How to (really, actually, finally) get lean & toned

/

So you’re ready to finally get toned.

Maybe you want to:

  • Show off on the beach this summer
  • Look slimmer in your fall or winter gear
  • Just feel better and have more confidence and energy

Whatever your reason is, you’ve come to the right place!

The topic of how to get toned is actually a little more complicated than you might think.

For starters, “getting toned” probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. And most of what you read in magazines and see on TV about how to do it is just flat out wrong.

The short answer is that to really get toned, you need to:

  • Lose fat
  • Build muscle (yes, build muscle)
  • Or both
  • And for the love of God, stop with the endless cardio

So we’re going to dive in deep on the lean and toned look, how to achieve it, common myths, and exactly what you should be eating and doing in the gym on your way to Tone-ville.

Buckle up.

Scroll down to find out:

  • What is toning (and is it real)?
  • Toning in men vs women
  • How & what to eat
  • How to get toned arms
  • How to get toned legs
  • How to get toned abs & stomach
  • How to get toned fast


What is toning (and is it even real)?

The biggest myth and mistake that people make is thinking that toning is one, singular thing that you can do.

In other words, it’s a pretty common belief that using light weights for high reps tones your muscle, while lifting heavier weights builds bulk.

This is just simply not true.

And we don’t need a lot of complicated science to prove it, just common sense.

A muscle can only get bigger or smaller.

You can either:

  • Challenge the muscle with new loads, higher reps, and heavier weights (which will make it grow, assuming you’re eating enough of the right foods). This is called progressive overload.
  • Or you can eat for weight loss and/or ignore that muscle group, and it will get smaller over time

Those are really your only options.

Doing super high reps with small weights can build some muscle size (as long as you’re going close to failure), and it will definitely increase your muscle endurance.

But it doesn’t have some magical effect on the shape of your muscles.

When people talk about tone, what they’re really talking about is definition.

Definition is the combination of the size of a muscle PLUS the amount of fat covering it.

So the takeaway here is that if you’re interested in tone or definition, what you really need to do is:

  • Increase the size of your key muscle groups
  • Or lower your bodyfat percentage
  • Or possibly both over time

Key research note: Studies show that lifting light weights can build just as much muscle as lifting heavy weights in beginner and even intermediate lifters, provided you’re going close to muscle failure (meaning, you get to a point where you can barely lift the weight even one more time.) It’s the total work volume that drives muscle growth the most.

What does that mean for you?

It means it’s actually totally fine if you’re not comfortable challenging your body with really heavy loads quite yet.

Just make sure that you’re pushing close to muscle failure.

Lifting weights should be HARD!

Pumping out a few sets with 3-pound dumbbells probably won’t do much.

Your target for higher reps should be maxing out somewhere in the 15-25 rep range. If you can just keep lifting and lifting beyond that, the weight is probably too light to stimulate any growth.

Action Item: Choose your toning path

If you want to get toned, you should probably figure out if you want to focus first on:

  • building muscle
  • or losing fat

Honestly, the majority of us will see the best and quickest results losing a little bit of fat and retaining our existing muscle mass through lifting weights.

This will reveal the muscle definition underneath as your bodyfat percentage gets lower.

However, if you’re already extremely skinny or thin and don’t like the way it looks on you, consider trying to put on some muscle first.

I’ll go into the details and how those approaches differ shortly.

But if you just want to get on a workout and nutrition program that puts it all together for you, and tells you exactly what to do, check out my:


Is there a difference between toning in males and females?

No, not really.

The fundamental principles are the same:

  • Build muscle
  • Lose fat
  • Or both!

There will be a few key differences in the overall experience over time, however.

Women start off with less muscle mass than men & seem to be able to build less in total over a lifetime:

But… with proper nutrition and training, women can build muscle just as effectively as men can. Lower testosterone levels be damned.

All of us have a natural limit of how much muscle we’ll ever be able to add to our frames (unless we’re on steroids).

Female frames are just designed to sort of max out a little earlier, especially when it comes to muscle in the upper body.

So the good news is that it will be VERY difficult for women who lift weights to become bulky and over-muscled without:

  • top of the line muscle-building genetics
  • a lifetime of dedication to lifting heavy weights in the gym
  • perfect muscle-building nutrition

If you’re just looking to tone up for the beach, it’s extraordinarily unlikely you’ll end up getting too bulky even if you lift heavy and get a lot stronger.

Key research note: Women have less testosterone than men, which is a key driver of muscle growth. However, they usually produce more HGH (human growth hormone), another super important driver.

Men naturally carry less body fat overall

Women tend to store more body fat, in part, as the body’s preparation for pregnancy and lactation.

It’s a simple biology thing.

This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be harder for women to get leaner or lose weight.

Because of the way fat is distributed differently on our bodies, it just means that men and women will have different bodyfat percentage targets for the lean, toned look.

  • Men will typically need to be anywhere from 8-12% bodyfat to see visible abs.
  • Women will need to be somewhere from 16-20% or so.

In practice, this difference isn’t all that important.

But it is good to be aware of it. 10% bodyfat is often cited as the ideal for an athletic, lean physique, but just remember…

… that’s for men.

10% isn’t a realistic target for most women because of basic physiology.

Key research note: Women will often see weight fluctuations of plus or minus several pounds on a day to day basis due to hormonal shifts. This is normal! To avoid the frustration it’s best to weigh yourself slightly less often.

Action Item: Get on a solid gender-specific program

Like I said, lifting weights and building muscle isn’t all that different for men and women.

However, let’s be real. Men and women will often have very different ideas of the ideal body they want.

The perfect body, to most men, will include:

  • Broad shoulders
  • A wide back
  • Thick, muscular arms
  • A chiseled chest
  • Sleek, proportioned legs
  • And ripped abs

Everyone’s different, but that’s probably not the look most women are going for.

(They’re more likely to want a flat stomach, toned arms, and still have some curves.)

This is where it’s a great idea to find a workout program that’s geared toward your specific physique goals.

Here’s my favorite program for men who want to get shredded with the look above. (I used this one myself.)

And here’s the program I recommend for most women.


How & what to eat for toning

They say great bodies are built in the kitchen.

And they’re completely right!

I don’t care what you’re doing in the gym. If you’re not backing it up with the right food decisions, you won’t get results.

And no, that doesn’t mean you have to:

  • Starve yourself
  • Eat only salad
  • Eliminate sugar or alcohol
  • Hate your life

Assuming you’ve been at around the same weight for a while (in other words, you’re eating “at maintenance”), here’s how much you should eat to get toned:

  • To add muscle, eat around 200-300 extra calories per day
    • Or around bodyweight x 17 calories per day
  • To lose fat, eat about 500 fewer calories per day
    • Or around bodyweight x 11-12 calories per day
  • You can also continue eating at your maintenance level for a few weeks while you learn how to lift weights in the gym
    • Or around bodyweight x 15 calories per day

There’s obviously a lot more that goes into it.

But that’s the basic formula.

(Hopefully you chose, above, which path you were going to take.)

Now here are a few more things to keep in mind, regardless of whether you’re trying to lose fat or build muscle first on your way to a lean, toned body.

You have to eat the right amount of protein

This is absolutely critical and can completely derail your progress if not done right.

Your muscles will need a lot of protein to either:

  • get bigger
  • or stay the same as you lose weight

And it’s probably a lot more than you’re used to eating!

The sweet spot according to most research is around .8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

So if you’re 150 pounds, you should be eating around 120-150 grams of protein every day if you’re lifting weights and trying to get toned.

That is QUITE a bit, and it can be really easy to come in too low.

(For example, a large chicken breast has somewhere around 30-40g of protein.)

Here’s my guide on how to get more protein without eating too many calories, but basically you should look for places in your diet where you’re getting too many carbs and fats and not enough protein:

  • Have less pasta, more meatballs
  • Have grilled and baked meat, not fried or breaded
  • Have leaner cuts of meat for higher protein and less fat
  • Etc.

Get a nice balance of carbs and fats

Look, every diet guru out there has an opinion on this.

Some diets SWEAR carbs are the devil.

Others blame everything on too many fats.

The truth is that science really doesn’t back either side. As long as you’re getting:

  • The right number of calories
  • The right protein intake

The rest of your calories should probably just come from a solid balance of healthy carbs and fats.

You’ll want to get most of your carbs from complex carbohydrate sources (fiber and starch, as opposed to sugar):

  • potatoes
  • brown rice
  • whole wheat pasta
  • fruits & vegetables

And you’ll want to get most of your fats from unsaturated sources (as opposed to saturated & trans fats) like:

  • Oils
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • fish

Find a strategy you can stick with over the long haul

The problem with really intense or crash diets designed to help you lose weight as fast as possible is that they’re almost impossible to stick to.

What person can realistically eat 1000 calories per day for an extended period of time?

Even if you could do it, you’d probably end up obliterating your willpower along the way and ending the diet with a huge binge.

That’s counterproductive!

Whatever nutritional strategy you use, whether it’s:

  • Multiple small meals throughout the day
  • Intermittent fasting (this is what I do… here’s a sample of what I might eat in a given day to lose weight)
  • OMAD (one meal a day)
  • Ketogenic diet
  • Low carb
  • Low fat

Make sure it’s something you’ll be able to stick with consistently for a while.

The safest and most permanent way to lose weight is to lose about 1-2 pounds per week, according to the CDC.

Go too extreme and you’re more likely to gain it back.

That speed of weight loss amounts to a deficit every day of about 300-500 calories.

You can find this number by multiplying your bodyweight by around 12.

Conversely, if you’re looking to add muscle and “dirty bulking” (or eating whatever you want without regard for calories), you might have trouble sticking with that as well.

(Even though it sounds great at first!)

Poor nutrition and too many calories will take a toll on your body just as too few will.

Action item: Set your calories, macros, and eating strategy

OK, now it’s time to set it in stone and come up with how exactly you’re going to eat on your way to a toned body.

If you’ve decided to lose fat first:

  • Eat about bodyweight x 12 calories per day
  • Make sure you get .8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight
  • Get a healthy mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and oils (good carbs and healthy fats)
  • Treat yourself occasionally or use a refeed day each week to keep your spirits and energy up

If you’ve decided to add muscle first:

  • Eat about bodyweight x 16-17 calories per day (start low and add calories as necessary)
  • Get .8-1 gram of protein per pound each day
  • Get a healthy mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and oils (good carbs and healthy fats)
  • Don’t “dirty bulk” or needlessly overindulge! It’ll cause unwanted fat gain

As long as you’re working out consistently and lifting weights close to failure in the gym, you can also stack these phases together over time to get a really crisp toned look:

  • You can cut unwanted bodyfat away and then add a few pounds of muscle during a bulk
  • You can bulk to add muscle first and then strip away the bodyfat to reveal a chiseled physique

It’s really up to you which order you want to go in.

Again, for most people who want the lean, toned look, I’d suggest jumping right into a fat loss or “cutting” phase and shedding unwanted bodyfat.

It’ll have the quickest impact on how you look and feel about your body, in my opinion.


What to do in the gym to get toned

We’ve talked around it, but now let’s go into some detail:

The best way to change your body composition, meaning:

  • how much muscle you have
  • how much fat you have
  • how visible and defined your muscle is
  • how you look in the mirror
  • how you feel about your physique

is through strength training (aka lifting weights).

Wait, doesn’t cardio tone your body?

Eh. Not really.

It’s GREAT for your heart, lungs, endurance, and for burning a ton of calories. Which can be a good thing for weight loss.

But it doesn’t preserve muscle mass (low-intensity steady-state cardio, aka long runs, jogs, or biking at the same speed can actually eat away at your muscle).

It usually doesn’t have as much of a positive impact on your body composition as you’d think.

Lifting weights has a bigger impact on your muscle to fat ratio, which is the primary driver of tone and definition.

(Think about it… who’s more toned, a marathon runner or a sprinter?)

It also boosts your metabolism so you burn more calories naturally every day.

There are SO many ways to get started in the gym with a lifting routine, more than we could possibly get into here, but in general, beginners should focus on learning and getting stronger on big, compound (or multi-muscle, multi-joint) movements like the:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Bench press
  • Overhead press
  • Rows
  • And pull ups

When I first stepped foot in my gym’s weights section about 2 years ago, I had NO clue what to do, except for this free guide from Nerd Fitness which helped me get down the basics.

If you want something a little more involved that also walks you through exactly how to eat and what movements to do for the physique you want, check out all of my workout program reviews.

Should you use light or heavy weights for toning?

You’ll see lots of different opinions on this.

The myth is really popular in the media and magazine-world that lifting low weights for very high reps is best for toning.

On the other hand, big-time meatheads will tell you that you MUST lift as heavy as possible to build muscle.

The truth is really somewhere in between.

As long as you’re pushing yourself and bringing your muscles close to failure on every exercise, you should be getting enough growth stimulus.

Just remember to utilize progressive overload: Over time, you should be adding weight, reps, or decreasing the rest time on each of your lifts.

Can you use bodyweight exercises for toning?

Absolutely!

Bodyweight movements like:

  • Push ups
  • Pull ups
  • Bodyweight rows
  • Dips
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • And more

Are fantastic for sculpting your physique.

The same principles of progressive overload will apply when you’re just using your bodyweight.

Over time, you’ll need to work your way toward:

  • Higher repetitions
  • More challenging variations of the movements
  • Weighted versions of the movements
  • And/or shorter rest periods between sets

Here’s a free, simple bodyweight routine you can use at home to get started.

Action Item: Put your workout plan and nutrition strategy together. And get to work!

Hopefully at this point you’ve decided on what routine you’re going to use, whether it’s one of my top recommendations, or any number of free workout plans you can find online.

You should also have decided if you’re going to try to cut some fat off first or go right into building some lean muscle.

If you’re lean bulking (eating in a small calorie surplus while lifting weights) you should expect to see rapid strength gains, especially if you’re just starting out.

If you’re cutting or losing fat (eating in a small calorie deficit while lifting weights), beginners should expect to gain some strength but the primary goal here is to maintain strength and muscle mass in order to increase tone and definition.


How to get toned arms

OK, so, you’re on a lifting program.

You know what to eat.

Everything’s going great!

But now you want to specialize or give some extra attention to “problem areas.”

One thing to remember is that you can’t spot reduce fat.

You can lose fat from your whole body, and it will come off of various areas at different rates depending on how your body likes to store it.

(Men tend to store more fat in their upper bodies, women tend to store more in the lower bodies. But every individual is different.)

So you can’t force your body to lose fat directly from your arms.

You can, however:

  • Lose overall body fat and lower your bodyfat percentage, SOME of which will come from your arms
  • Build muscle and strength in your arms

The best way to get toned arms is to build strength on compound movements like:

  • Bench press (triceps)
  • Overhead/shoulder press (triceps)
  • Pull ups (biceps)
  • Rows (biceps)

From there, you can supplement your already-exhausted arm muscles with some isolated movements with lighter weights, often dumbbells, like:

  • Tricep extensions
  • Tricep kickbacks
  • Skullcrushers
  • Tricep rope pushdowns
  • Standing bicep curls
  • Incline bicep curls
  • Spider curls

Remember, it’s the combination of building or maintaining lean muscle in your arms PLUS overall fat loss that will allow you to see better tone and definition in your arms.

Key research note: Some newer research suggests that high volume weightlifting for a targeted area followed by 30-minutes of low-resistance cardio could have SOME effect on spot-reducing fat in that area. It’s far from conclusive, but could be worth a try.


How to get toned legs

The best movements for building muscle in your legs are, without a doubt, the:

  • Squat (quads, glutes, and hamstrings)
  • And deadlift (basically your whole body)

But there are dozens and dozens of other choices you can substitute into your training or supplement with.

Some of my favorite leg exercises for toned legs are single-leg movements like:

  • Pistol squats
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Lunges
  • And reverse lunges

If you feel like your legs are getting too big, muscular, or bulky from squats or other leg strength training, you can always take some time off from training them.

Or reduce how often you train them.

Or stop trying to advance with progressive overload and just continue working with your current weights for a while.


How to get toned abs & stomach

This is what everyone cares about, right?

IF ONLY doing endless crunches and sit-ups would give you that flat stomach you’ve been craving.

Unfortunately, as we know, spot-reducing fat in any specific area is extremely unlikely.

So the answer that no one really wants to hear is that the…

  • only
  • absolute
  • 100% real

… driver of a lean and toned stomach is having a low bodyfat percentage.

That’s just the truth of the matter.

If you build overall strength in your body through exercise, and do a little bit of extra ab work like:

  • Leg & knee raises
  • Planks
  • Sit ups/crunches
  • Etc.

That should be all you need for a toned mid-section ONCE your bodyfat percentage is low enough.

When it comes to abs, there’s sort of a sliding scale that includes:

  • Your bodyfat
  • Your ab muscle development

You can have abs at a higher bodyfat if your ab muscles are really thick and well-developed.

But for most of us, the quickest and fastest way to a toned stomach will be to drop a significant amount of fat.

Men will be able to see abs when they’re somewhere aroud 8-12% bodyfat. Women will need to be around 16-20% or so.

(It takes losing a LOT more fat than you think to get there.)

Keep on going with your diet and nutrition strategy, and keep on building strength and muscle in the gym, and you’ll be well on your way.


How to get toned as fast as possible

The above sounds like a lot of damn work.

Right?

There are so many things to think about:

  • Which workout program will you do?
  • Should you bulk or cut first?
  • What diet strategy should you use?
  • How do you improve “problem areas”?

But if you just want to distill everything into its very essence and learn the fastest way to get toned, here it is.

Losing fat is the quickest way to improve your physique and look more toned, provided you’re strength training to build or maintain muscle mass.

That’s really it.

It’s not the answer people want to hear because it involves getting your diet and nutrition locked in.

But it’s the truth.

To get toned and see definition as fast as possible, I’d start eating a high-protein diet at an aggressive (but safe) calorie deficit of about 500-600 calories per day under maintenance.

Then I’d do enough weightlifting in the gym to maintain muscle mass but wouldn’t work out so much that it made me feel weak, hungry, and famished.

(Two to three times per week is plenty.)

At that rate you’d be losing around 1-2lbs of almost pure fat per week, and maybe more in the beginning.

If you’re interested in an affordable program that tells you exactly how to do this, what exercises to do, how often, and how to eat every day, check out Aggressive Fat Loss — it’s absolutely fantastic and the simplest way I know to get toned, fast.


Wrapping Up

I hope this guide on how to get toned is helpful for you.

It’s based on:

  • My own experience shedding 15+ pounds of fat and building muscle
  • Lots and lots of research, medical journals, and advice from health and fitness experts

I’ve tried to link and document all of my sources as much as possible.

Just remember, in the end, that “getting toned” isn’t ONE thing. It’s really two things: It’s lowering your bodyfat and building or maintaining your muscle mass.

Challenge yourself in the gym and work your muscles hard, eat enough protein, and you’ll be pretty amazed at what starts to happen to your body.

And above all, learn to love the journey and love who you are at this very moment. Six pack abs won’t make you happy all on their own, but they can make you extremely proud of yourself and how far you’ve come.

 

Leave a Comment