If you're reading this because you're looking for the secret sauce of achieving a "toned" body, read on. However, I'll warn you - what you've most likely heard about "toning" your whole life is a lie. More specifically, it is a marketing ploy used by fitness brands, trainers, and companies to target your emotions. Why? Because as women, we've been conditioned to think that smaller = better. Don't get "too big" from lifting weights, for goodness sakes! So the word "toned" was actually invented to trick women into thinking that a certain type of exercise won't make them "bulk up", but will rather "tone" the muscles. And the reason I keep using quotation marks is because physiologically, "toning" is not a thing. There is no way to tone a muscle. Your muscles either grow or they shrink. That's it.
So then what it to be meant by the word toning? Typically when you hear that word, you think of someone who is lean and has good muscle "tone". Meaning, you see the muscles come through but this individual is fairly small and sculpted. What this actually means is that the individual has enough muscle mass to not have what's often referred to as, the "skinny fat" look, but is lean enough to show off the muscle. So this toned appearance requires two parts: building serious muscle + low-ish body fat percentage. Interestingly enough, many types of fitness that claim they will only "tone" you without bulking up tend to be yoga studios, pilates, and low resistance type of methods. And it's long been assumed that when women lift anything over 15 lbs, bulk happens. This is one of my LEAST favorite fitness myths because it keeps women afraid of the weight section AND it's completely false. So to simplify how one get's the "toned" look, let's go over a few key principles. Spoiler: getting toned largely depends on your nutrition (read more below)
Build Muscle Mass
As mentioned above, losing weight without sufficient muscle doesn't typically end well. It results in a body that feels weaker, lacks the lean/strong appearance that we usually desire, and naturally lowers the resting metabolic rate. This is because every pound of muscle you carry on your frame will contribute to your metabolic health. This is why lean people (AKA muscular people) can typically eat a lot more without stressing. They burn more calories while resting just to keep that muscle in tact. So if you've never put effort into building muscle, I really encourage you to start there. While I completely understand this may be scary in the wake up diet culture, it is a necessary and healthy step to achieving a lean body. And it's not only physiologically healthy, but also psychologically. Many women who have been afraid of lifting weights their whole lives experience a massive breakthrough in their relationship with exercise, food and their own body image when they stop obsessing over calories burned and focus on getting stronger. I can personally attest to this, as well! Not only has lifting weights helped my relationship with exercise but it's completely transformed my body.
So what does building muscle mass look like on a practical level? This looks different for everyone in the beginning depending on what you have been or are currently doing. If you've never body anything more than bodyweight and light dumbbell training, start with doing 2 heavier strength workouts per week that aren't done fast or with a goal of sweating a ton. No matter what, if you aren't a fitness professional I recommend following a program or working with a professional. While the cost might seem daunting, you wouldn't try to fix your own car without experience, would you? Yet so many people assume they can just wing it with fitness and expect results. You'll actually save yourself longterm money and frustration by setting a solid foundation and getting the support needed to actually see results. If you're looking to start lifting weights + need guidance on where to start, this program is the best option for you!
(I was actually exercising way MORE in the photo on the left, but my nutrition was completely different!)
2. Lean Physique (Low-ish body fat)
The second, and equally important, component of toning is having low enough body fat percentage to actually see the muscle mass. This right here is exactly why some people lift crazy heavy weights but do have more of that bulky appearance - it all comes down to calorie intake. If you are taking in a surplus of calories, you will add fat to your frame. Even if you're also adding muscle. It's just math. This is why two people can do the exact same lifting program, and one can get extremely lean while the other gains weight. If one is in a calorie deficit while the other is in a calorie surplus, the results will look very different. They both may get a lot stronger, but their physiques will look quite different. Think of it this way: your workouts determine your body SHAPE, metabolic health and strength, while your nutrition determines your body SIZE and overall health. So if you have lifted weights in the past and felt like you got "bulky", it's due to the amount of calories you were taking in, not the weights. The best way to manipulate body size is through nutrition, not exercise. So instead of tracking calories burned during exercise, start tracking your average calorie intake. This will do FAR more for your fat loss goal.
3. Quit the Cardio Obsession
While this is a tough thing to fully grasp, cardio isn't necessarily helping your goal of getting "toned". It may seem counterintuitive because you will actually burn more calories per hour doing cardio vs lifting, but that's why calorie burn can be so deceptive. What typically ends up happening with cardio is that the more you do it, the more your body will adapt. This is just how our bodies work. So while initially you may burn crazy calories running for an hour, over time your body will down-regulate your calories burned to conserve energy. Another thing that happens is we over-estimate our calories burned and then go overboard with calories. Mentally, we think "I earned this". Plus, cardio tends to increase hunger exponentially. So between the mental component + the actually physiological response of hunger, we tend to overeat, thus undoing any sort of calorie deficit that may have been achieved. This is why statistically, many people actually gain weight while training for endurance events. Your body NEEDS more fuel than normal. So running marathons and trying to achieve a fat loss goal are completely at odds and should not be attempted at the same thing. That being said, moderate amounts of cardio are GREAT for heart health, conditioning, and some people just feel better doing cardio. So this isn't your sign to stop altogether or demonize it. I'm simply saying that it isn't your hero for fat loss.
4. Focus on the Basics, Consistently.
The basics may be boring, but they're proven to work. It really is as simple as lifting weights several times per week, walking a lot, and keeping portions/calories under control. You don't need crazy detox diets, insane HIIT programs, hours of cardio, or flashy diet products. What most people lack is follow-through. Nail the basics, then do it again and again, for your entire life. It's not as exciting as your friend's new diet, but it will work so much better longterm. Without wrecking your metabolic health in the process.
If you're desperately searching for answers on how to lose unwanted weight and live in a lean, strong body, I can certainly say that I've been there. I spent years yo-yoing in my weight and trying all the wrong things for a quick fix. The principles above will get you where you want to be, when done effectively + with support. For information on my 1-on-1 fitness/health coaching, click HERE. I hope this has been a helpful read!