day.

"Despite doing 50% more exercise they burned fewer calories per day than the other group"

This can be down to a number of factors, recovery and energy being a big part. The theory behind this is that as you do more exercise your body slows down at other times and simply conserves energy. This is a great example of how doing more isn't necessarily better. Better is better.

Looking at the 3rd assumption, fat loss being achieved by toning exercises, we see one of the most common myths in the fitness industry. Toning exercises do not do enough to burn significant amounts of fat. To burn fat we MUST consume fewer calories than we burn off. Now, the amount of calories we can burn off is severely limited (exercise does not burn as many calories as we might think) so in order to burn fat and see muscle tone, focusing on how much we are eating is by far the better plan.

When it comes to the abdominals this is especially important because the muscles we are trying to tone are flat and covered by a large amount of fat compared to something like your arms. On the arms the muscles are more 3 dimensional and don't have a huge amount of fat covering them. This means you'll see toned arms well before toned abs.

Finally to address the 1st assumption, why on earth would a coach not give enough training/exercises to someone. A coach is hired to help get results so they aren't going to shoot themselves in the foot and not give you enough exercises. Sure, you can get better coaching from experts like ourselves at SF with 30+ years of experience. But if you're training 2-3 times a week you're more than likely doing enough exercises, in fact you might be doing too many based on the points made above.

So, in order to get toned abs, or more toned in general the key is to exercise AND make changes to your diet. They don't have to be huge changes but something in your diet will need to change if part of your results require fat loss.

About the Author John O'C

John O'Connell is the owner of SF Fitness & Health Centre. He started working in the fitness industry in 2002 after suffering a back injury. He has worked with many professional organisations including Leinster Rugby, An Garda Siochana, New Zealand Rugby, Dublin GAA, Spar and CBRE. He has also appeared muliple times on both RTE & TV3 as a health & fitness expert. John is the co-author of 2 international best selling books - Total Body Breakthroughs and The Fit Formula.

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