*Necessary Disclaimer: I am not a Registered Dietician, and I am not a doctor. I’m not even that big, bro. Please, do not misinterpret anything on this site as medical advice. It’s not. Always consult a doctor before doing anything that might negatively impact your health, and always use caution when listening to an opera singing personal trainer.
My First Question to Clients: “What is your number one fitness goal?”
Most Common Answer A: “I don’t really want to get any more muscular; I just want to get toned.”
Most Common Answer B: “I don’t really want to lose weight, I just kind of want to tone up.”
I receive questions almost daily from people looking to “tone up.” They ask how to do it, and I give a simple answer: get your diet in check, and lift heavy weights.
If their response is “but, I don’t want to get bulky,” I explain what I’m about to explain in this article. This usually alleviates their concerns, and makes their training (either under my guidance, or on their own) much more productive. If you’d like to reach your goal of “toning up,” read on.
- The internal state of muscle-fiber tension within individual muscles and muscle groups.
- Degree of muscle tension or resistance during rest or in response to stretching.
I’m guessing this isn’t what you want when you want a “toned” look.
What you want is this:
Or, if you’re a lady, perhaps you’d like to look like Daisy Ridley (Rey from Star Wars):
Brad Pitt’s workout routine is a bit hard to pin down (though I’ve seen estimates of his bench press being in the upper 200s), but Daisy Ridley made a stir on the internets when she posted a video of herself deadlifting 80 KG a little while after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released.
Neither of these actors are considered “bulky,” and I’d posit most of us would be happy to have the same muscle definition as either one of them! How do we non-famous people get that look? Well, first we’ll have to accept a few truths:
- Calories are the only determining factor when it comes to long-term, meaningful weight gain or loss
- There are only two major factors we can control long-term when it comes to body composition: how much muscle we have on our bodies, and how much fat we have.
- If we gain muscle without gaining weight (and we won’t gain weight without eating more, as we accepted in truth #1), we must have also lost fat.
- Muscle is denser than fat (muscle density is 1.06 g/ml and fat density is (about) 0.9 g/ml). If we’ve gained muscle and lost fat while maintaining our weight, we will actually be smaller than we used to be.
- Muscles are shaped and ripply, having something called “striations.” If we have more muscle and less fat, we will be better able to see the natural shapes of our muscles. This is what most of us want when we say we want to “tone.”
- While we can control which muscles we grow, we cannot spot lose fat. I’m going to say this one more time as it’s crucial to our understanding of proper exercise: we CANNOT choose which fat gets burned first. This is an important point, and it will inform our exercise selection.
Aha! So, we do want more muscle, and we do want less fat! That’s good, because those are two variables over which we have some control. When we want to “tone,” we need to ask ourselves why we aren’t already toned: do we have too much fat, not enough muscle, or a combination of both?
You’ll see a lot of, “should I bulk or cut” articles on the internet, and I don’t feel like adding another one, so I’ll keep it simple: if you’ve never engaged in a regular, competent resistance training program, the answer is most likely “both.”
How do you get both? Start picking up heavy stuff!
As you start picking up heavy stuff, especially if you’re new to resistance training, you’ll invariably get a little bit more muscular (this is assuming your training is at least reasonably competent); so long as you don’t start eating a ton of extra food, you’ll lose fat as you put on muscle (remember: you can’t gain weight without excess energy, and if you gain muscle mass, you’ll have to lose mass from the only other place you can: fat).
Now that we’ve accepted some basic physiological truths, let’s look closer at some specifics regarding what to do and what not to do when trying to achieve that lean, “toned” look . . .
Do: Focus on heavy, compound movements. Squats, deadlifts, upper body pushing motions (think: bench, overhead press, etc.), and upper body pulling motions (rows, chin ups, lat pull-downs, etc.) should make up the majority of your programming. Why? A few reasons:
- They burn a ton of calories, which will help you to lose fat.
- They work lots of muscles, allowing you to maximize muscle growth (which we’ve already established you want). They’ll also work all your muscles, as opposed to just a couple, helping you to grow proportionally (a lot of what people don’t like when they see someone who is “too muscular” is someone who is actually just weird looking because he works nothing but chest and arms).
- They help you feel better. If you squat through a full range of motion regularly, you’ll increase your hip mobility, ankle mobility, and core stability. Overhead pressing works your Rectus Abdominis (6 pack muscle). Deadlifts (in addition to just being awesome) are a functional movement in the non-meaningless sense (the word “functional” gets thrown around a bit too much for my liking); you pick stuff up in life, and a deadlift teaches you how to do that really well, without hurting your back.
- They are the most surefire way to build muscle, especially when you’re just starting out.
Don’t: Just pound your chest, arms, and abs. Not only will you burn very few calories, but you’ll miss out on all the benefits listed above regarding compound movements. Also, because we can’t choose where fat is lost, we’re best off losing as much fat as possible and hoping that we eventually get to the fat we most detest (usually, this is why people do a million crunches and tricep push-downs) , as opposed to wishing we could achieve a physical impossibility.
Do: Eat lots of protein! Around 1g protein/lb bodyweight/day is a commonly accepted value, and it’s probably a good starting place for you. Added bonus: protein (particularly from solid, chewable sources) is very filling per calorie. This might help you create a calorie deficit. Furthermore, muscles (and most of your body) are made out of proteins. Adequate protein intake helps you to build more muscles; if you’re gaining muscle while you lose weight, you’ll be losing fat very quickly. This is the fastest way to achieve that toned look you want!
Don’t: Drink a million protein shakes. Liquid calories aren’t very filling. Lots of people think that protein “makes you bulky,” and I believe this fallacy is partly due to them seeing friends start going to the gym, downing protein shakes, getting fat, and mistaking correlation for causation.
Do: Start light, and focus on adding weight to the bar (or weight stack, or whatever form of resistance you are using). Adding weight over time is the easiest way to create something called “progressive overload.” Progressive overload is a top priority for proper training.
Don’t: Add weight faster than your body can adapt to. Slow, safe, and sustainable progress is better than fast progress that gets you injured. If you find that adding weight makes it impossible to use good form, don’t add that weight. Also, if you add weight, but lower your range of motion (how far you move during the exercise), you’re not really presenting an overload to the muscle; you’re simply making one variable more challenging while making another easier.
Do: Exercise consistently, with similar movements. Regular practice is the only way you’ll grow competent enough with a movement to make major changes in your body. As you begin lifting, your initial progress will be largely neurological. Keep going until your coordination is good enough to challenge your muscles.
Don’t: Start doing a bunch of random stuff, seeking out soreness and pump. If you grow your squat from the bar to 275 lbs for reps while maintaining your body weight, you will almost inevitably look better for it. If you beat yourself into the ground with circuits and workouts of the month, you might feel like you’re doing more, but you’ll probably see less progress towards that lean, toned body you want.
Do: Do some cardio from time to time. 20-40 minutes of cardio a couple of times a week can help you get stronger, faster. A couple of days of cardio (preferably on days you aren’t lifting) can also help reduce stress and improve your mood, which can have a positive effect on your recovery. This will help you to train harder, build more muscle, and burn more fat.
Don’t: Beat yourself into the ground with your cardio. I like to tell clients, “you should feel better after you finish your cardio than you did when you started.” If you’re an elite level athlete, super intense cardio might be necessary, but generally, I like cardio to be at a point where I could respond to someone speaking to me without gasping for air mid-word.
Do: Recover well. Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep per night to function their best (I’m more of an 8-hour-or-more man myself). Sleeping more will make you look, feel, and perform better. Also, keeping your stress levels low will help you to gain more muscle and burn more fat.
Don’t: Say, “but I did this one arms program and I was SO toned, but then I stopped, and now my arms are jiggly again” as a means of proving that “toning” works. What you experienced was a pump. Pumps are awesome, as they make your muscles look bigger. If this has happened to you before, it means that you’d like bigger arm muscles. Begin a reasonable resistance training program, include some direct arm work, and let the myth that is “toning” be put to rest.
Once we accept that there are fewer variables (how much muscle, and how much fat) that we can control, it allows us to better focus our efforts and get that “toned” body that’s eluded us so long. Go, get strong (not “bulky”)! Pick up heavy stuff, eat your protein, keep your calories in check, and get the body you’ve always wanted.
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