Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott, also known as the Tone It Up Girls, could be your best friends, if your best friends happened to be ripped as hell. They are your trainers, your cheerleaders, your #goals, all in one. Picture two mermaids—that's them. Karena is the long-legged brunette and Katrina the boisterous blonde. Both are extremely fit and have the kind of cascading curls that people in New York assume everyone in California has. They are the picture-perfect display of fitness and health that we're all taught to want.
In 2009, Katrina, a personal trainer, and Karena, a sports model, met at a gym in Southern California. From there, a friendship was born, followed by a blog that has since morphed into a comprehensive fitness website, app, and community with 294,000 members. The two produce workout videos and lead fitness challenges throughout the year, on top of selling various product lines that include their workout DVDs and nutrition plans, Perfect Fit protein powder, and branded exercise apparel and equipment.
Between their personal Instagram account, @KarenaKatrina, and their brand account @ToneItUp, they have 1.2 million followers. Their feeds are filled with images of Karena and Katrina working out and hanging out, photos of healthy meals interspersed with shots of wine, and regrams of followers who have found success through Tone It Up.
They change bodies and, by extension, lives; the Tone It Up site is filled with peppy testimonials from devoted followers who swear to have gained abs, strength, and confidence through the exercise and nutrition programs. In 2013, Katrina shared her own transformation, in which she lost more than 25 pounds. And I was going to be next.
Last year, at the ripe age of 25, I came to the realization that perhaps exercise is an important Thing To Do, because if you don't maintain some level of fitness, your body might atrophy and waste away into nothingness (that's the scientific explanation). Fearing this fate, I went from champion couch potato to running a couple of days a week, culminating in a half-marathon last October.
But then it got cold and I followed the call of nature: I stayed inside, watched Netflix, ate terrific, rib-sticking meals, and stopped running. When my coworker and Cosmopolitan.com fitness editor Elizabeth Narins told me about the Tone It Up Girls in January, I remembered that I wanted to be a real adult human who exercises, and I volunteered to do their workouts. Little did I know what that would mean for the next two months of my life, but that was probably for the best.
That's how I ended up on the somewhat labyrinthine Tone It Up website, where I discovered that Karena and Katrina (or K+K, as they sign off in their frequent email blasts) were starting the 8 Week Challenge to help "make 2016 your best year yet!" Eight weeks of regular exercise—surely I could manage that.
I learned what I would have to do to take part in the challenge:
- Before the challenge begins, sign up to the email list, so you can receive the weekly workout schedule and new workouts throughout the challenge.
- Optional: Buy the bundle (more on the bundle below), which gives you access to eight challenge-exclusive workouts and a nutrition plan to accompany the challenge, as well as copies of nutrition plans from challenges past.
- Download all the exclusive workouts, either as videos or PDFs, as well as the nutrition plan.
- On the first Sunday, check out the workout schedule for the week and prep for your meals for the week.
- Do the challenge!
It was a high barrier of entry, I thought, as I downloaded the 23 files one by one. But bolstered by my promise to get in shape, I forged onward. Even if it sucks, it'll be a fun, new experience, I blithely thought. Besides, I had already told everyone I knew that I would be doing this challenge. There is no greater motivator than the fear of failure™.
fear resolution, I examined the bundle I had ordered. Priced at $229, the bundle included the following TIU-branded products: a gym bag, resistance bands, a tape measure, a water bottle, Perfect Fit protein, Perfect Fit multivitamins, a journal, and a necklace. Purchase of the bundle also permitted access to download the premium workout videos and guides, although those workouts could be substituted for free workouts available on the TIU site. The workouts in the challenge required no or minimal equipment, such as dumbbells or resistance bands.
Orienting myself in the TIU world was overwhelming, but I felt like I was being prepared for battle—a battle to make myself do something I normally would chicken out of. Running, aka the accelerated version of walking, a few days a week? I could handle that. Doing HIIT and SYC (a K+Kism that stands for "spin, yoga, and [fitness] class"), and going to the scary gym seven days a week? That, I was not so sure about.
For the next eight weeks, I worked out every day. This initially seemed excessive, especially considering I had never in my life exercised every day, or even every other day.
Some days, the workouts were only 20 minutes long; other days, K+K suggested doing an hour and a half of exercise, sometimes split between morning and night. Prior to the challenge, my last and only exercise video experience had been in college, when I tried to do the Jillian Michaels 30-Day Shred video and had to stop 12 minutes in, at which point I relocated to the bathroom with my head over the toilet, convinced I would throw up. But this would be different. New year, new me!
K+K advocate the morning workout, or booty call (#TIUBootyCall, one of K+K's suggested hashtags, has 125,000 posts). Unfortunately, on the first day of the #TIUChallenge (almost 152,000 posts), I woke up late, missing my booty call (spoiler: this would happen frequently over the next eight weeks), so I had no choice but to go to the gym after work.
By the time I got home, changed, and went to the gym, it was nearly 8, and I was tired and cranky. But because I am a clever person with much foresight, I had made a pact with my friend Dana to meet at the gym. This ended up being especially useful because the gym is extremely intimidating, and there are people there who are very buff and seem to know how to exercise. I was not one of those people.
Together, Dana and I muddled our way through Tone HIIT Up (word play!), one of the challenge-exclusive workout guides that consists of six high-intensity exercises that you do for 60 seconds each with 15 seconds of rest in between. Then you do it again. If you're ambitious, you do it a third time. We did not make it to the third round, and we were very generous with the breaks. When we finished, Dana said, "It's impossible to do this every fucking day, and you can quote me on that."
The rest of the week was similarly intense. Here's how it broke down:
- Tuesday: I was supposed to do 30 minutes of cardio and a 15-minute full-body workout video. I ran out of time in the morning, so I cut the video short.
- Wednesday: Assigned was a 30-minute video focused on your butt and abs. Doing a workout video at the gym is a pain, so I substituted it for a different TIU butt workout. I liked that I was lying down for most of it.
- Thursday: SYC day. Having lacked the foresight to book a class, I went to the gym and did Cosmopolitan.com's at-home spin playlist.
- Friday: Toning day. I did the suggested yoga-inspired video and had flashbacks to Jillian Michaels.
- Saturday: I was supposed to do 40 minutes of cardio and some abs exercises. I went ice skating for my cardio, then did the abs exercises in my very small living room while watching Penguins of Madagascar with my roommate (sorry for all the grunting!).
- Sunday, formerly known to me as the day of rest: I was supposed to run a 5K. Confident that this would be the easiest day of all, and conveniently forgetting it had been a long time since I'd run, I ended up nearly immobile post-run, doing my best to minimize any movement for the rest of the day.
As I continued the challenge over the next couple of weeks, I felt like I had taken on an impossible task. Every day, I begrudgingly woke up, stumbled through the assigned exercises of the day, went to work feeling achy and sore, shuffled back home, and slept. Lather, rinse, and repeat. There was no time to see my friends, no time to catch up on TV. The biggest change in my body was that it felt like it belonged to an old person. I wondered, What was this all for? I pondered some potential headlines for this story: "I'm Nominally Fitter Than I Was 8 Weeks Ago and My Social Life Is Destroyed," or to keep it simple, "I Worked Out and It Ruined My Life."
About a week into the challenge, I thought I should stop being a baby about doing the 8 Week Nutrition Plan, the accompanying diet created by K+K with registered dietitian Lori Zanini to complement the workouts of the 8 Week Challenge. I initially didn't want to do it because I am a person of refined tastes and want to have a diet that permits Flamin' Hot Cheetos, but if I was going to do the challenge, I conceded that maybe I should actually try the whole challenge. (In one video, Katrina says, "Remember, abs are made with your tone-up workouts but revealed with your nutrition program.") On the meal plan, you eat five small, protein-packed meals a day.
A sample day of eating like K+K:
- Coffee and a multivitamin in the morning
- Meal 1: Pancakes made with protein powder and a glass of almond milk
- Meal 2: A grapefruit
- Meal 3: A tuna wrap and an apple
- Meal 4: Mixed nuts and a little dried fruit
- Meal 5: A teriyaki chicken and rice bowl
- Some tea with a little honey to wind you down at night
The nutrition plan helpfully lays out a weekly grocery list and suggests you prepare for the week ahead the Sunday before each new workout cycle begins. How nice, I thought. Until I went grocery shopping and spent more than $100 on a week's worth of groceries, which put me in a dark mood. Although in retrospect, that included the cost of meals that I might otherwise eat out, so it was economical in the end. After prepping as much as I could Sunday, I was good to go.
What I learned about myself: I wasn't eating that much protein in my pre-TIU life. The first day, I ate only three out of five of the suggested meals, and still I felt bloated, gassy, and had heartburn the entire day (Come at me, boys~😘). Over the next few days, I adjusted to the amount of protein I was eating and never felt hungry. At the same time, I never felt totally satisfied. I was eating the right food and getting the right nutrients, but I wasn't eating what I wanted to eat.
Part of it was that some of the food in the meal plan didn't appeal to me. I really don't like canned tuna (I'd never had it before and I can't believe that's a thing humans eat). I definitely didn't like it enough to eat it four times in one week.
I was also afraid to go out to dinner with friends lest I stray from the diet, and I missed my friends almost as much as I missed restaurant food. I felt limited by the plan, and once the first week was over, I gave up on it. Abs be damned; I would add exercise to my schedule, but I would not be removing food from my diet.
Still, I appreciated the concept behind the nutrition plan, to eat smaller meals throughout the day and focus on eating "lean clean 'n' green" (lean protein, clean ingredients, and lots of greens). While I put the nutrition plan to rest, I carried it in my heart. Or something.
THE TURNING POINT
I continued to eat, sleep, and work out on repeat, feeling like I was trapped in a state of fatigue, resentment, and soreness.
One morning at the beginning of the fourth week, or the halfway point, I woke up late (shocker), then met up with a friend for dinner. When I got home, I meant to work out, but then I took off my pants (to help me digest; that's a thing, right?), got under the covers, and then, well, it was over.
It was the first workout I had missed. I felt guilty but then felt resentful for feeling guilty. It's already hard to prioritize everything I need to do in a day, and it was even harder to want to do something that made me feel exhausted.
The next week, I received a helpful missive from K+K. In the weekly workout email, they wrote: "Even if you slipped up a little or fell off the wagon, don't let that discourage you! This is your chance to start new and give this week your ALL! Stay strong TEAM! YOU GOT THIS GIRL!"
That day, I did my morning booty call and, for the first time in the history of me doing this challenge/my life, completed a second workout at night. K+K occasionally suggest a second P.M. workout—this was something I had thought sounded borderline insane when I started, and yet there I was, willingly going back to the gym that night.
Soon after, I realized that I no longer felt as tired as I had when I'd started. That feeling of being always slightly sore disappeared, and at some point, I shifted from three-pound weights (we all start somewhere) to five-pound weights. Dana, my erstwhile workout partner who had since opted out of the challenge, told me my legs looked more toned. A trainer at the gym even used me as an example for his client: "See how she's doing push-ups? She's going all the way down." After I heard him counting out my reps, I became a push-up machine. I could do push-ups forever, I thought, even with sweat running freely down my face, my arms shaking, and my elbows cracking each time I lowered myself. Days went by, and I found myself, unbelievably, looking forward to working out. It became a time to do something for myself, to think about myself. Doing reps took on a meditative quality.
Finally, 56 days after I started, I finished the challenge. I had missed four workouts outright and substituted countless others. But I had done it—I felt really, truly accomplished. I had lost a negligible two pounds, but K+K don't advocate using weight as a measure, which makes sense, given that I had hopefully gained dense muscle mass over the past eight weeks. Instead, K+K recommend measuring various parts of your body (using your TIU measuring tape, of course) to tally progress. I lost fractions of inches from my 5-foot-1 frame, ranging from one-eighth of an inch around my neck and 1.25 inches around my torso and abs (well, "abs").
In my last week of toning it up, I met the celestial Karena and Katrina themselves. They were in New York to launch their Tone It Up x Bandier capsule collection and hosted a booty call while they were in town. The moment they showed up in the studio, everyone got quiet. K+K walked into the studio, beachy waves bouncing. And their bodies, which I had looked at more than I had my own over the last eight weeks, looked just as incredible #NoFilter as they did in their workout videos.
Seeing K+K IRL made me realize how they've built such a following. They encourage you to love yourself and they're positive ("I love New York. There's a cool energy, where people are in such a hurry to get things done, but to get it done right," Katrina said, which is a very nice way to talk about how pushy and impatient New Yorkers are).
One of the strongest points of TIU is its community. On Instagram, #TIUteam has more than 2 million tagged posts. With the exception of the photo above, I did not post to social media throughout my time doing the challenge (what can I say, I'm ~shy). But for many in the TIU community, toning it up is a lifestyle, not a two-month challenge. Fans of TIU—on Instagram, they can be identified by the "tiu" tagged onto the front or end of their usernames, or appearing in their profiles—continuously complete the challenges that roll out throughout the year, and some have been following K+K for years, before their stint on Bravo in 2014, back when they were just two girls writing a blog.
A fan in line who had driven two and a half hours to make the launch of the capsule collection said of Karena and Katrina, "I just wanna have a couple of drinks with you and dance." Their fans want the whole package: the abs, the booty, the hair, the friendship.
It is this desire that keeps the community going. What about me? I thought back on the past eight weeks. Yes, I wanted to be in better shape. I also wanted to be able to meet a friend for a spontaneous dinner. It's not impossible to do both, but it is, aptly, a challenge. I realized that the only way I had been able to complete the challenge was by making exercise one of my top priorities, a non-negotiable ahead of things like seeing my friends and sleeping. But just like I had wanted to to eat outside the TIU meal plan, I wanted to make a life outside the TIU workout schedule.
This doesn't mean I'll go back to atrophying. I don't even know if I could—after two months of daily exercise, working out has become less of a chore and more second nature. I'm now comfortable with going to the gym and exercising in my pajamas immediately after rolling out of bed and persuading my friends that working out together counts as a social activity. I am more conscientious about what I eat, and make an effort to eat more vegetables and protein after a winter of eating less than mindfully. Like other TIU devotees before me, I feel stronger and more confident, because I have struggled for weeks and shown myself what I'm capable of doing. I might not have a six-pack, but I have earned my #TIUtransformation (30,000 posts).
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