How to train to get ‘Toned’

“I want to look toned so I’m just doing really high reps with low weight”

“Body weight exercises are the best to get you sculpted”

“This is a great machine to help you get toned without getting too big”

“Yeah there’s this method where you do loads of different dance moves for 2 hours a day and you get really toned”

You’ve probably thought or said one of these things.  It’s easy to buy into the idea that toning is a magical state that lies between performing the perfect balance of just enough Zumba, Yogalates, HIIT training and glute kick backs on the cable machine.

And you’d be forgiven for thinking so, given all the “information” and targeted adverts on the internet.  It’s easy to make money out of people who don’t fully understand what’s going on.  That’s why most people who work in banks are rich. They understand money, so know how to make more of it.

Well, sit tight, read on and get rich.

What is tone anyway?

Lots of people throw the term around but couldn’t pin point what it is.  Tone is just being able to see your muscles.  All you need is to have grown enough muscle and be at a low enough body fat percentage for that muscle to be visible. The end.  The process to getting toned is simple, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Training can be hard and dieting even more so.

How do you get toned?

There is no one special exercise, machine, food supplement or lengthy cardio routine that will get you there.  The muscle itself can grow (hypertrophy) or it can shrink (atrophy).  There isn’t a mysterious state outside of this called “toned”.  The same goes for your fat cells; they can shrink, or they can grow and multiply.

So how do we make the muscle grow and the fat cells shrink? Well the most effective way to build muscle is to lift weights, and the only way to lose fat is to create an energy deficit.

The hard truth is, if you’ve been weight training and you still feel “bulky” or “undefined” then you likely haven’t lost enough fat, built enough muscle, or a combination of the two.  You just have to keep going until you get to a place you’re happy with.

Growing the muscle

To build muscle, follow a well-designed whole-body weight training program and ensure that you are increasing your weights, sets, reps or frequency over the course of it.  It’s just a matter of what is practical for you.

When you start training or perform new moves there will be a correlation between “feeling it”, and muscle growth, but not necessarily causation.  As your body adapts to the training stimulus, you will no longer come away from a workout feeling sore, or experience DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the next day like you used to.  This doesn’t mean your muscles will stop growing.

Contrary to the popular belief that you always have to damage the muscle for it then to ‘repair’ itself and grow, a review of a 2016 study reported that this may not always be the case. Provided you continue to progressively overload your muscles by manipulating one or more of the variables (reps, sets, weight, frequency), then over time they will continue to grow until you reach whatever your genetic potential is.

In short, you don’t always have to chase the burn.  If you always workout to the point of failure and pain, you’ll have a hard time recovering and being able to get back in the gym.  This will then compromise your workout volume.

The practical thing to do is hold back a little bit in the short term so you can achieve more in the long run.  Bank some savings now, for future investments.

What kind of weights for how many reps?

To cause muscle growth you can perform a variety of training programs.  If you are completely new to exercise, then pretty much anything from yoga to cardio will get you a small amount of muscular hypertrophy.  But it is not the most effective method; lifting weights is.

To build muscle there are a number of repetition ranges you can work with.  A study showed that using lighter weights and doing 25-35 repetitions or heavier weights of 8-12 repetitions caused a similar amount of muscle growth. (NB: even lower reps also work but are more specific to strength outcomes).

However, when we’re talking about light loads they should still be challenging.  Aim for a weight that you feel you could just about do another one or two reps with at the end of the set.  If you’re very new and unsure about weight training, stick with the lighter loads until you feel confident with the technique. From a practical perspective it would be easier and more time efficient to stay within the lower rep range.

How many times a week?

To start out with, try weight training 2-3 times a week and see where that gets you.  If you’re happy and seeing results, then stick with it.  Once you stop seeing progress you may want to increase the frequency to 4-6 days a week if you find that more practical than continuing to increase reps/ sets or weight in your current workouts.

Remember you want to be able to increase your volume load over time.  If you go all out straight away, you’ll have no idea if you could have achieved the same improvements doing less work.  It would also be tricky to find ways to continually progress if you’ve already used all your aces .  Doing too much too soon could also lead to injuries or loss of motivation.

As with a calorie deficit, it’s usually best to make the least amount of changes to get the most results.  A good return on investment if you will.

How to lose the fat

The first thing we need to consider, is do you need to lose fat? Maybe you didn’t have much fat to lose in the first place.  Now you’ve started weight training, that’s added activity on top of the fact you’re building more muscle.  This may be all that you need to create a small calorie deficit so that over time you will see some fat loss and your muscles becoming more visible. AKA toned.

If you still have a substantial amount of fat to lose and you want to see faster results, you’ll need to create more of an energy deficit than weight training alone.  The most effective way to do this is through your energy intake. i.e. consume less calories through food.

There are many ways to reduce your calories.  You can use a calorie and macro tracking app, or simply reduce the portion size of your meals etc. (Side note – keep your protein intake up to support muscle growth).

A good idea is to start by identifying your easiest win.  If you notice your diet is pretty good, but on a Friday night you have a bottle of wine, 3 sambuca shots followed by a kebab and chips, which then leads to a day of eating a fry-up on the couch, only getting up to reach for the biscuit tin – then your biggest calorie deficit is going to be created by changing that habit in some way. Not by leaving the potato out of your Sunday roast.

If you are active enough in your daily life, there isn’t really any need to include much cardio into your routine unless you enjoy it or want to improve your cardiovascular health.  However, cardio can be a great way to contribute to your overall calorie deficit; especially if you are sat at a desk all day.  This could be just going for a brisk walk.

How long will it take to get toned?

This will obviously depend on your starting point, and to an extent your genetics.  As a rule it’s far quicker to lose fat than gain muscle. Beginners could see results within a month, but it may take longer for some if you have more fat to lose or take longer to build muscle.  They key is patience and consistency.  Those are your weapons here.  Not skinny tea, not any fancy equipment, and not performing any special moves created by the latest Instagram sensation.

In summary: Toning is achieved through lifting heavier things over time whilst creating a calorie deficit. Now take your new-found wealth of knowledge and invest it wisely.


FreeGym Blogger Legend. Personal Trainer at Fitology. Powerlifting Level 1 Coach.

Join the #FreeGymSquad

Join our mailing list to receive the latest updates and free workout offers near you.