How to Tone Your Body (and What It Actually Means)

Learn how to tone your body in a science-based way.

‘How to tone your body’ is undeniably one of the most popular questions women ask when first embarking on their fitness journeys.

Because well, you’ve probably seen women with huge muscles. 

And while you fully acknowledge and appreciate all the hard work that they’ve put into building their physiques … you know it isn’t a look you’re going for. 

That’s why even the thought of lifting weights scares you so much. What if, one day, you suddenly wake up with bulging biceps, boulder shoulders, and worse, veiny, thick forearms? 

Thankfully, fitness magazines and influencers offer a beautiful solution: workouts that ‘tone your body’ instead of adding bulk. 

That must be the secret to looking like a better version of yourself, right? 

Unfortunately, not quite. Thinking about ‘toning’ your muscles instead of ‘growing’ them only slows your progress – and wastes your time. 

Debunking ‘tone your body, don’t make it bulky’ 

The reason why so many women have bought into the idea that they should work toward ‘toning’ muscles – instead of growing them – can be traced back to one of the most common fitness misconceptions around: that lifting heavy weights causes bulky muscles.

And that if someone is looking for a ‘toned’ body, they should lift light weights for high reps. 

But that’s way off. The truth is that your muscle fiber only does one thing when sufficiently stimulated (be it from light weights or heavy weights): grow (1). 

It doesn’t get ‘toned’. 

Summary 

The idea that you can ‘tone’ a muscle (or any groups of muscles) is fundamentally wrong. Muscles do not magically go from soft to hard, or hard to soft. They only grow in size when stimulated, or shrink (i.e. atrophy) after long periods of inactivity. 

What it really means to ‘tone your body’

What it actually means to tone your body is to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass.

When you say you want a ‘toned’ body, what you really want is for your body to look more firm and defined. There’s no special technique or workout needed to achieve this look.. 

You only need to do 2 things well (2, 3):

  • Increase muscle mass: Improves the size and shape of your muscles for better visibility  
  • Reduce body fat: Helps your muscles show better by reducing the fat ‘concealing’ them 

Takeaway? The idea that you need to train differently just because you’re looking to ‘tone’ your body is plain wrong.  

Summary 

Getting a ‘toned’ body comes down to 2 things: an increase in muscle mass, and a lower body fat percentage.  This ‘reveals’ the muscles you have for that ‘toned’ look. 

What you need for a ‘toned’ body

Now that you know what it takes to have a ‘toned’ body … the question becomes, “How?” There are a few things you’ll need to pay attention to. 

Strength training 

Strength training is essential for gaining more muscle.

Want to build muscle? You’ll have to lift weights. 

There’s no reason for you to only train with light weights. Yes, so long as you’re pushing close to failure, you can achieve muscle growth with a variety of weights and rep ranges – even with light weights (4, 5, 6).

But generally speaking, you don’t want to pick a weight so light that you’ll have to perform a large number or reps (e.g. 30 reps) before you’re close to failure (7, 8).

You can learn more about managing your reps and sets in this guide on training volume.

Settled on an appropriate weight and rep range to use? Awesome, but don’t get too attached to these numbers! 

Make sure you gradually increase your training volume – this is something called ‘progressive overload’ – so your muscles have the right stimulus to continue growing (9, 10, 11, 12).

Just remember to be consistent with your strength training. It shouldn’t change even when you move between different amounts of calorie intake. I’ll be talking more about this in the next section.

Summary 

If you’re looking to ‘tone’ your body, you need to start strength training. That should be done with loads that are of a suitable weight for your ability. . Also, don’t forget to increase the demands you put on your muscles gradually – so they continue to grow over time (i.e. progressive overload). 

Nutrition 

Manage your calorie intake based whether you're trying to lose fat or gain muscle.

Remember what I said about increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat?

Nutrition is arguably the most crucial factor to making that happen so you can achieve a ‘toned’ body. 

That’s because, to lose fat, you’ll need to be in a calorie deficit (i.e. eat fewer calories than your body burns) (13). You can start by figuring out how many calories you should be consuming daily for your goal.

Here’s a helpful guide on estimating your daily calorie requirements.

Now, before you decide that a calorie deficit is the best (or only) way forward to get ‘toned’, you need to understand that building muscle is best achieved with a calorie surplus. 

In a calorie deficit, it can be difficult to hold on to existing muscle mass, much less increase it.

Since getting ‘toned’ involves both increasing muscle mass and losing body fat, it’s best to pursue these two goals separately for the best results. To put it simply, dedicate a period of time to lose fat (calorie deficit) and another period to build muscle (calorie surplus). 

‘Toning’ versus body recomposition

But wait … isn’t there a special phase called ‘recomp’ (body recomposition) where you can gain muscle and lose fat – all at the same time? 

Well, that really exists – but unless you’re a beginner or have become untrained (i.e. used to train consistently but stopped for an extended period), you’re unlikely to see good progress (14, 15, 16, 17). 

Besides, if you want to build a sustainable fitness approach that lasts beyond your beginner phase, having clear periods of calorie surplus and deficit would be the best way forward.

Eat enough protein

Whether you’re in a calorie deficit or surplus, don’t forget the other key to making progress: consuming enough protein. 

Adequate protein consumption ensures that you’re providing your muscles with the building blocks they need for tissue repair and growth (18, 19).

As to what ‘adequate’ is, though? 

Research suggests that it’s more of a range. Depending on your target daily calorie intake and preferences, anywhere between 1.2 grams to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. 

Check out this guide to learn more about how much protein you need and why it’s so important to get enough.

Summary 

For a ‘toned’ body, you need to build muscle and lose fat (in separate phases for best results). That comes down to managing your calorie intake accordingly. And regardless of whether you are in a calorie surplus or deficit, you need to consume an adequate amount of protein to meet your nutritional needs. 

Recovery 

Get enough rest daily so you maximize your recovery.

When searching for information on how to ‘tone’ your body, recovery is often one of the most overlooked factors.

And that’s a shame. 

The truth is that recovering well is just as important as 1) training hard and 2) eating well. When you don’t take time for proper rest and recovery, you put yourself at a higher risk of overtraining

This is something you want to avoid as overtraining can cause many issues, including (20, 21, 22):

  • Increased risk of overuse injuries
  • Decreased performance (partially due to sore muscles)
  • Loss of motivation
  • Terrible mood swings

Not what you want on your fitness journey! What’s the takeaway here? 

Make time for rest days. The American College of Sports Medicine and European College of Sport Science recommends at least 1 rest day per week for overtraining prevention (23). Of course, depending on your unique needs, you may choose to take more rest days. 

Rest days are when your muscles grow, after all. 

You don’t have to laze on the couch all day long on rest days. Getting some light stretching and movement can help you better recover from your workouts.

And don’t forget to prioritize your sleep quality. It’s critical for optimal performance and weight loss efforts. 

Summary 

Making time for recovery (e.g. planned rest days) prevents you from overtraining. Also, don’t forget about getting adequate sleep – in addition to helping you build more muscle, it can also go a long way toward boosting your fat loss efforts. Both of which, essential to a ‘toned’ body. 

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Can I ‘tone’ body parts selectively?

“Do these 3 exercises to get toned arms”, “These ab exercises will give you a toned stomach”, and “Get toned legs with these squat variants” … do these sound familiar?

Of course, they do. 

But is ‘toning’ specific body parts (i.e. muscle groups) possible? Sorry to burst your bubble, but no. It’s all got to do with what’s needed for toning: you have to build muscle and lose fat. 

Yes, specific exercises will help you target – and grow – a particular muscle group. For example:

  • Glutes: Hip thrust, glute bridge, and split squats
  • Hamstrings: Romanian deadlift, nordic curl, hamstring curl
  • Lats: Pull-up, cable row, bent-over barbell row

Unfortunately, though, you can’t remove fat from a specific region of your body (i.e. spot reduction). That’s because your body draws energy from the body as a whole – not just from the cells in the area you’re working (24, 25). 

So, no. You cannot selectively ‘tone’ body parts. 

If you’re looking to have a set of defined abs (or whichever muscle group), you’re going to have to build up its size – then lose fat overall. 

Summary 

You cannot ‘tone’ specific muscle groups (or body parts). You can choose to target – and develop – a particular muscle group, but you’ll have to lose fat from all parts of your body if you want it to look more defined. 

Other misconceptions about getting ‘toned’

Since we’re on this topic (i.e. the supposed ‘toning’ of muscle) … it’s also worth mentioning – and debunking – 2 notable fitness myths when it comes to building muscle and losing fat:

Cutting your rest periods enhances muscle growth

Reducing rest time between sets can hurt your performance and should be avoided.

Not true. 

Cutting down on your rest periods between sets means that you’re likely going into each set with more fatigue than usual. That reduces your training volume and slows your progress over time (26, 27).

For optimal muscle growth, you should always ensure that you’re adequately rested before moving on to the next set. 

How long should you rest for, exactly?

Here’s a rough guide:

  • Single-joint exercises (e.g. bicep curls, triceps extensions): 2 minutes
  • Heavy compound movements (e.g. deadlifts, squats): 3 minutes

With rest, it’s always smart to take more time if necessary. This ensures that you’re heading into the next set with less fatigue and better performance. Don’t be stingy with it!

Summary 

Cutting down on your rest periods can reduce the number of stimulating, ‘effective’ reps you can get during any one working set. And that can negatively impact the amount of muscle you can build. So, make sure you’re well-rested before moving on to the next working set. 

Doing cardio exclusively will ‘tone’ your body

Once again, not true. 

As mentioned earlier, if you’re looking to ‘tone’ your body, you’ll have to build muscle and lose fat.

But cardio isn’t going to help you do either. First of all, to build muscle, you’ll need strength training. That much is clear. And second, yes, cardio will help you burn calories. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s pointless unless you’re eating in a calorie deficit (28, 29, 30). 

Besides, just doing cardio – at the expense of strength training – can make fat loss harder to keep up with over time!

That’s because muscle mass (which cardio isn’t good at building) burns more calories at rest than fat mass. The more muscle you carry, the more calories you burn (even when you’re not working out) (31, 32). This makes it easier for you to maintain a calorie deficit. 

Of course, don’t take it to the extreme and skip out on your cardio all together. 

You’d still want to maintain your cardiovascular fitness. Instead, focus on getting an amount of cardio that’s suitable for your nutrition and training approach. 

Here’s a guide on understanding how much cardio you need for your different goals.

Summary 

Cardio can help you maintain a calorie deficit to lose fat.But only focusing on cardio is a bad idea since it’s limited in what it can offer for building muscle and fat loss in the long-run.

Get your ‘toned’ body the right way 

There are no shortcuts or secret formulas to getting a ‘toned’ body.

The key ingredients are always the same: strength training, nutrition and rest. You need to focus on being consistent with all of them to see results.

While it’s all pretty simple in theory, the tricky part is in finding an approach that’s sustainable and enjoyable for you. That’s what is going to take you time and effort to figure out.

My tip is to be patient and, as always, be willing to experiment and learn from experience.

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