I Just Want To Be Toned…

“I don’t want to get big, I just want to get toned”Fit man and woman

Being in the fitness industry for several years now, and working with numerous clients, I’ve heard this a lot. I often hear it from people that find out what I do, and my background especially. Women may say they want to ‘tone’ their legs or arms, and men just want to ‘tone up’ their arms and pecks or whatever. 

Of course what they mean is they want to lose fat and build muscle. They want to be able to visually see the muscles in their legs or arms, or wherever, but they don’t want them to be bulky.  So, they do what they have heard is good for ‘toning’, high reps with little to no weight. Ton’s of crunches, tons of arm curls with 2.5lb dumbbells.

Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly how it works. But you’re in luck, I’m going to explain how it work.

 How to do a pullup

What People Think of as Toning Exercises

When people think of toning exercises, typically isolation exercises such as bicep curls, calf raises, crunches, etc. are what they are referring to. These are often popular exercises by newbie gym goers and those looking to ‘tighten up’ if you will. If you want to get technical, there is no way to ‘tone’ a muscle. A muscle can get bigger, or smaller, or stay the same size, you aren’t going to change the shape of it (under 99% of circumstances, especially for somebody looking to simply look better). It isn’t going to tone because somebody does 100 bicep curls and doesn’t break a sweat.

A tone muscle looks lean, well defined, well-shaped and athletic. So, to increase the tone, you need to decrease the fat around it, and increase the muscle size.  You won’t increase muscle size and decrease fat by working out low intensity with high reps and low weight. You are better off with a proper nutrition program, and a proper training program that includes heavy weights and cardio as needed. But we will go into that more later.


I Can’t Lift Heavy Weights, I Don’t Want to Get Big & Bulky

Incorrect. First, building muscle is a long process that doesn’t happen overnight. If that was the case, I personally would be much much bigger than I am. But even after years of training and years of nutrition programs, guess what? I’m still 155-160lbs when I compete. I would love to be 15-20lbs heavier, but it takes a long, long, long time to build more muscle, or bulk as we call it.

Second, now this is for the ladies, your body shape isn’t going to turn masculine by going to the gym and lifting heavy a few times per week. Those women that you see that are grotesquely big and look like men are more than likely on a training program that is more intense than you will ever be on AND, often times they are using drugs that allow them to gain more muscle. Women can get held back by the misconception that they shouldn’t lift weights, or shouldn’t lift hard, or shouldn’t lift heavy, and this often stalls their progress.


Lean, Fit, Strong

If you held up a picture and asked somebody to point out the person that was ‘toned’, no doubt it would be somebody that is lean, fit and strong.

Becoming Lean: You become lean by taking in less calories than you take expend. It is important that your nutrition program has the proper amount of fat, calories and proteins. If you are to build muscle, you need to make sure you have enough protein. Whatever you do, do not go on some fad diet that prescribes little to no fats, or carbs, or extremely low calories. 

Becoming Fit: In this sense we are talking about building a stronger cardiovascular system. This is done by working your heart rate up quite high (between 65%-MAX) levels. Depending on what you like to do, this may include running, walking, boxing, cycling, etc.. Performing interval cardio, low intensity, steady state, or even adjusting your resistance training to something more strenuous can all help to improve your level of fitness, and in turn lower body fat.

Becoming Strong: This is the part that many people leave out. They lift light weights for high reps, but that does little for strength. What I recommend is compound exercises (these are exercises that use a lot of muscles) such as squats, bench press, chin ups, dips, lunges, push ups, deadlift, and push press. These are some of the absolute best exercises you can perform to not only become stronger, but enhance your physique. You will want to do these within the rep range of usually 4-8, meaning fairly heavy weight. A few of the reasons why include:

  • Compound exercises help increase muscle size more effectively
  • They improve bone strength and muscle strength
  • If you work more muscles, you are burning more calories, thereby becoming leaner and burning more fat
  • You stimulate more muscle building fibers

You don’t have to train 6 times a week lShould Women lift heavy weightsike a bodybuilder when lifting heavy weights and performing compound lifts. For the vast majority of my clients, I recommend 3-4 days a week of restistant training.  Remember, lift hard, be focused, and stay consistent, and you’ll get that lean, toned look you want.



Too many gym-goers use the word ‘tone’ in the wrong way. It is not a thing you do, it is a way you look. In other words you don’t tone a muscle with specific exercises, you increase the tone of a muscle through diet, cardio and resistance training.