Toning Up – A Land of Fallacies

In a hurry? Have some highlights! (TL;DR)

  • Above all else, looking more defined—or toned, or whatever you want to call it—simply comes down to having less body fat
  • Lifting heavy weights will not automatically make you bulky (such claims must be put into proper context)
  • Females and males can respond similarly (at least at first) to training in terms of relative changes in musculature and strength, but men have a larger potential for total overall growth (i.e. most natural women will be hard-pressed to ever become overly bulky)
  • Most people who want to “tone up” will probably be most aesthetically satisfied by losing some body fat and replacing at least a portion of the lost mass with muscle
  • An optimal path to these goals involves a combination of conservative (but adequate) nutrition coupled with training focused on compound exercises using moderate to heavy loads

First off, let’s hear it for my friend’s debut as a hunk of a male model in the cover image of this article. I’d say thanks, but I’m really just hoping he’ll stop following me with his shirt off asking me to photograph him like one of my french girls…

I kid; I kid.

Secondly, before we get properly started, let me hop up on my (debatably hypocritical) soap box for just a moment and say that I am not writing this to lend credence to anyone’s belief that they “should” look a certain way or that they would be happier if only they could look more like that one model on that one magazine cover. Almost every day, I see people—people that I think are beautiful—struggling with varying amounts of displeasure with the way they look. They see pictures of men or women in a commercial or on the internet and think, “I wish my pecs were wide like his,” or, “I wish my hips were shaped like hers.” Sure; in many cases, these are just idle fancies—nothing too detrimental to that person’s overall well-being. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, people tear themselves down, and over what? Because they don’t look like someone suggested they “should?” Like they’re “supposed to?” Who cares if you’re a girl with small bosoms or a guy who’s not so tall? Just because we’ve grown up being spoon-fed images and ideas of what is supposed to be beautiful doesn’t mean that those views are by any means valid or complete.

I’m almost done. I just wanted to say that my purpose for writing this is not to perpetuate this world’s body image issues. If you have decided you want to look a certain way, I want to give you whatever information I can to make sure your efforts are as productive as they can be (and I just like trying to dissuade the spread of disinformation), but please, please, PLEASE… Never mistake a lack of “toned” triceps or a flat tummy for a lack beauty.

In short, I will simply say: lifter, love thyself.

Apologies if that was overly preachy or idealistic for any of you. I’ll try to stick to delivering information from here on out!

The Cursed Words

I love it when people ask me about training. It perks me up more than almost anything else. But then (sometimes) come the words. Those often misguided, sometime almost accusative words:

“I don’t want to get bulky, though. I just want to tone up.”

toning up too damn high

The number of times I have heard this phrase is too damn high. But why would this upset me? Am I saying that people have the “wrong” desire for how they want to look? No; that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s not that I am peeved by the people saying it to me or ungrateful for the chance to try to share some of my knowledge; what gets my goat is the idea that this phrase has been propagated throughout our culture to the point that it managed to stick and bend a lot of the public’s “understanding” about weight training. All because, at some point, some confounded ninnyhammers started telling people that using anything more than pink, 5 pound dumbbells was sure to lead to an imminent explosion of muscle and pure testosterone.

“Shit…” some of those poor trainees probably thought, “I better stick to these light weights… I don’t want to explode!” And it’s a good thing, too, because accidentally growing muscles overnight is clearly a pretty easy trap to fall into. Just ask all of the bros who have been trying to get jacked for half a decade or more and still don’t even look like they lift.

Okay. Now I’ll try to set my bitterness aside and actually explain myself.

inigo montoya on toning up

What Does Toning Mean to YOU?

From my experience, it seems that the desire to tone up and the fear of getting bulky as a result of lifting heavier weights are mentalities that are more common to females than males (probably largely because of the way magazines, ads, and other media have targeted females relative to the messages similar streams of media normally convey to males; in my opinion these practices are fairly deplorable a lot of the time, but I’ll save that topic for future writing). Still, I have also met several males with this mindset as well.

Whether we’re talking about males or females here, I think that a lot of people who find themselves wanting to “tone up” are a little misguided as to what it is that they actually want. To clarify, I don’t mean to say that they don’t have a clear image of what they want so much as that they might not fully appreciate exactly what changes would yield the body they are picturing. More often than not, it seems that the go-to move for anyone looking to “tone up” a certain area is for them to start doing isolation work targeted towards that body part/muscle group. Common examples of this are people jumping straight to ab exercises because they want to have a flat tummy or a six pack. Another pretty common one is light (because heavy means unwanted bulk, right?) triceps isolation work with the hopes of achieving more firm-looking arms.

So what’s the problem with this tactic? Well, on top of choosing what are probably going to be relatively ineffective exercises for most novice lifters (e.g. triceps kickbacks and crunches) over more productive, heavy (at least heavy-ish) compound exercises (more on this in a minute), many of these trainees may have missed (or denied) a big part of the whole “toned up” picture:

Above all else, the thing that is going to make someone look more defined—or toned, or whatever you want to call it—is simply having less body fat.

I don’t say this maliciously; this isn’t an attack! I’m just pointing out that excess body fat generally makes it a lot harder to see the shape and details of one’s skeletal muscle. Examples can be found of fatter powerlifters out there that are bench pressing well above 500 pounds. Are their triceps “toned?” You bet your ass. Underneath the fat, those triceps are solid as rocks, yet you might not know it by looking at them passing by on the street.

So, conclusion #1: a lot of people looking to “tone up” actually just want to shed some body fat (as I recently did myself, depicted below).

Recomposition before and after

It’s not sexy like the training “secrets” you might see advertised by the “gurus,” and I almost certainly wouldn’t sell many magazines with the headline, but there it is: if you want to “tone up,” a big part of the battle is just going to be losing body fat. In other words, fortunate lighting aside, you pretty much just need to be lean if you want to look lean. If you want more information on how to accomplish this, check out my article on how to cut body fat while minimizing the loss of lean tissue (gainz). Warning: the linked article contains recommendations to train with heavy weights. This leads us to the other big aspect of “toning.”

But Wait; There’s More!

For many trainees, fat loss is only part of the equation to yield the look they are seeking. As mentioned in the above discussion of The Cursed Phrase, the part that usually precedes “I just want to tone up,” is “I don’t want to get bulky,” which is often somehow translated into the idea that one should avoid lifting anything heavy if one want to avoid the perils of bulkiness. Let’s evaluate the validity (or lack thereof) of this fear.

First off, I’ll just say it: lifting heavy is not going to automatically make you suddenly and irreversibly jacked, as some trainees seem to fear. Just look at guys like Jonnie Candito (above) who are moving tremendous weights without turning into heaping mountains of muscle (I’m not saying he’s not built; just pointing out that he moves a lot of heavy-ass weights and is not what most people would probably call overly bulky). Part of the confusion may be due to the fact that heavy (let’s give this a value and say over 70% of your 1 rep max) lifting can actually be utilized quite effectively to promote hypertrophy. But it also works great for building strength. And it can also work well for burning fat. Basically, we can accomplish pretty much any physique goal while lifting heavy.

What’s my point? In short, it is quite silly to just say that heavy lifting will make you bulky without providing any kind of context. I can just as easily say that heavy lifting will make you a lean, sexy, athletic god/goddess, but whether or not this is true depends entirely on how you actually program that lifting and how you support your body nutritionally throughout the process. Context is key.

For instance, we know that overall training volume is one of the most important determinants of training-induced hypertrophy. Another crucial factor is the amount of energy that you provide your body through nutrition (as well as your history of training volume and diet). The role of  sexes is also an important consideration here. I can tell you with a good amount of confidence that, for several reasons such as lower average levels of testosterone and skeletal bone mass, with maybe the exception of a few rare outliers, females will simply not be able to naturally build as much total muscle mass as their similarly-sized male counterparts. However, studies like this one have shown that females can experience hypertrophy effect sizes (i.e. % increase in muscle thickness) from resistance training similar to what males experience from the same training paradigm (this still constitutes a smaller overall increase in muscular size for most females, as the average sizes of female muscles are lower than those of males to start, which means that a, say, 5% increase in muscle size for both males and females still means a smaller overall gain for the females). But is this a reason to avoid the weights? Let’s delve a little deeper.

In short, yes, using moderate to heavy loads in training can cause muscles to grow given that you are also using enough overall training volume and supplying sufficient nutrition, but this doesn’t mean that heavy training will necessarily make you bulky. Let me explain.

study that had a group of  24 women participate in a heavy lower body resistance training program for 20 weeks found that heavy weight training did indeed hypertrophy the muscles of the leg. Before you swear off lifting forever, though, the crucial bit to recognize here is that, while the average muscle fiber cross sectional area increased, there were no measurable differences in thigh girth. Why? Because these women also lost body fat as a result of the training program! In essence, they dropped enough body fat from training that the training-induced increases in lean body mass did not lead to much of a net change in overall body mass (or weight). The end result? Less body fat overall, and denser, firmer legs (the study above reported a decrease in the average measured thigh skin fold size). Basically the definition of what toners are looking for, yes?  

Luckily, it seems like a lot of the world is slowly starting to realize this, especially with the advent of the phenomenon known as “squat booty.” You don’t have to look too far now to find examples of girls like Marissa Inda or Nia Shanks (check out her website if you want a woman’s perspective on the many reasons why lifting heavy is awesome) who are moving big weights while sporting figures that many find quite enviable (i.e. lifting heavy has sculpted these ladies athletic bodies rather making them totally explode with muscle and testosterone as some might fear; plus, they’re super strong now, so win-win!). It’s also worth noting that these women are not even training primarily for physique goals so much as to just get stronger (I just picked these two examples because they’re good, strong lifters).

When it comes down to it, whether they realize it or not, the looks that many hopeful toners are envisioning for the most part probably involve more lean mass than they are currently sporting (and also more lean mass than they might think they want). I’m not saying everyone secretly wants to be totally jacked, but I have also never seen someone (male or female) put on a few pounds of shiny new muscle and be displeased with the way they look (not that that’s an impossible scenario either, but the overwhelming majority of trainees seem to respond positively to these subtle changes).

Without an appreciable bit of muscle, many people who get to fairly low body fat levels will probably find that, while they may see more definition of what muscle is there, the overall appearance is more… dare I say, “twig-like” than they had originally been picturing (nevermind for now that while you can lose plenty of weight with cardio  and diet, or even just diet alone, incorporating some manner of resistance training into one’s… well, training… makes it a lot easier to avoid the “skinny-fat” look that some people end up obtaining when they focus solely on loads of cardio). Of course, there is nothing wrong with this! My little “twig-like” comment aside, I am not trying to pass judgments here; I am only writing this to help inform your expectations of the ways different types of training (and, of course, dieting) can change your body composition.

For all of the reasons discussed so far, we can see why focusing on moderate to heavy lifting is advantageous for the goals involved in “toning up,” but what about the go-to solution many trainees tend to turn to—doing a bunch of isolation work for the region they are hoping to shine up for display?

Let’s look at ab work, a popular staple for those looking to “get” (a more appropriate word choice would be uncover) a six pack. Just to review, as I hammered on above, doing a bunch of ab exercises is probably not going to give you a visible six pack if you have much abdominal fat. What remains for us to accomplish with exercise then is to expend energy (to cut down on body fat) and to promote muscular development. Sticking only to isolation work (and in the case of beginners, doing much isolation work at all) is not the optimal strategy for either of these goals.

This study, for instance, found that subjects that did only ab exercises 5 times per week showed no significant difference in any  of the measures taken (body weight, body fat, abdominal circumference, etc.) when compared to a control group that did not complete any prescribed exercise at all. Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that abdominal work is pointless; I’m just pointing out that it doesn’t work so well as a primary means of changing overall body composition (along the same lines, neither do triceps kickbacks, curls, dumbbell lateral raises, etc.).

What does? Focusing on compound exercises while using moderate to heavy loads and gradually increasing overall training volume, or, in other words, picking up heavy(ish) stuff and putting it down (I know; I’m a broken record). Along these same lines, as I’ve discussed in previous articles (such as the one linked just below), most trainees (especially those new to lifting) will be best served by performing full-body workouts (or at least large body portion splits, such as having an upper body day and a lower body day) rather than having an arm day, a chest day, an ab day, and so on. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out my Meat and Potatoes program!

Wrapping Up

For anyone still reading this and thinking that you want to tone up but you are sure you don’t want to train with heavy(er) weights or build any muscle at all, I could go on and on talking about how muscle tissue is denser than fat and how it can be hard for trainees to appreciate what they will look like if they lose some of their body fat and replace it with muscle (this opens the door to another whole discussion about why the weight on a scale isn’t necessarily that useful for a lot of people that are just starting out and trying to change their body composition), and I will probably discuss these things in more length down the road, but I doubt any of that would successfully convince you.

Instead, I’ll just pose a simple challenge: try it out. Lay aside your notions and your worries for just a little while. Try following a basic, no frills program focusing on progressing the big barbell lifts for two months and see what happens. Experience what it feels like to become stronger while you watch your body slowly change. I think you will enjoy what happens.

And if you’re still hesitant, take note of that phrase, “watch your body slowly change.” As I’ve said before, changing a body takes time, patience, and a lot of work. You won’t explode with muscle overnight, and if for whatever reason you truly don’t like the changes you gradually begin to see and feel, you can always just stop and go back to whatever it was you were doing before, no harm done!

As always, thanks for reading! Please share the work with your friends, sign up for the newsletter (or follow me in the links below) for future updates, and let me know in the comments below if you are sold on trying out some heavy lifting or if you have any questions about the article (or anything else)!


  1. Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2014. 28(10): p. 2909-2918.
  2. Abe, T., et al., Time course for strength and muscle thickness changes following upper and lower body resistance training in men and women. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2000. 81(3): p. 174-180.
  3. Staron, R., et al., Muscle hypertrophy and fast fiber type conversions in heavy resistance-trained women. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 1990. 60(1): p. 71-79.
  4. Vispute, S.S., et al., The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2011. 25(9): p. 2559-2564.

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