top of page

How to Exercise if You Want to Tone Up

How to Exercise if You Want to Tone Up

Ways to View This Blog:

1. Video 2. TL;DR 3. Read On...

The methods for toning up that have been popular for a long time are terrible at getting the job done.

Fortunately, more and more people in the fitness industry are starting to realize there’s a better way to do it.

But that information takes some time to make its way to the masses. That means the average person who just wants to lose weight and tone up (with no desire to spend time burying their nose in fitness science books) is still trying to do it the old way.

It’s time to change that.

You Might Not Like This

I like to think that I’ve changed quite a bit in the last 20 years (although a friend of mine jokes that men never mature beyond middle school).

One thing I can say for sure that’s changed are my fitness goals.

When I was 16, I just wanted to get jacked.

I know not every guy starts out wanting to get big and bulky, but it’s not uncommon. It’s definitely more common than a woman at any age feeling that way. Not that there’s anything wrong with ANYONE who does have that goal, it’s just not what we do here.

That’s because now, at age 38, I’m far more interested in feeling good, having energy, and being able to move around as pain free as possible for the decades I see coming in the “not as distant future as I once thought.”

I still like having some muscle definition and looking half decent (by my own standards) in a swimsuit, but I have absolutely no desire to be a giant bodybuilder whose veins alone make small children cry. (I even wrote an entire blog called, "Getting Lean Without Getting Bulky")

The reason I’m sharing this is because I have to tell you something you might not like:

Toning up requires building some muscle.

When I talk about this, I want you to know where I’m coming from. I’m not talking about getting jacked. I’m not talking about putting on bulk. Think of it as improving muscle quality rather than increasing size.

So if there are any wannabe bodybuilders reading this, we love you, but you’re welcome to bow out gracefully at this point. Everyone else, read on.

What “Toning Up” Really Means

Toning up is a combination of the following two elements:

1. Losing a certain amount of fat

2. Improving muscle quality (again, NOT "bulking up")

That’s important to understand because they’re achieved through different means.

You can’t improve muscle quality and expect it to be defined if you still carry extra fat. But you also can’t simply lose weight and expect to have muscle definition if there’s nothing there to define (which is why some people still feel “flabby” even after losing weight).

It’s possible that you may have to focus more on one element than the other, but you won't get results if you ignore either one completely, and you have to tackle both from separate angles (although some of the strategies do overlap, which I’ll get into later).

In broad strokes, losing fat is mainly about knowing how much to eat — how much protein, carbs, fats, and veggies, as well as how many calories.

Improving muscle quality, on the other hand, has more to do with following the right exercise program.

Exercising to Tone Up

When I say the “right” exercise program, I don’t mean you have to buy a certain exercise video series (you don’t have to dig up your mom’s old “Buns of Steel” VHS tapes). You also don’t have to have a gym membership or any specific type of equipment.

There are plenty of different ways to do it that could all work just fine.

What matters is that, wherever you work out, and whoever writes your exercise program — whether it’s a trainer, something you found online, or you’re just trying to do this yourself — you have to take the following 3 things into consideration:

1. Strength

Losing weight has always been part of the equation for toning up, but the old school method for weight loss was to do lots of cardio.

Richard Simmons cardio

Cardio has plenty of health benefits, and it can play a role in weight loss, but if you do too much of it, you’ll be less likely to lose excess fat, and more likely to lose healthy muscle tissue — the exact opposite of the combination needed to tone up.

We now know that strength training is a more effective form of exercise for weight loss (and obviously for improving muscle quality, too).

That’s why I have most clients prioritize a minimum of 2 strength-based workouts per week.

Sometimes I recommend doing more than that, but for toning up, that should be your starting point (more isn’t necessarily better, it just depends on your schedule, preferences, and specific goals).

2. Intensity

Another example of where old school methods are wrong is the “light weight, high reps” mindset. It became popular a long time ago because it was advertised as a way to tone up without getting bulky.

The reality is it’s a glorified form of cardio.

Saved by the Bell exercise

Your heart rate goes up and you may even feel a burn in your muscles, but you never actually challenge those muscles enough to stimulate change — just like even if you walk all day and your legs get sore and tired, it doesn’t mean you’ll have thighs like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Rather than worrying over exactly how much weight to use or how many reps to perform on a given exercise (not that those things don’t matter, but there’s a big range on what’s effective), it’s more important to focus on intensity.

By intensity, I mean appropriately challenging yourself no matter the number of reps you’re doing.

For example, it’s ok to stop at 10 squats if you know you’d only be able to do 11 or 12 anyway. But if you could have done 15+, then stopping at 10 was too easy (even if it didn’t feel “easy”).

This gets particularly tricky when you aim for higher reps because it’ll start to get painful long before you near your muscular limits. Truly challenging yourself at 20+ reps is gonna hurt a lot more than what you’ll want to put up with on a regular basis.

The vast majority of my exercises fall somewhere within a 6-20 rep range — not as a rule, just in general. Again, it’s not that the number is all that important. It just tends to be the most practical in most contexts.

3. Variety

The final common mistake you can make when exercising to tone up is doing a different, random workout every time you exercise, just for the sake of variety.

Your body changes by adapting to the type of exercise you do. But just like it would take you more than one piano lesson to learn how to play Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” it takes your body more than one workout session to learn how to adapt.

For example…

If you do push-ups once, your body says, “Wow, that was weird, but I’m gonna repair the damage and move on.” You may feel sore the next day or two, but no discernible changes take place.

Even if you exercise next week on the same day at the same time, if it’s a totally different workout, it will be a different “lesson” for your body that may or may not build on what it learned from those push-ups last week.

However, if you continue to do push-ups semi-regularly, your body says,”It looks like this is something I need to be prepared for. I may need a stronger chest and arms.” And the more consistent you are, the more your body will adapt.

In the context of this blog, if you want to improve your muscle quality so you can tone up and have some definition, you’ll need to work on the same exercises (or at least similar ones) consistently.

For the record, it IS possible to not have ENOUGH variety in your workouts, too. But most people struggle to be consistent with exercise at all. So my suggestion is to find a realistic program (even if it feels like you aren’t doing enough) that you can stick with for at least a few months to get the best results.

The Overlap

So you have to exercise to improve muscle quality, but you have to eat right to lose excess fat. Those are different courses of action, but there is some overlap between the two strategies.

On the nutrition side of things, one of the main priorities for toning up is eating enough protein. Not only will that make it easier to lose excess fat, but, without it, your body won't have the nutrients it needs to improve muscle quality.

Even if you think you already have plenty of high quality muscle, protein can help prevent you from losing some of it, which would make it difficult to see any definition later on — not to mention it would also make you more likely to gain back more fat later.

As far as losing excess fat, even though nutrition is the most important element, exercise does still play a role.

Following the 3 exercise principles I laid out in the above section will help you manage your hunger better while in a calorie deficit, and it will also “teach” your body to prioritize fat loss, so you can finally get that toned up look you want as your weight goes down.

The real question is, where are you going to find an exercise program that will most effectively put those principles into action?

And once you have that program, are you confident enough in your nutrition skills that you’ll be able to complement your workouts with the foods you eat? Because even the best exercise program won’t help you tone up if your diet is off.

Or would it just be easier if you had someone who could put it all together for you based on your individual needs?

That’s what we do.

To see how we can help you with diet AND exercise, giving you a plan that stays away from extremes so you can enjoy your life and still get results, apply for our coaching here.


Toning up requires 2 things… losing fat, and building healthy muscle (NOT “bulking up”). For that, prioritize strength workouts over cardio.

The old school method of “low weight, high reps” is wrong. Generally, live in the 6-20 rep range and make sure it’s actually challenging. If you do 10 reps but could have done 15+, it’s not challenging enough.

Exercise should be similar from week to week, NOT random workouts that just feel tough. But even the best exercise program won’t help you tone up if your diet is off (especially without enough protein).

To see how we can help you with diet AND exercise, giving you a plan that stays away from extremes so you can enjoy your life and still get results, apply for our coaching here.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Category
Follow Us
  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle
bottom of page