The Truth About Toning And How It Really Works

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“I need to get to the gym. I want to get toned for the summer!”

“Really, how do you plan on doing that?”

“Well my good friend from work recommended me this new workout program they read about in (insert popular fitness magazine). It’ll get me toned fast and…”

“They’re wrong! Toning isn’t real! I read about it on (insert popular fitness bloggers web site). They’ve been at it for years! They know what they’re talking about!”

Guess who’s right?

The truth is neither of them.

The whole idea of “toning” and “getting toned” is one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of fitness.

All of this confusion surrounding the concept of “getting toned” arises because it’s real definition and the way it’s commonly used is completely different. This means there are actually three different meanings people attach to the word. Our heads are already spinning.

What You Mean vs. What It Really Means

When most people talk about wanting to get a toned body, what they really mean is they want be lean and still have some muscular definition. It’s basically an easy way of saying “I want to lose body fat and gain muscle just not too much. Women toned. Men big.” This leads to the incorrect assumption that each of these goals require different workout plans or routines.

By now it’s become a marketing buzzword used to sell fitness products especially those targeted at women, relying on their misconceptions of how that “toned” look is achieved in the first place.

Then you have the people who understand what the others mean so they try correcting them: “You can only lose fat or gain muscle. Toning is nonsense” which isn’t completely wrong but also isn’t completely right either. It’s true you can’t “tone” your muscles but you can get a “toned” body as we’ll explain further below.

To make things even more confusing, what “muscle tone” actually refers to, as in the dictionary definition, is the amount of tension a muscle has at rest which is completely different than how most people use the word. Muscles remain partially contracted at rest and the more tone they have, the more “solid” or “hard” they will appear.

So now that we got that out of the way, how do you get  “toned” according to the way most people mean it?

How To Actually Get Toned

As we mentioned before, because men and women have different goal bodies (men aspire for more muscle), it leads people to think that they have to go about different ways of attaining them. This is wrong although we admit it does seem like common sense.

There are two steps to getting that toned body: losing fat and gaining muscle. Remember you can’t “tone” a muscle, you can only make it grow or let it shrink (by not eating enough or not exercising).

Let’s take a look at the muscle part first.

(By the way, you should work on increasing your muscular definition (bulking) before focusing on losing fat (cutting). Muscle needs a caloric surplus meaning you need to be eating more calories than you burn in order to grow them. Some of this weight gain will inevitably be fat so it’s better to cut after bulking rather than before because then you’ll have to do it twice.)

Anyways, the principles for “getting big” and “getting toned” are the same.

This means that those popular low weight, high volume workout plans are actually completely useless for attaining your goal body. In order to get muscular definition you need to exert your muscles enough that they’re forced to grow. Using weights you can lift over and over again 50 or 100 times will not get you toned because they’re not forcing your muscles to really strain themselves.

Light Weights Don't Tone
Put these down — they aren’t helping.

This is a common mental hurdle that needs to overcome especially for women. The fear of getting bulky by lifting heavy weights stops most of them right in their tracks even though it’s in fact the best way of getting a toned appearance. If you’re a women, read this to help clarify why you shouldn’t be afraid of weight lifting.

Lifting heavy (relative to your own strength) will increase hypertrophy (muscular definition) which is exactly what you want to happen. It won’t just magically get you bulky because that takes years of training, the right hormonal profile (if you’re a women you don’t have it), and eating a lot of food.

So yes, you should be doing the same exercises and workout routine as if you were trying to “get big”. The difference is once your muscles reach the level of definition or the size you want them to be at, you simply stop lifting any heavier and just maintain that level. This will get you toned while avoiding the bulked up bodybuilder look.

Now to address the second part of toning, getting to a lower body fat percentage, most of your progress here will come from your diet. Burning fat or “cutting” as it’s often called will come naturally as you build up your muscles because they use up more energy than fat does even while at rest. This will help keep you slim but you still need to eat the right foods to maintain that muscle while at the same time keeping you lean.

We have a handy guide on how to lose weight the “right way” so make sure to check it out. In short, eat clean (see the pic below) with a high protein, low carb diet to help you get to where you want to be. This is general advice but the truth is it applies to the majority of the population — and especially for those working in a corporate environment or don’t get to move around too much. High protein diets preserve muscle and keeping your overall carb intake low has been a staple of weight loss diets for a simple reason — it works.

Eat Clean Foods Infographic
This shopping list is pretty similar to ours (see the link above) for “clean” foods. Overall, it’s a major upgrade to the Standard American Diet (SAD).

Quick Recap

Getting toned is simply a matter of being low body fat while still having some muscular definition.

You cannot “tone” a muscle. You can’t make it longer or change it’s shape. All you can do is make it grow by getting stronger or shrink by getting weaker.

You will not get toned without lifting weights (or really challenging yourself with calisthenics) and neither will you by following a high volume workout plan while lifting very light weights. You have to strain your body by lifting weights that are heavy for you!

To reach your goal, define exactly what you have to do to meet the above requirements by assessing where you’re currently at with your body.

Do you have too much body fat but also some muscle hidden underneath? In order to get toned, you need to cut weight first, and then lift if you want even more definition.

Are you completely lean with little muscle mass and little body fat? Your goal should be to put on more muscle so lift weights until they reach your desired size and eat enough food to give them the fuel they need.

That’s really all there is to it.

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