To spot-tone or not to spot-tone
February 23, 2012 1:59 PM   Subscribe

Can you ever really change your body shape with specific exercises?

I know this is a somewhat silly question, but please bear with me.

I've been going to the gym 4 times a week for the past year. Although my diet has more of an effect on my weight than exercising does, I've really noticed that my calf muscles are now hard and toned. My problem area is my thighs - I don't really have an issue with the size, but they are just... a bit jelly-like, they don't seem to be aware they've been taken for a spin; and I don't really understand why as I use the treadmill/elliptical for about an hour every time I work out.

I've been reading lately about specific exercises that will tone up your thighs. But also a lot of conflicting information that all the work-outs in the world won't help if it's under a layer of fat and it is impossible to spot-tone. On the one hand I know it's possible to change the shape of your body (extreme examples: Christian Bale, Cindy Sherman), but on the other hand, genetics.... you can't really fight them, right? Would it be worthwhile me doing specific things to tighten my thighs (which I know already are pretty strong, just a bit pudgy)? Or is this just how I'm built?
posted by everydayanewday to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You can't spot-tone, but you can definitely build bigger muscle mass in specific areas. That's why a swimmer's body looks different from a cyclist's. There's no doubt that you could do exercises that build muscle mass on the thighs. There's also no doubt that this will be more readily visible if you lose overall excess weight than otherwise.
posted by yoink at 2:03 PM on February 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

A quick summary of the points that are frequently made to similar AskMe questions:

- Genes can make it easier or harder to affect your weight, but they do not determine it outright
- You lose the excess mostly by cutting down on calorie intake whilst maintaining the same level of activity. This can be hard to know whether you're doing it properly, so strict counting can help
- Specific exercises do not correspond to specific areas of fat loss; fat loss is general over the whole body
- Specific exercises DO correspond to muscle mass and tone but you can only see that tone when it isn't obscured by excess fat

My issue is in the opposite direction - my family are all very slender, and I am finding it very hard work to put on any muscle at all. Perseverance is key to both our problems - don't give up!
posted by fearnothing at 2:12 PM on February 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

Squats will do more for your thighs.
posted by bunderful at 2:21 PM on February 23, 2012

I have a similar build: calves of steel, thighs of pudding. Part of it is just that fat is more likely to go to the thighs rather than the calves, so even if you have mighty thigh muscles to match your calves, they can get obscured by bodyfat. Dieting can help, though you can't control where you lose your fat.

Strong thighs are important for just about any physical activity, so it's a good idea to work on them anyway. Squats and deadlifts are awesome for this.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:27 PM on February 23, 2012

Response by poster: Hi and thanks for answering! Just extra info: I'm in the middle of my normal weight-range, it's just my thighs are a problem area.
posted by everydayanewday at 2:28 PM on February 23, 2012

Before the last two months, I would have said, no you can't change shape of body just over size and fat percentage. It was what I've always been told and always experienced as well. I'm small and lean all over except butt and thighs. I would spend an hour on the treadmill ever day and do a bunch of circuit weights for my legs, and end up as a smaller sized pear shape.

But I made a discovery recently that I've been dying to tell someone. High Intensity Interval Training. I got 4 Jillian Michaels dvd's and have been rotating them three times a week. You can't zone out during the videos. They are HARD.

But for the first time I have "results". My ass and thighs look not just smaller, but qualitatively different in form. My thighs and butt are HOT now, and I see a big reduction in cellulite. I haven't lost weight from doing this. But my shorts are hanging off me.

Let me know if you try it out--to me it's been a miracle-- right in time for my wedding and a form fitting dress!
posted by powerbumpkin at 2:37 PM on February 23, 2012 [10 favorites]

More strength training! It'll build muscle and help you burn more calories when resting. Also, get off the treadmill/elliptical and get on to a track when you run and do interval training. Cardio machines don't do jackshit.
posted by astapasta24 at 2:43 PM on February 23, 2012

I'm in the middle of my normal weight-range

Don't solely focus on weight. Get a really good, really accurate body-fast test and determine if you're in the good range in that aspect.

With that data, you can make better choices. You may be a "healthy weight" and still have a high body-fat percentage. Alternately, your healthy weight could really be healthy -- due to being great in the muscle department -- and your thighs may just require more specific muscle work (i.e. squats).
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:52 PM on February 23, 2012

You are right that you can't choose where you lose weight/fat from. But you can choose where you build muscle. As a pear shape, I became less noticeably pear-shaped when I put ON 10kg (over 10 years) of muscle, mainly around my shoulders, back, chest, and arms. Now I have more of an hourglass figure.

I think building muscle on your smaller areas to balance out your larger ones is maybe a less soul-destroying activity than trying to reduce fat on areas that your body clearly wants to store it on.
posted by lollusc at 3:11 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming you are a woman and if you are there is a good biological reason that your body is resisting mobilizing this fat. You can check out the body Why Women Need Fat or just the author's article in Salon. In essence, that fat is your body's storage organ for DHA that's used for fetal brain development. Your body is going to hold on to that jealously even if you don't even want children. I've seen women get rid of this stubborn fat, but only by dipping into body fat levels that cause hormonal dysfunction.
posted by melissam at 3:21 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, I'm a woman. That is scary stuff.
posted by everydayanewday at 3:37 PM on February 23, 2012

I don't know, over the years I've come to like my thighs. I'm very muscular from olympic lifting, but I do have lots of cushioning on my thighs and buttocks. My waist to hip ratio is great, my thighs are full of nice DHA I might use someday, but even if I don't, for elderly women it's associated with protection against body density loss. And actually, I think it's kind of sexy.
posted by melissam at 3:48 PM on February 23, 2012

Seconding Cool Papa Bell. Body fat % matters more than actual weight. Lacking a photo, I can postulate two scenarios, each with different answers:

1) You're a "normal" weight but have relatively little muscle and relatively high body fat, even though you don't "look fat". Calves generally don't have a lot of fat on them, so your calf muscles are decently defined, especially because you do a lot of aerobic exercise that works them. In this case, you should focus on reducing body fat through a combination of diet and exercise that also includes some strength training. (I fall into this category: I love cardio but don't get my best results from cardio alone. Right now I'm lifting a lot. I weigh about 10 pounds more than I did at this time last year, but fit into all the same clothes and look way better naked.)

2) You are relatively lean, but your remaining body fat likes to hang out on your thighs. Mobilizing it might be too much of a PITA for your fitness goals, and depending on your genetics might not really be a possibility (see melissam's comment). In that case, you might want to go for lollusc's suggestion of adding muscle via strength training -- but be aware that, as a woman, it will probably take a lot of time to make significant size gains.
posted by kataclysm at 3:54 PM on February 23, 2012

I don't really understand why as I use the treadmill/elliptical for about an hour every time I work out.

I'm young, I'm quite athletic, and if I'm using the treadmill or elliptical for an hour when I work out, it's probably not at a very intense level. Unless you are in crazy good shape, you're probably working out for a good chunk of time, but probably not very hard.

When I go to the gym, I usually do some weight training and thirty to forty-five minutes of cardio. I usually do thirty minutes of intense cardio - usually on the treadmill - and then I do fifteen or so minutes of lower intensity cardio, usually on a bike. After the higher intensity portion of my workout, I'm soaked in sweat and very, very tired.

TLDR: You're probably not working out as hard as you could. Try bumping it up a notch, but for shorter periods of time. So instead of an hour of lower-intensity cardio, you do half an hour two or three days a week and then you can do an hour of lower-intensity one or two days a week.

It's impossible to spot tone, but if you become more athletic and leaner overall by bumping up the intensity of your workouts, or at least some of your workouts, and watching what you eat, you can change the overall shape of your body. Or at least within reason. Thighs are tricky, though. I've learned to accept that my thighs are where my fat likes to hang out.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 4:35 PM on February 23, 2012

Response by poster: You're right, I'm not working out at any intensity really - but I can't as I have heart problems and have to try to keep my bpm down (Sometimes I barely break a sweat as my heart rate climbs up to it's max and feel sure everyone in the gym is thinking I'm an idiot .... ugh I hate my body).

So I have to do a lot longer in the gym than I'd like in order to accomplish anything at all. I take it that means the workout I'd need to do in order to really affect my body is off limits.....that's sad as I spend so much time in there. :(
posted by everydayanewday at 5:14 PM on February 23, 2012

Response by poster: Oh and I'm still fairly young (at 31), just affected by health issues. Bleurgh.
posted by everydayanewday at 5:15 PM on February 23, 2012

I think you'd be much more satisfied with your body shape if you created a calorie deficit and lifted weights three times a week. Running yourself ragged on the treadmill isn't going to un-jelly your thighs if your body fat is middle-range. Cardio like that may help a bit, but losing fat and lifting weights/doing resistance training will be so much more effective.

Anecdata: I worked on a treadmill 1.5 hours 6 days a week, varying intensity for about two years and it never did as much for me as eating less carbohydrates and sugar (while still being vegan) and lifting increasingly heavy weights. I went from the mid to low range of BMI and voila! Changes I thought were impossible began to happen. It's your body fat that's the problem. Banish it and you'll notice changes.
posted by devymetal at 5:29 PM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes. Lift weights. Forget the elliptical.
posted by a_girl_irl at 5:46 PM on February 23, 2012

everyone in the gym is thinking I'm an idiot .... ugh I hate my body

Nobody in the gym is paying enough attention to other people's workouts to care about yours. Don't hate your body; it changes nothing and is a complete waste of time.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:21 PM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nth-ing recommendation to lift weights while cutting out sugar and refined carbs.

The problem with losing weight is that if you don't actively try to preserve lean mass, you will most likely lose muscle as well as fat, and end up with a smaller version of your old physique.

The added bonus will be that you won't have to spend quite so much time in the gym.
posted by Elcee at 6:28 PM on February 23, 2012

My leg shape (including thighs, and my thighs are pretty large too) has changed a lot due to working out...they are much more toned and I no longer feel uncomfortable wearing shorts.

I think the elyptical might not be challenging enough for you. I used to do the elyptical all the time, but it became boring and kind of easy after awhile. I also noticed a difference in my legs especially after taking Zumba and Les Mills classes. After an hour in either of those classes, I feel like I've done much more than I ever did on the elyptical.

I just added yoga too, and while it's a bit early to see results,I think it will do a lot of msucle tone.
posted by bearette at 6:30 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your gym has a "strength" class, take that. It is code for weighlifting and overall fitness. When I took one at NYSportsClub, we did a lot of squatting with those long bar weights and my thighs looked awesome.
Also, jujitsu, where your default pose is a high squat, is great for if you want to focus on something else while you work out.
posted by rmless at 9:00 AM on February 24, 2012

Nobody in the gym is paying enough attention to other people's workouts to care about yours. Don't hate your body; it changes nothing and is a complete waste of time.

Right on.

Yoga. My ass never looked better than when I was going to yoga three times a week.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:37 AM on February 24, 2012

I'll add option c) you actually have a lot of muscle on your thighs, but very little residual tension in the muscle--so your muscles look like flab when they're relaxed. In theory, the cure for this is heavy weights over a lot of reps, but spaced out so you only do a few reps at a time. It's easy to tell where you are if you flex your thighs and poke around to see which bits are actually fat.

My other recommendation is horseback riding without stirrups, which gets the inner thigh area in a way that running/biking/ellipticalizing really doesn't. Also, it's fun. And the prospect of hitting the ground if you don't balance and grip is pretty motivating.
posted by anaelith at 3:43 AM on February 25, 2012

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