So you want to get toned

It wouldn’t surprise me if the number two reason (just after losing weight) for starting an exercise program is “to get toned.”

I’m often asked questions that start with “how do I tone …”.

And the recent pins I found in the Health and Fitness category of Pinterest support just how much we want that sculpted look we find on the covers of fitness magazines.

  • 10 moves to sculpt your body with an exercise band
  • 5 quick fixes for anything that jiggles
  • Melt your thigh fat
  • Equipment free moves to tone and tighten
  • Flat abs bodyweight workout

So how do you tone your trouble spots and get a firm body?

What most women mean by toned

When someone asks me how to tone their arms, legs, or butt I know what it is they are getting at.

They want a firm body, no jiggles, with muscle definition.

And the diet and fitness industry cranks out workouts like the ones I found on Pinterest. Quick fix solutions that claim to firm-up your jiggly parts. Sometimes in as little as 10 days or with just 3 moves.

What muscle tone actually is

Muscle tone is the amount of muscle tension or resistance in response to rest or stretching.

Not what you were talking about, huh?

Here’s the truth.

Muscles can stay the same size, get smaller, or get bigger. That’s it.

How to get a sculpted body

If you want a firm body with muscle definition, you lose body fat. And you build muscle.

The fitness models sporting firm, sculpted bodies have very little body fat. Some to unhealthy degrees.

Precision Nutrition did a great job of summarizing the cost of getting that lean.

In order to see muscle definition (i.e. look ‘toned’), you have to reduce the amount of fat sitting on top of the muscle.

This is why some women feel like they look bulkier when they start lifting weights. They are building muscle (i.e. making their muscles bigger) without losing the body fat.

And losing body fat starts with what you eat. No getting around that.

You cannot firm up your underarms, your abs, or your thighs without reducing your body fat with a nutritionally-dense diet of whole, real foods.

BONUS: Sign-up to get your free 8 week workout plan — burn fat and build muscle!

The first step to a toned body

The saying that your body is made in the kitchen is absolutely true. As much as my love of brownies may hate it.

What the scale says really doesn’t make much difference. While you work on building a toned body, you may even weigh more. And you need to be okay with that.

The focus is on shifting that weight from fat to muscle. Which requires you to…

  • eat enough to fuel your body while still in a small calorie deficit (no more than 500 calories, but I’d prefer you stayed around a 200–300 calorie deficient).
  • eat enough protein to build more muscle. Around a palm-size of protein three times a day should do it. For many women, this will be more protein than you are used to. I suggest eating your protein first at each meal to assure you are consuming enough.
  • eat enough carbohydrates to fuel your workouts (low-carb doesn’t always work for women, especially the stressed and busy ones). Start with a cupped handful at two or three meals, preferably around your workout. You’ll have to experiment with this one, and perhaps cycle your carbs.
  • eat enough fat to keep your joints feeling nice and healthy.

As for sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol, well, you’ll see quicker results if you nix these. But you may be so miserable restricting these treats that you binge. Depending if you are an abstainer or moderator, it may be best to enjoy these on an occasional basis.

None of this means you are stuck with chicken breasts and broccoli at every meal. Focus on whole foods, eating slowly, and stopping when you are 80% full and you will be fine. You can visit my Pinterest boards for great whole food recipes.

The next step to a toned body

The common wisdom is that women should lift light weights for high reps to build a sculpted body.

This may build muscle endurance, but it does not increase muscle size.

And while the idea of growing bigger muscles might have you picturing Arnold Schwarzenegger, that’s exactly what you need to do if you want a sculpted body.

So the next step is to start lifting heavy things, for rep ranges of 8–12, with short rest periods between sets (around 60 seconds).

I’d also suggest throwing in some seriously heavy (for you) weights at lower reps of 3–6 just so you feel like a serious bad ass. You need to bump up the rest periods between sets if you go heavier.

Start with the basic four movements — squat, hinge, press, and pull.

These movements are considered compound movements because they use multiple muscle groups at once. Perfect for those of us with very little time.

That’s right, no more “I don’t have time” excuses.

Squat movements to try:

Pull movements to try:

Hinge movements to try:

Press movements to try:

Be sure to increase the weight you are lifting when it feels like you could lift a 13threp with good form.

Ready to get started? Download your free fat-burning, muscle-building workout program!

Throw in some high intensity training

Once you are comfortable with these basic compound movements, you can combine them to create high intensity workouts.

For instance, you could do all four movements in a circuit with no rest periods between each movement, and a minimum rest period between each circuit. Not only will this workout build strength, but it will also improve your cardiovascular fitness.

You could also combine a pair of the movements into one fluid movement, say the press and squat, and do as many as possible in 30 seconds. Again with minimal rest between sets.

Or one of my favorites is a ladder workout. In these workouts you start at a specific rep amount, and with each new set you either increase or decrease the rep amount.

Here’s an example of my favorite ladder workout, switching back and forth between the kettlebell swing and the goblet squats.

  • Kettlebell swing — 2, 4, 6, 8, 10
  • Goblet Squat — 10, 8, 6, 4, 2

And you can always work back up or down the ladder if you are looking for a longer workout.

As you increase the intensity of your workouts, you will be burning more calories. You may be inclined to continue eating the same amount of food, increasing your calorie deficit. However, your body needs more fuel and if you don’t increase your calories, at least on the high intensity days, you will quickly burn-out. And it’s not fun, trust me, I learned from experience.

Add accessory movements

The last step is to add accessory movements that will help build strength and muscle mass in particular muscle groups.

You can do this by adding additional compound movements. For instance, on your Squat Day, you might also add in some reverse lunges, bodyweight squats, and/or split squats.

Another option is to include isolation movements. These movements only work a very small number of muscles. These are movements like the bicep curl, the hamstring curl, or the leg extension.

Like the extra compound movements, these can be added to the days you are lifting. Or you can reserve one day a week for accessory movements if you don’t have a lot of time for longer sessions.

Won’t I get bulky

First off, building muscle doesn’t happen overnight. So if you start lifting heavy today, you won’t wake up tomorrow with ginormous biceps.

Especially if you are a woman. When you first start lifting, it will be fairly easy to put on muscle mass, to an extent. Again, this isn’t an overnight thing.

But the longer you lift, the harder it will be to put on muscle mass. For women who consistently lift weights, the rate of muscle growth is about .5–1 pound per month. This fact makes some of us who are trying to get strong weep a little inside.

Of course, everyone is different. Some women struggle to put on muscle while others find it insanely easy.

But you won’t get bulky unless you are trying to get bulky. Or you haven’t lost the excess body fat that sits on top your growing muscles.

So the next time your reach out to your fitness fanatic friend or a personal trainer, instead of saying you want to tone up, tell them you want to lose body fat and build muscle. Trust me, they’ll appreciate that you are in the know.

Originally published at on December 31, 2015.

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