How to Exercise if You Want to Tone Up

“I want to lose weight and tone up.”

It’s a common goal, but that doesn’t make it any less significant than any other type of fitness endeavor.

The problem is that the methods for toning up that have been popular for a long time now aren’t all that effective 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 probably still trying to do it the old way.

It’s time to change that.

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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 36, 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 as I once thought” future.

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.

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. I’m just talking about having a body composition that’s a little more on the lean side.

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 excess fat

2. Building enough muscle to see some definition

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

You can’t build muscle and expect it to be defined if you still carry a bit of extra fat. But you also can’t simply lose weight and expect to have muscle definition if there’s hardly any muscle to begin with (which could be why you still felt a little “flabby” even after losing weight in the past).

It’s possible that you may have to focus more on one element than the other, but, regardless, the strategies you’ll need will be the same, 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.

Building muscle, 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.

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 building muscle, 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.

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 growth — 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 20-30, 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. But, again, it’s not that the number is all that important. It just tends to be more practical most of the time when considering intensity.

3. Variety

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

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 build a little bit of muscle so you can tone up and have some definition, you’ll need to work on the same (or at least similar) exercises 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 build a little muscle, 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 (see “How Much Protein Should You Eat to Lose Weight”).

Not only will that make it easier to lose excess fat, but without it, your body won’t have the nutrients it needs to build muscle.

Even if you think you already have enough 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 li