What you’re getting yourself into: 8 minutes, 28 seconds read time. Contains 1696 words.


Toning up is an incorrect term. Muscles don’t tone up, they either grow (hypertrophy) or get smaller (atrophy). Now don’t get me wrong, if people use the terminology that is absolutely fine, I understand what they really mean when they say that they want to tone up.


Unfortunately, those that typically use the term don’t know what it really ‘means’ which can lead to issues with a woman’s idea on a ‘good’ training or exercise routine. This isn’t women’s fault; this is the fitness industries fault for not telling the truth. Smart marketing still sells the benefit of ‘toning’ and hell I do it too because it is the language used. At least I offer a sensible and ‘evidence’ based way on doing so.


What toning up really means is the increase of muscle mass and/or the decrease in body fat. This brings out the definition and the slender and lean physique most women and even guys may hope to achieve.


Unfortunately toning up to the majority is the smashing of one body part to hopefully spot reduce fat, namely the abdominals. This is the same for endless amounts of squats to tone and shape the gluteals (not even the best exercise for that) or thighs or even plenty of tricep work to rid you of bingo wings. If this phenomena held true, we would see tennis players with one really jacked and lean arm compared to the other but we don’t and won’t.

Boromir knows….

This does not and will not work over the long-term. These things are great initially but after a while of doing the same thing over and over again, it is unlikely to bring about continued success. Why does it work initially? Because it is likely to be a new stress and a new stimulus to adapt to, which should initially cause some weight loss/fat loss and perhaps even some muscle growth (this is a good thing). But over time, the stress response isn’t the same as your body has quite simply adapted to this stimulus and is unlikely to incur any benefit. The novelty has wore off.


As Einstein said ‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’


This is why progressive overload is so important in continual progress, if weight isn’t getting added to the bar over time or if reps/sets are not getting added then you are just pretending and progress will stall. Doing so ensures that novelty of stimulus can remain and not just disappear.


This is why exercise classes are not the best way to go about it. The weights are too light, whilst they may be challenging after 6 minutes of using them or lifting them, this type of training is quite cardio based and there is not enough mechanical tension to positively affect body composition long-term.

Just Toning.

Just Toning.

I know this will turn a lot of women off, which I certainly don’t want to do as it may make them feel like giving up or that they have been doing it wrong. In all honesty, you haven’t been taught and it is not your fault, you are just doing the best that you can right now which I absolutely applaud the effort and commitment to attending those exercise classes. The fact that you are doing something is 100% better than not doing anything at all or not trying.


Here are some common reasons why women do not progressively weight train or why they have not been encouraged too…


  1. Lifting Heavy Weights Will Make Me Bulky – The reality is that building muscle is hard work, I am a guy and I find it incredibly frustrating how little can be gained. With me being a guy and having a higher level of testosterone than a woman, this should lead to me being a massive meathead if gaining muscle was that easy.

    This sums it up nicely.

  2. Focus On How Many Calories You Burn – Men do this too and it hinders your progress. Exercise/Training should be with the purpose of getting better whether it be stronger, faster or fitter and the focus should not be on how intense it is based on you sweating rate, your heart rate, on how hard it is to keep going or how many calories you apparently burnt. You shouldn’t view your resistance training as exercise aiming to burn lots of calories. It will burn some, but that isn’t the primary goal. The primary goal is encouraging your body to use your body fat stores as energy, not muscle.

Ignore this crap. It depends and varies between person to person.


Progressive resistance training is an absolute priority when you are thinking about ‘toning’ or in more scientific terms, improving your body composition. Performing resistance training ensures that you lose more fat when you lose weight, the thing that you want to do. Simply because your body will know to hold onto that muscle meaning that you should lose less muscle but more fat when you diet and exercise more appropriately. For those who are new to resistance training it may even lead to a slight increase in muscle mass whilst losing weight, which is grea). This is key to achieving the lean, toned physique that you are after.


I’ve covered how to go about this before. But to summarise, I would try and train the full body three days a week on non-consecutive days. You could offer variety using body weight exercises, dumbbells, barbells, cables, resistance bands (band assisted push ups and chin-ups) and hell even a TRX suspension system.


And in regards to the finer details of tempo, sets, reps and how much rest you need is all on an individual basis based on your goals (other) and your preferences. 2-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions and around 90-120s of rest between sets is a reasonable recommendation.


More importantly you need to overload session to session, week to week or on a monthly basis. You do this by either; adding weight, reps or sets.


Doing so will help you make much bigger strides in improving your physique and body. Like I say, doing this or any exercise will not cause you to specifically drop body fat in that area. To lose fat on your stomach, hips or arms requires you to lose body fat from your whole body. Over time this will lead to a reduction in the areas you are looking to get lean.


Unfortunately it does need to be mentioned that the areas which we generally want to lose fat from first – stomach & love handles – are the last areas to go. And to kick you whilst your down, it seems to be the area that gains body fat first. This is most likely a protective mechanism, with the fat helping to protect and insulate the vital organs, and a growing child in the case of females.


Diet – The Kink In The Chain

What tends to happen when people exercise A LOT!

This is where people really struggle, all that exercise but no changes or improvement to their diet. The thing is calories matter, energy balance matters and it needs to be addressed for the purpose of appearance-based goals.


To lose fat, you need to consume fewer calories than you take in. Either you increase the output through exercise or you make smart changes to your diet. Focusing on controlling your diet is the best way of doing so. Simply because it is easier to figure out how many calories you are consuming per day than it is to figure out how many calories you burn from exercise per day.


The simplest way to improve your diet is by consuming sufficient protein – This will help your body maintain your muscle mass whilst losing weight, helping you achieve the lean, toned look. It also helps you feel full, which helps when you are losing weight as you are less likely to reach for that extra slice of cake. For the more analytical out there I would recommend about 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight, or 2.2g per kg. So for the 70kg/11stone women that would equate to around 150g protein per day. Or for people who like a simpler approach, aim to consume 3-4 good size servings of protein a day.


Increasing your protein intake in your diet has been supported multiple times in the literature when it comes to losing weight, losing fat and maintaining/increasing lean muscle mass (again this is good). Simply because it keeps you fuller for longer, helping you consume less calories in the day. Secondly, it also provides a slight boost in metabolic rate due to the energy it costs to digest and absorb protein. Thirdly, a high protein intake appears to reduce the declines in metabolic rate during sleep again leading to a increase in energy expenditure. All of which helps you effectively ‘tone’ up.


Oh and to drill this one home, In actual weight and fat loss studies, a diet with 25% of the energy coming from protein showed to lose an additional 3.5-3.7kg compared to a diet with only 12% energy coming from protein along with the high protein diets losing more abdominal fat, a hefty 10% more!


I have already discussed why diet is so important when losing weight and losing fat regardless of gender. But unfortunately for women it is probably even more important than it is for men. When studies have looked into exercise and weight loss, men will generally lose some amount of weight and fat, women rarely do when their diet is uncontrolled.


The reason for this is simple, women burn less energy than men from exercise because of gender differences. Secondly, women are also more prone to either increase their food intake due to excessive and intense exercise than men. Thirdly, women are more likely to adjust and reduce their level of non-formal exercise activity (fidget less, move less, walk less and such). So it does appear that women’s bodies compensate a whole lot more from exercise to try and maintain their body weight and body fat levels.


I hope this provides food for thought and offers a good rationale into what ‘toning’ really is, how to achieve it, why having a progressive training plan is important and why a controlled diet is an absolute priority.


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