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December 03, 2022
Increase fat loss and muscle tone! Build a toned physique! Tone up your body for summer!
These are popular phrases used within the fitness industry to sell classes, generally ones that are geared toward women. But what does "being toned" actually mean? And what's the difference between body toning and muscle building?
There's a lot of confusion with these terms, so we're going to clarify a few things. This article will go over what you need to know about toning vs. muscle building, including:
Let's find out what the deal is with toning and building muscle.
Let's first talk about muscle toning and the meaning behind "toning up your body." What is it? It's a term used to describe a body type that consists of smaller defined muscles.
However, from a training perspective, especially physiological applications, it doesn't really mean anything.
In reality, "muscle tone" isn't really a thing. By that, we mean that muscle growth either occurs or it doesn't. No exercises produce muscle toning.
If a personal trainer tells you that they have special body toning exercises for "long, toned muscles," be wary. A trainer may use this terminology to speak the customer's language, but it's often just a marketing ploy.
The term "lean muscle" is also commonly used to describe a toned physique and used as marketing for a body toning workout. Again, muscle is muscle.
There is no such thing as lean muscle and non-lean muscle. The only time this makes sense is when you are emphasizing that you're only talking about muscles.
When someone says they want to build lean muscle, it means they want to build muscle without increasing their fat. Aside from using it in that context, "lean muscle building" isn't really a thing.
Resistance training with progressive overload is going to build muscle. There isn't a variety of muscle types to choose from.
Toning your body and being toned simply refers to having low body fat and small, yet defined, muscles. This look is almost always seen in women.
Another way to look at it is fit and athletic. The major muscle groups are obvious but not so large that they look "bulky". A lot of this is again attributed to the amount of muscle and how much body fat you have.
On the other hand, muscle building is training to increase muscle mass. This occurs through a process known as muscle hypertrophy or the enlargement of muscle tissue.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs when actual architectural changes happen to the muscle tissue. This can occur in two ways:
Increasing muscle mass is relatively easy to achieve as long as you follow a few principles. It's important to understand this, as some people are in a position where they need to lift weights and build muscle to get toned.
However, if you already have a decent amount of muscles, you want to know what not to do. For those looking to build muscle, follow these 2 tips.
Progressive overload is a fundamental lifting principle that simply states that to continually encourage muscular adaptations, you must consistently place heavier stress on your body, leading to muscle breakdown.
During muscle recovery, your body then repairs the tissue, and it comes back thicker and larger, leading to muscles growth.
Our bodies are highly adaptable, but if you continue to apply the same load, there's nothing for your body to adapt to.
The main factor in examining progressive overload to elicit muscle hypertrophy is increasing volume for both your upper and lower body. Volume is defined by the total amount of weight lifted in a given amount of time, i.e., per session or weekly.
To illustrate this, volume is calculated by the following equation:
This is where things get interesting. We have just seen that eliciting muscle hypertrophy requires the use of moderate weight performed with moderate reps. However, when you see a lot of "toning" classes or a body toning workout plan, they utilize light weights and high reps. That's literally what you use to promote hypertrophy.
So why don't these classes and plans increase muscle mass? Likely because they don't implement progressive overload. In other words, they use the same weights and rep scheme every session, allowing those seeking a toned look to retain their muscle mass without growing it.
It doesn't matter if you use high repetitions and lighter weights in your exercise routine or fewer repetitions while lifting heavy weights.
As long as you don't increase the intensity or volume, you won't grow more muscle. Don't be fooled into thinking that this creates a different muscle mass. It's nothing more than a marketing ploy.
That said, what variables do you need to create a toned physique? Let's take a look.
Knowing what we know about muscle physiology, the load you use likely doesn't matter as long as you don't use progressive overload.
At the same time, remember that heavy weights (>85%) are great for strength training workouts but produce less muscle growth due to building less volume.
That said, as long as you're not increasing the amount of volume, you're going to keep the amount of muscle mass you currently have. At the same time, you could actually decrease the amount of time in the gym and maintain muscle mass as long as you train with intensity.
A study from 2021 found that trainees were able to maintain their lean muscle for 32 weeks with only one session per week1. In that session, they only performed exercises to hit every body part once and only performed one set per exercise.
In other words, a full body toning workout plan could look like this:
The key to this is that all the exercises in the strength training workouts were performed with very high intensity to failure.
Regardless, there's no perfect load for toning as you're not interested in gaining muscle. Instead, you're just wanting to maintain the muscle you have.
Some people may need to actually build muscle. However, this means your existing muscle is pretty low so increasing muscle mass will be easy once you start weight lifting and following a workout split.
As you're lifting weights, focus on using perfect form and increasing weights gradually. Again, being toned refers to having small, compact muscles with low body fat so the amount of muscle needed is quite easy to get to.
When you're striving for a toned look, you must achieve low body fat. Sometimes, people assume that as long as you keep losing weight, you will one day uncover nice muscle definition and sleek core muscles. This only happens if you have that minimal amount of muscle gain to begin with.
That said, even if you spend time gaining muscle, you won't see it if excess fat is covering it. That's why it's critical to have two goals: toning the body and proper diet.
In fact, muscle definition comes from losing fat so that your skin shapes around the muscles, making them more apparent.
Perhaps the most common mistake made when losing body fat is trying to spot reduce it. People talk about spot reduction a lot, but it's basically impossible to do.
We say "basically" because there might be some evidence that shows you can help dictate where you lose fat. However, this would only apply to people with a very low body fat percentage already.
For example, it's common to see someone do a bunch of barbell curls to burn fat and build muscle on the arm. That's just not how it works.
Your body tends to hold fat more easily in certain areas, depending on your genetics and body type. That's why you may see one woman with a small waist and bigger thighs, and another with big glutes and a tummy.
Consider this question: Did you choose where you first held fat? Of course not! So why would we expect to be able to choose where we lose body fat? You can't!
The best way to think of this is that you will lose fat in the reverse order you gained it. In other words, let's pretend you first gained fat on your thighs, then your glutes, and finally, your stomach. When you start losing body fat, you'll cut from your stomach first, then glutes, and thighs last.
You need to cut excess body fat if you want a toned look. The best way to do this is with your nutrition, without a doubt, on top of your toning workouts.
Your number one goal is to get in a small caloric deficit for an extended period of time. This is our number one weight loss tip and the only way to lose significant weight.
Figure out your total calories and then simply cut 300 calories.
As far as what healthy diet you follow, we believe the best female body toning diet contains a few variables.
High-protein diets are great for toning. These types of diets have been found to be very effective with weight loss and improving body composition. This is due to a few factors:
If you need to lose weight, getting enough protein is more important, so you should eat a higher amount, 2.0-2.2g per kilogram of body weight. To maintain weight, you could eat less if you wanted, at 1.6-2.2g per kilogram of body weight.
The 80-20 rule is a flexible dieting method that says that 80% of your diet should be on the healthy side while you can have a bit more freedom with the other 20%.
We don't like saying you can eat whatever you want as there are foods that you should only eat from time to time.
And this also assumes that all of your selected foods still meet your caloric needs and macros counting goals. Just make sure you don't become overly obsessed with tracking your food, as that isn't good for anyone's physical or mental health. Remember, moderation is key.
Similar to what we just spoke about, you should get the majority of your calories from whole foods. What are whole foods? It's a broad term that refers to unprocessed food.
In other words, it shouldn't come with microwave or heating instructions. Also, the ingredients list should be pretty short. If in doubt, stick to the outside wall of a supermarket.
So now that you have a better idea of toning and how to achieve it, let's look at what your weight training, and in particular body toning exercises for females, should look like.
Pro Tip: As you work through your compound exercises, keep your abs tight to ensure your core is working as well.
Be sure to hit all of your muscle groups when training. This includes:
You're good to go as long as you include a toning exercise designed to hit each of these muscles weekly.
Isolation movements are for building muscle in a specific area. That being said, because toning generally implies smaller muscles, you likely don't need to do this.
That's why we think you should stick to basic compound movements with your strength training.
Lifting weights can easily help with gaining muscle but is also useful to maintain muscle mass as you lose fat.
When putting together a lower and upper body toning workout, circuit training is great to include. The strength training exercises you include, like push ups, lunges, and kettlebell swings, for example, will stress the muscle enough to maintain.
Keep in mind, though, that due to its quick nature, it's not the best option for actually building muscle.
Group classes are another great option to improve body composition and achieve a toned body. These are the classes such as boot camps, boxing or kickboxing fitness classes, and body pump.
These classes are great to maintain but can also be intense enough for muscle gain if needed.
So as you see, being toned basically means weight training without the intent of building muscle. Next, use a calorie deficit to achieve a low body fat percentage, and you have it! It's relatively easy to attain as you don't need to be overly concerned with following the right program.
In fact, as long as you're training hard and hitting all of your muscle groups with compound movements, you'll achieve it. Maintaining a toned look basically says that you're fit, living a healthy life, and committed to an active lifestyle. Sounds pretty legit to us!
Spiering, Barry A.; Mujika, Iñigo; Sharp, Marilyn A.; Foulis, Stephen A.. Maintaining Physical Performance: The Minimal Dose of Exercise Needed to Preserve Endurance and Strength Over Time. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2021 - Volume 35 - Issue 5 - p 1449-1458 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003964
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