How to ACTUALLY get toned
If you went around a typical gym and took a survey of what people’s aesthetic goals were, the chances are you’d find this result:
- Men want to build muscle and be bigger
- Women want to be toned
If the buzzword in men’s fitness is ‘size’, the equivalent for women is ‘tone’, at least when it comes to muscle.
A large portion of the female fitness industry is built around the pursuit of this magical muscle texture- see the classes that promise to target stomach/bum/thighs/arms and turn soft into firm.
In fitness media the general advice is that reps are good for tone: light weights performed with high repetitions will get you that ‘burn’ which means you’ll get nice firm and shapely muscle, without being too ‘bulky’.
The short answer? I’m afraid that’s simply not true.
What is the secret to having a toned body?
- Build muscle
- Have low bodyfat
- That’s it, there are only two points
Being toned is literally just a combination of having sufficiently developed muscle and a low amount of fat on top of it.
Everyone has muscles in their arms. Everyone has a six-pack of abdominal muscle. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be able to do much in the way of moving.
All that is stopping you being ‘toned’ is the amount of fat covering the muscles. Your upper arm is soft and wobbly? That’s the fat on top of your muscle.
Get rid of it and you’ll reveal the nice hard muscle underneath.
How do you do it?
Let’s tackle the first point: you have to build muscle.
The fundamental thing to remember is that muscle is muscle. There’s not one type for women and one type for men, it is all biologically the same. Muscle grows because it adapts to cope with unusual demands placed on it, so in order for it to grow you need to challenge it.
A second important thing to note is that muscle size and shape potential is completely governed by genetics, much like your height or bone structure.
That is, two people can train exactly the same, eat the same, rest the same and they will develop at slightly different rates and proportions, depending on their genetics.
If you want muscle to grow, you need to challenge it with a load it is not used to. High reps build endurance, but they won’t change the size or strength of the muscle fibre. Once you get past around 15 reps with a weight, you’re training endurance, not building muscle.
These reasons all equal the fact that men and women should train the same. Far from being the preserve of men and the female nightmare of ‘bulkiness’ training with heavy, challenging weights for low to medium rep ranges (6-12) should be EXACTLY how women should train to build muscle, one of the two essentials of achieving that ‘tone’.
Related article: Women and weight training
Men are naturally stronger and have more muscle-building potential than women because of genetics.
So if a man and a women train the same way, using similar resistance relative to their respective bodyweights the man will grow more muscle. The woman will still build muscle, but maybe half the amount. That’s it: even if the woman trains twice as hard she won’t get past the genetically determined potential for muscle which is much less than a mans.
The misunderstanding of this is where all this high rep low weight crap comes from. So if you’re a woman reading this, I implore you to remember that:
Women CANNOT get bulky from weight training! It is impossible!
On the contrary, if your goal is ‘tone’ then you NEED to be weight training, using weights that challenge you for around 10-12 reps.
If you can do 12 reps without breaking a sweat, it is too light.
If it is too light you’re not giving your muscles a reason to grow or change.
Don’t be afraid, increase the weight slightly until the last couple of reps are hard. The chances of you getting bulky from this are only as likely as you sticking a syringe of testosterone regularly in your butt, I promise you.
To be toned, you need to build muscle. To build muscle you need to lift heavy (relative to you and keeping good form of course).
Let’s move to point 2: lower your bodyfat.
This is equally important. Muscle itself only feels one way: firm. If your arm or leg or belly doesn’t feel firm it is because you are touching fat, not muscle.
Doing high reps, or different rep ranges, or different exercises doesn’t change the way your muscles feel.
You can’t actually ‘tone’ a muscle, you can only build it.
We’ve dealt with the building above. Now what is left is to reveal it, by losing the body fat on top.
The subject of losing fat comes with its own set of myths and legends and I’m not going to go into them all here. Here’s links to some other articles that go into more detail.
Related article: How many sit-ups should I do to lose fat around my waist?
Related article: Muscle: 5 real facts
Let’s just be brief and say that this is where the ‘target toning’ classes like ‘legs, bums and tums’ are again (wilfully?) misguided.
Losing bodyfat is a whole body process, and you absolutely cannot ‘target’ or spot reduce an area.
This myth is perhaps another reason why ‘high rep toning’ is so popular- if you do thousands of reps on one specific body part, surely you’ll elicit an effect?
I can kind of see why it sounds logical, but it couldn’t be more wrong.
People store fat around their middles because it is most out-of-the-way in that area, and doesn’t impede your limbs. From natures perspective it’s the perfect area to put away some insurance for when food is scarce.
So if you want to lose that fat you need to reduce your overall bodyfat: if you eat less than your body needs and exercise the body will use its fat stores for energy, from all over itself.
The best way to achieve this is through cardio, either steady low intensity or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) AND a weight training regime (read more about this by clicking the link below).
Related article: What type of training should I do to lose fat?
Once you get your bodyfat down, your arms, stomach, chest, legs will all feel and look more ‘toned’. Just remember that ‘tone’ is not actually a characteristic of a muscle, it is just a perception you can achieve by have strong developed muscles and low bodyfat.
I felt compelled to write this article because probably the number one question I get asked by women in particular is about how to get ‘toned’.
And despite it being such a common goal it really is so misunderstood and mis-reported.
To recap, forget everything you’ve read in ‘Healthy Living 101’ or whatever generic mainstream magazine about how to get that toned waist or tone the back of your arms.
Combine this with a cardio program like steady 30-40 minute runs a few times a week or a couple of HIIT sessions a week (or a mix of the two), whilst eating healthy, to lose bodyfat.
That is actually the way you will get the ‘toned’ and lean look everyone is after.
Remember: build muscle, lose bodyfat.
That’s the whole secret.
Don’t expect results right away, because something like muscle growth is a long process. But if you do it right I’ll guarantee you’ll get there in the end.
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