The "Toning" Myth

First of all

Let’s try and move away from adopting a fitness routine for purely aesthetic reasons. This is an entirely different topic and conversation, and we won’t go there, but I want to plant this seed for you. There is nothing wrong with the desire to create physical change in the body, but I’d like to challenge you to include performance and health-based goals as well. Setting these will allow you to measure your progress objectively, in the short-term. More on that later.

What is “Toning” Anyway?

When I hear that someone is looking to “just tone,” this phrase is often directly followed by a clarification that they would not like to get “too big” or “bulky.” Since this is still so common, there is clearly a misunderstanding in the way that muscle tissue reacts to training stimulus. When someone expresses the desire to look “toned,” what they’re really saying is they want to put on muscle and lose body fat.

Toned — implies leanness in the body (low levels of body fat), noticeable muscle definition and shape, without significant muscle size (bulk)

Every person is different, and there will be slightly different outcomes even when training within the guidelines, but generally speaking if you’re looking to “tone up” my recommendation would be to approach your programming with the overarching goal of fat loss and cycle through the strength building categories that I’ve outlined below (in the order that they’re listed).

Define Your Goals

You can’t design a program without knowing what you’re trying to achieve. Most programs are periodized, which allows for progress toward multiple goals, with a focus on achieving just one at a time.

Periodization — an organization of training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period of time; typically dividing one year into macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles

The general goals (for programming purposes) that we will be focusing on are endurance (specifically focused on stabilization and muscular — often used as a preparatory or introductory phase), hypertrophy (growth of muscle size), strength (maximal strength), and performance (speed and power).

Here are some terms you may need in order to decode the specifics:

Reps — one complete movement of a single exercise

Sets — group of consecutive repetitions

1RM — 1 repetition maximum; a calculator used to estimate your percentages of RM can be found here

Goal: Stabilization + Muscular Endurance

  • Focus — create optimal levels of stabilization strength and postural control

  • Programming Strategy — begin with and cycle back through this phase between periods of higher intensity training

  • Set Range — 1 to 3

  • Rep Range — 12 to 20

  • Intensity — 50% to 70% of 1RM

  • Tempo — slow; for example 4/2/1 (4 sec eccentric, 2 sec isometric, 1 sec concentric)

  • Rest Interval — 0 to 90 sec

Goal: Hypertrophy

  • Focus — maximal muscle growth through high levels of volume with minimal rest periods

  • Technical Strategy — to force cellular changes that result in overall increase in muscle size

  • Set Range — 3 to 5

  • Rep Range — 6 to 12

  • Intensity — 75% to 85% of 1RM

  • Tempo — moderate; for example 2/0/2 (2 sec eccentric, 0 sec isometric, 2 sec concentric)

  • Rest Interval — 0 to 60 sec

Goal: maximal Strength

  • Focus — increasing the load placed on tissues of the body

  • Technical Strategy — recruit more motor units, rate of force production and motor unit synchronization

  • Set Range — 4 to 6

  • Rep Range — 1 to 5

  • Intensity — 85% to 100% of 1RM

  • Tempo — fast or explosive

  • Rest Interval — 3 to 5 min

Goal: Speed + Power

  • Focus — both high force and velocity to increase power

  • Programming Strategy — combining a strength exercise with a power exercise for each body part

  • Set Range — 3 to 6

  • Rep Range — 1 to 10

  • Intensity — 30% to 45% of 1RM

  • Tempo — fast or explosive that can be safely controlled

  • Rest Interval — 3 to 5 min

A Quick Note about 1RM

Calculating your 1RM for each exercise you do, is a time consuming process. I would recommend using a calculator instead of pushing yourself to follow a testing protocol — this will allow you to input any number of reps and weight and can determine your percentages of RM.

I wouldn’t suggest attempting to calculate your RM for lifts you perform less than 2x per week. Also, keep in mind that for the data you input, the lower the reps, the more accurate your RM results will be — try to work with 2, 3, or 5 reps when possible.

Where to begin

Drop the fear of heavy weights, of getting bulky, of getting strong. Avoid zeroing in on aesthetic measurements. Shift your programming to a balanced, periodized formatting. Challenge yourself to set performance and health-based goals. Push yourself, but only do what makes you feel good. Remember that the point is to enjoy the experience.

*Specific numerical information sourced from NASM