Trainer: So tell me about your fitness goals.
Woman: I want to get in shape. You know, get a little more toned but not too bulky.
Safe to say, trainers here this one a lot so the eye roll isn’t about you, it’s about the words “toning and “bulky” in the same sentence. These terms can mean many things to different people! However, it usually means “I want to lose some body fat and create some definition in my body.”
The Truth about Toning
First off, I’m not condemning you for using the words “tone up” to describe your fitness goals, but it’s important to understand what you’re signing yourself up for when you do embark on a so-called toning goal.
The word “toning”or “tone up” is just another term for “building muscle.” Sure, the latter doesn’t sound as feminine or sexy, but that’s what your body is doing when it tones. Muscle is what creates the shape of your body, and the only way to alter that shape is to train those muscles with resistance.
In the training world we call that hypertrophy training, and it includes movements like squats, deadlifts, and chin-ups that target several muscle groups at once. Unfortunately, mainstream media has led us to believe that there are special exercises for specific body parts if you want to tone up, and those big, heavy exercises like squats and deadlifts aren’t needed, or that you can achieve “tone” with 5-10lbs weights forever.
That’s where things get murky. Hypertrophy training (aka “toning”) requires consistent training, not random exercises or workouts to keep your muscles guessing. They are muscles; they don’t need to think. Their job is to help you do cool shit.
Hypertrophy training also requires adequate resistance, which will change as your body adapts to the load you’re using. For instance, if you’ve been using 10lbs dumbbells for two years to squat, chances are you haven’t seen much of a change in those two years. Your body has outgrown that stimulus so either you change the load, manipulate the volume, tempo, or progress the exercise to give your muscles a new challenge.
My Proven Method for Strength and Toning
There is a time for performance, strength, and hypertrophy in one’s training, but they can also peaceful co-exist in a training program depending on your goals.
For example, my program right now combines powerlifting (performance and strength based) with hypertrophy so that I can decrease body fat and fall in line with my aesthetic goals. So far it’s been one of my favorite ways to train because I can still focus on performance and strength, which I love, while shaping my body in a way that makes me feel happy and confident.
To do this I’ve taken a four-pronged approach:
- Lift heavy 4x a week
- 1-2x of high intensity interval training per week (I sprint on Tuesdays and CrossFit on Saturdays)
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep every single night, including weekends
- Make minor tweaks in my nutrition and stay consistent with that (i.e. drink more water, tons of veggies, and keep alcohol intake low)
Be forewarned, it takes a lot of mental energy and discipline to hit all these four points at once, especially if you’re not used to doing any of them at all. If that’s the case for you, I recommend outsourcing what you can and tackling the others one at a time.
This could look a lot of ways. I for one, outsource my programming so that I don’t have to write it. This frees up my energy so I can just focus on implementation and putting in effort around nutrition and sleep, which is harder for me.
Speaking of sleep, this is one of the most valuable tools in my training approach. As a busy entrepreneur juggling clients, classes, and building a business, I was really struggling with getting enough sleep. After a few months of sleep deprivation, I finally made an effort to get 8-9 hours of sleep each night for a week.
We all know sleep is important but it’s one of the easiest things to neglect when we’re training hard to increase our strength and improve our physique. I was actually shocked at how much my lack of sleep was affecting me. I ate poorly, stressed out more, was cranky 24/7, and felt uncreative in all aspects. Not how I want to live my life at all.
If you want to learn more about what I’m doing differently in my training and diet, I talked about it one of our weekly live wellness chats. Check it out HERE.
How to tone up the right way
So you want to build muscle (i.e. tone) but want to do it right, right? Meaning, no crazy diets, intense workout plans or ridiculous products like teas and waist trainers.
Girrrlllll, this is the kind of fitness talk that lights me up! But first let’s cover what you shouldn’t do if you’re looking to get strong and look good:
- Cheat the system. No, there is no quick fix for this
- Two-a-day workouts. Who’s got time for that?
- Setting an unrealistic timeline. That’s where the crazy comes in!
- Do MORE cardio. Nah girl, you need smart cardio not more!
- Lift only 5-10lbs *Insert eye roll*
- Eat nothing but salads. Cheese is not a salad!
- Cut carbs. Say what you really mean…you want to cut out processed carbs. That’s cool, but carbs aren’t bad if they come from the earth! And if you want a piece of bread, eat it! Leave the loaf behind.
With that out of the way, let’s go back to my four-pronged approach and build that out.
I recommend following a program that allows you to lift 4-5 days a week. Yes, you can pull it off with 3 days, but I find that the best results are in the 4-5 day range for this specific goal.
You’ll start with a compound movement like a squat, pull-up, or deadlift not only to build strength but because those are the most taxing and efficient ways to build muscle and burn fat. You’ll also have supplementary exercises that hone in on the muscle groups you’re trying to work while engaging you in the basic movement patterns (push, pull, and carry).
Finally, your best bet is to work with a coach in-person or online. This is truly one of the best ways to ensure you have the support, accountability and direction you need to succeed. It takes the guesswork out of the workouts for you and you can get to your goal faster! If you join my online coaching group, Strength Lab, you get a program and direct support for me! CLICK HERE to apply.
Depending on what level you’re at, short, intense cardio sessions is the most effective and efficient methods for losing body fat while maintaining muscle. Read THIS to learn the correct cardio styles to meet your fitness goals.
There are a few ways to make this work. You can add hard “finishers” at the end of your workout, do a 30-minutes HIIT workout or class, or you can include volume in your workouts in the form of density sets or metcons. I highly recommend a least one sprint session a week if you’re intermediate or advanced. For beginners, I usually start them off with finishers at the end of a workout.
This is a tough one for many of us because not everyone does well with a restricted diet, including myself. However, you can start by logging everything you eat for a week so you can look at your nutrition objectively and see where you can make changes.
Most people fail by trying to change everything at once. Instead, pay attention to one thing at a time. If you see that you’re slacking on the fruit and vegetable intake, make that a priority for 2-3 weeks. Don’t start carb cycling and intermmient fasting if you haven’t gotten the basic diet stuff down yet. And quit obsessing about the sugars or carb levels of a fruit. If you are trying to change how you eat, add more of the good stuff to your plate. You’re not allowed to focus on the little details until you’ve mastered the basics.
A side note about diets: They’re not meant to be permanent but you can adopt elements about it to improve your overall health and nutrition long-term. Being vegan, Keto, or Paleo isn’t a diet, it’s a way of eating; it’s your lifestyle. It might work well for you or it might not. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to experiment.
Seriously, get some sleep. Anyone running on an empty or low tank does horribley on all the other fronts, including training and nutrition. Here is a short list of benefits:
- Getting enough sleep keeps you energized throughout the day so you’re not relying on tons of caffeine and sugar to stay awake
- Powers up your cognitive function. More sleep = better decision making around food, workouts, and general performance
- It’s when your body can finally recover and repair itself. That’s when muscle actually grow!
- Total mood booster. It increases your energy and helps you feel more aligned with your goals and vision. No one wants be around a sad or cranky person!
A message for fitness professionals
Trainers, our job is not to condemn women for how they want their bodies to look; we should commend them for taking a step toward changing their health and that is by coming to you.
What if instead of telling women that “toning is for printers” and that they should “start lifting heavy” we actually practice a little empathy? Better yet, why not just read deeper into what they are actually saying and help them solve the actual problem?
Most women who are looking to tone up are saying things like:
“I want to feel confident when I’m at the beach with all of my friends.”
“I don’t feel pretty right now and I just need to feel better about myself.”
“I’m unhappy with how I’ve let myself go and I just want to feel good again.”
“I don’t want to worry about covering up my arms in my wedding pictures.”
There aren’t many women who are willing to get that vulnerable about their bodies and self-esteem with a stranger they meet at the gym, so they won’t say that to you. However, with time you’ll likely hear more about how they’re feeling because you’ll start building trust together, and the only way to do that is to be empathic and stop judging their use of the word “tone”.