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‘Toning’ – a viable goal? Or mythical term?

Toning is a funny word because it isn’t really all that singular. It’s a word usable in multi-contexts; skin tone, tone of music, tone of voice and…….to “tone” your body – a few examples.

When applied to the realm of fitness and transformation, toning is way too vague and unspecific. I know many of you are still dreaming of your toned physique, the image is clear, you’re leaner, a little more vascular and your muscles are defined. There may be even a little tan thrown in too as an extra bonus!

Hold the image for just a moment, in fact, keep it. In this post we’re going to redefine the ‘toning’ process.

‘Bulking’ and ‘cutting’ are singular targets – 

Two massively common goals or phases in fitness are to bulk and cut. They’re almost like neighboring countries at war with one and other. People think when you’re cutting versus bulking, your entire life has to revolve or differ depending on what ‘phase’ you’re in. This is a misconception of course, but at least you’ll have singular focus should either of the above be your goal.

“Oh no, I can’t squat heavy, I’m cutting!”

“Cardio? No way. I’m BULKING!”

“Can I eat fruit on a cut?”

“Should I eat fat on a bulk?”

The irony is those are – or should be – staples regardless of your goals. Assuming you’re bulking/cutting sensibly…..i.e. not running monstrous calorie deficits or surpluses. It’s comical, people actually think certain styles of training/dieting are forbidden when they’re cutting/bulking or whatever.

How about ‘toning’?

This is where I get to do some myth-busting. Toning can be summarized very aptly as follows……..when you’re looking to tone, you’re basically wanting to peel back excess fat and make your muscles more prominent and visible. Agreed? This is the goal of almost all the female fitness population. They dare not say ‘build muscle’ because that implies they swell up with 3D delts and striated glutes. So they stay away from the aggressive notion of muscle building and apply the more modest ‘tone’ to their goals. That way they won’t ‘become men’.

Just so people don’t start mistaking them for Ronnie Coleman in public.

Toning doesn’t really exist as a singular prosper. It’s a game of two halves; build muscle and reduce fat. However, allow me to highlight the good of wanting to tone. When you want to tone, you have a goal. A target. Something to aim at. You’ll never get what you want if you don’t know what that is. Read that a few times over. It won’t sound so silly.

The origins of toning –

The desire to tone is usually derived from the discomfort of an unchanging physique. It’s often coupled with ‘trouble areas’; bingo wings, love handles and thunder thighs. Women’s words, not mine. I really believe it’s a fear of resistance training that contributes to this. When you avoid weights of any kind, you greatly slash your options in the gym. All that’s left is cardio. Whilst cardio is a great form of exercise for health, you’re limited in terms of options with it – especially steady state cardio.

Steady state cardio tends to provide best results (in terms of body composition) when used by those who are quite untrained and unconditioned, or even significantly overweight. Simply because the body adapts to cardio very well – and quicker than you may imagine! Here’s an example: if you were to strap a calorie calculator (yes, I know they’re not dead accurate) and play a 5 set tennis match, whilst considerably out of shape, you may burn thousands of calories according to the calculator. Now do you think a pro tennis player would burn that every match?

They would burn much much less. Simply because of the sheer exposure they’ve had to such a physical endeavour. Their bodies have become efficient and adapted to such an energy expensive activity. For them to truly burn 2-3000 calories, they may have to play a ten set match!

Here lies the problem……

Many women who long to tone up avoid resistance movements whilst remaining loyal to their cardio routines, fearing if they stop they’ll suddenly get fat. The problem is their 45 minutes on the elliptical machine isn’t burning the 500 calories it did 12 months ago. Their body has long since adapted to such an ‘easy’ demand. This is where you’ve got to do more; increase the duration, work faster, do more weekly sessions etc.

Diminishing returns – 

By this time you’re already around the point of diminished returns. This is where adding more volume is actually counterproductive as it’s creating more stress than the body can positively adapt to. You could think of this as a mild state of ‘over-training’. Hence the wheels spin and spin.

(Image from

This is where muscle comes in. Those big, bulging biceps and massive triceps you fear so much. While we’re on a roll in terms of busting myths, here’s another: the average woman doesn’t have anywhere near enough testosterone to build vast amounts of muscle naturally. It’s just the way it is. Honestly, it’s hard enough for healthy young, genetically average, natural guys to really bulk up……..let alone ladies.

This is why women can’t understand why men check out so many women and can’t stop thinking about sex; their testosterone is the reason. It’s a masculine hormone responsible for aggressive drive and it plays a pivotal role in building muscle. The higher your testosterone, the easier it is to build muscle mass.

Make no mistake, you girls can build a nice amount of muscle. But you can’t ever look like Phil Heath.

Muscle is very metabolically active. Meaning you increase your metabolism a fair bit for every genuine pound of muscle you add to your frame. Which allows you to eat more just to maintain your weight, as your maintenance calories will become higher. Win win.

Finishing touches – 

The body also adapts to resistance training, echoing what I said above, you need to keep challenging your boundaries. Get stronger, more powerful, do more reps. The pink dumbbells you’ve been doing 25 rep kickbacks with whilst smiling aren’t doing any more for your toning aspirations than your 45 minute elliptical sessions. It needs to be hard. You need to be coming close to failure near your target rep range. 8-15 works brilliant in terms of muscle development.

It was Jason Ferruggia who once wrote…….“I could get a pump treading water, but it’s not doing shit for building muscle!”

In summary: 

  • Do cardio to a point. Once results slacken off, begin incorporating weights in your routine. Dumbbells, barbells, machines and bodyweight training are all fair game.
  • Strive to get stronger. Men and women really don’t need to train differently at all. Increasing performance is, and always has been, the BIGGEST precursor to fitness results.
  • You can’t spot reduce. All the side bends in the world will not eradicate your love handles if you’re energy turnover is too high! Get your nutrition stable, then start progressing with resistance training.
  • Women really don’t need to starve themselves lean. You’ll just end up flat. It’s the shape which makes us men love you so much. (Related: A guys thoughts on the ‘Thigh Gap’)
  • The laws of progressive overload apply to you too. Get stronger, build more muscle. Build more muscle, have a higher metabolic rate. Higher metabolic rate = eat more without fat gain = life’s better.
  • You’ll know you’re working hard enough when it’s physically impossible to smile by the 5th rep of your set. If you aren’t straining, you aren’t gaining. Have that one on me.

Here is a photo of ‘Chelsealifts’, who I believe is a competitive powerlifter. Which in short means plenty of deadlifting, squatting and bench pressing in her training. A far cry from 30 rep lying side leg raises.

She looks good don’t you think? And that’s in both photos in my opinion. She just trains. Gender is irrelevant to her, as it should be to you.

Train hard girls. Don’t fear the free weight area of gyms, you’ve just as much right to bet there as any man. 

Forget toning, you’re either bulking or cutting too. A woman can only be so strong in spirit. She needs a strong body to compliment it to really be the best she can be.  

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

13 thoughts on “‘Toning’ – a viable goal? Or mythical term? Leave a comment

  1. Very good essay on the benefits of a well-rounded (no pun intended) training routine for women.

    I wish I could convince my wife to do even light amounts of resistance work. She walks for cardio, which is good, and it’s not that she’s afraid of bulking up. But being in her late 50s and having all kinds of hormone “issues” at her stage in life, she’s got her hands full trying to level things out, if you take my meaning.

    That said, I agree that women (people, really) at any age can benefit from a combination of healthy diet, cardio, and resistance training to promote building lean muscle and reduce body fat.

    I do see women come into the weight room at my gym and work out with a certain amount of regularity, but far too many still stick just with the cardio machines and ignore even the lifefitness/nautilus-style weight machines because they’ve got it stuck in their heads that lifting weights is a guy thing. Even many of the women who do lift, never progress beyond very light weights, even though I know women can train themselves to lift heavy.

    • I can see the predicament she has. I think the biggest influence is seeing/hearing another female provide a testimonial of sorts. Where they look miles better than they did previous and the woman you want to sell the weight training to, genuinely believes her story and results. I’ve found (from experience) that usually tips them to at least TRY it. You’re so right about the lighter weights thing too, I’ve worked with a fair few women who are shocked when I say………”this should hurt by now” – they think it should be glamorous. I always say: you shouldn’t look pretty at all while training. Haha.

      The irony is, the women with the best physiques I know – and not just in a muscular development sense, look the most uncomfortable when they train as they train the heaviest/hardest!

      ‘The proof is in the pudding’……….as they say. Thanks for your input James, and nice name! That we share 🙂

  2. I qualified as a PT last year after studying for 18 months because I wanted to improve my own training. I used to just like doing different classes at the gym but now I do strength training. I have progressed A LOT in a short period of time with the help of my own trainer and now I’m even thinking about getting into powerlifting. I love lifting weights! I’m usually the only girl in the weights room at the gym and I will admit that some of the blokes there intimidate me but now that I’m getting used to it I just get on with my workout and ignore the ones I don’t like and I’ve realised that the rest of them aren’t that intimidating-that is was just my self-esteem.
    I wish women wouldn’t think that weights make them bulk up like a man because, like you said, it’s just not gonna happen. I have trimmed down considerably since I started lifting heavy weights and I wasn’t fat anyway. If they can make a difference to a body that’s already in good shape then they can do even more for someone with lots of fat to lose.
    Great blog by the way!

    • Hey Corrinne 🙂 Thanks for the input!

      I’ve heard a few girls say they felt uncomfortable around the majority of guys that kinda dominate the gym. That they’re worried what they may be thinking. I guess I’ve never really stopped to think about that. Now I have, I can see that mindset for sure. Yeah the classes only work for so long, then it becomes an enjoyment issue. I just don’t enjoy aerobic training anywhere near the amount I enjoy ANAEROBIC training! Maybe that’s my sprinting background coming out, haha!

      Powerlifting huh? Powerlifting is the in-thing now isn’t it? Would you ever actually compete? If you committed to a meet, you’ll probably find your motivation for getting stronger will go up TEN FOLD. So tell me your numbers/favorite movements. I love the pull – up, nothing beats it for me haha.

      Thanks very much indeed for the kind words too, they’re priceless 🙂

  3. Every female needs to read this! To achieve the look and weight loss most women (and men for that matter) are looking for the fear of the weights needs to stop. More muscle=more metabolic activity= the more your body processes at rest!

    • I think that was the best possible summary of my 1300+ word post that anyone could’ve provided! The message is slowly being spread, I’m sure it’s a matter of time.
      Are you still prepping for a show btw?

      • That’s awesome! Are you ahead of schedule? And is it your very first show? (You’ll find me asking you TONS of questions, I am fascinated by people who do things like competitions, which smash their comfort zones) haha

      • This is going to be my third show and I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m at. I really tighten up at this point. This is my first world show though which is very exciting

      • That’s wicked! Do you think you’ll carry on competing and improving for the foreseeable future? I suppose the best thing about doing shows is they keep you 110% accountable for maintaining absolute top condition. You just can’t slack off, cheat or get lazy.

      • Honestly I am struggling with different goals I have at the moment. I love shows but they are largely individual and require a lot of sacrifice to prep for ( not that all forms of serious fitness don’t require that). But at the moment I want to be strong and push myself in that arena. I have some serious crossfit goals that I want to crush in the next year before I prep for a show again.

      • Oh the sacrifices for physique competitions and competitive bodybuilding are incredible! It’s the hunger I’d struggle with. I have a HUGE appetite. For me to run a calorie deficit for the necessary time frame would be tough. At least with crossfit etc you don’t need calorie deficits, if anything you need a surplus. That would make life much more enjoyable. I mean who doesn’t love a good feast?! 🙂

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