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Is getting toned a real thing?

Kate Braithwaite sports model

As many of you reading is will know, at the moment I’m taking part in the Protein Project with Maximuscle. If you’ve missed the point of the Protein Project it is to improve the public’s perception of exactly what protein can do for you in terms of body composition improvement and performance in sport.

For me, this is quite male targeted, but I guess that’s always an issue when dealing with sports supplements. The unfortunate connection with bodybuilding makes every woman think that taking extra protein, (whether food or supplements in some cases), will turn them into a female Arnold Schwarzenegger. If only it was that simple! All my male clients would have formed a queue between GNC and Tesco taking it in turns to down protein shakes and eat whole cooked chickens while magically watching their muscles appear. I’m being flippant, but for good reason. One friend of Kate’s who we chatted to this week specifically said she didn’t want to eat more protein for fear of getting big muscles…. My fear is that the Protein Project might be sending out the wrong message to women.

What women want…

So what do women want? To answer that question I’m going to have to make myself shudder. They want to “tone” or “tone up”. (I hate that word).

Nearly every female who I have ever trained, considered training or just been approached by, has mentioned the word “tone”. The fitness industry is in a bit of a pickle. The word tone is misused and misleading, yet it is so synonymous with what women want (or think they want) so it is used. Even my sponsor company MaxiNutrition called their female specific range Maxitone and have created products “to support your toning goals”. Personally not the choice I would’ve made, as it just fuels this misleading term. I don’t use the term “tone”, nor do I don’t allow my clients to use it. But for you guys reading is article, I will, after that, never again (hopefully!).

Kate Braithwaite dips (Credit: snhfoto)I have two problems with the word “tone” and its uses.

First, it is misused. It is a scientific/medical word which according to Wikipedia can be defined by the following:

“In physiology, medicine, and anatomy, muscle tone (residual muscle tension or tonus) is the continuous and passive partial contraction of the muscles, or the muscle’s resistance to passive stretch during resting state.”

Without teaching anyone reading this to suck eggs, we all already have muscles and muscle tone. If you didn’t have muscles, you wouldn’t be able to pick up your tooth brush, walk down the stairs or nod your head. Therefore, we all have muscle tone as well.

Still following me?

So, hence the misuse of the word. What women (and to be fair some men) want when the say they want to “tone up” is to “see” their muscles: see the definition of that muscle. They want to see their “toned” muscles, but what they mean is the shape of the actual muscle hiding under their excess body fat.

The thought process here, is that my body isn’t “tight” or “firm” so I just want to “tone it up” so these “wobbly bits” become “nice and firm”.

Training Myths

Let’s dispel another couple of myths while we are at it.

You can’t turn fat into muscle. You can’t firm fat up. It’s fat. It’s your portable comfort blanket and reminder that you eat more than you need and exercise less than you should.
Muscle won’t turn to fat. No buts. Its like me asking if your car will turn into a boat. They are different. Always have been, always will be. You can get one, have both, lose one and lose both. But they can’t become eachother. I’m being flippant again, but I’m trying to get you to see how simple it actually is.

Happy so far?

No, probably not, but I used to be a Commando PTI. I’m not beating around the bush, I’m telling you straight. It is much easier for us both that way.

Body Compositional Change (“tone up”)

What people really want when they ask to “just tone up a little bit” is to see their muscles. This is effectively the same as a guy wanting to do a body transformation or “get ripped”. Both refer to a Body Composition Change, where we need to:

1. Build new muscle & keep existing muscle (many women’s training means they are breaking muscle down with too few calories and excess cardiovascular training. They are also slowing their metabolism doing this as well.)
2. Lower body fat.

I can hear you already:

“No, I don’t want to transform my body, or build muscles. I understand what ‘tone’ means now, but I don’t want to do that either, I just want to burn the fat off my tummy and the backs of my arms. I’ve been doing loads of sit-ups and dips but its not working. What exercises should I do?”

Targeting Fatloss

Lets dispel another myth, which links to an article I put out recently about getting a six pack.

You can’t target fat loss.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t. We just have to sort our eating and training out, so we supply our body with everything it needs, while in a calorific deficit and then fat will be used as fuel and hence come off the body. However, the body will choose where it comes from and in what order. Your hormones and genetics play a huge part in this. As good as your trainer is, as hard as you train, whatever “magic” fat burning pills you take, you can’t change that. It’s just life and science.

What I can do, is tell you how to do it quicker if that helps?

No, it’s not hours of running. Or cycling.Or any other cardio vascular form of exercise like swimming.

Weight Training for Fat Loss

Kate Braithwaite deadlift machine (Credit: snhfoto)The most effective training programme for fat loss and body composition change is one that works the major muscle groups of the body. The simple fact is, that the more muscles you use when training, the more calories burned. Furthermore, with weight training/resistance training, there is a significant continual calorific burn, long after the session, which does not happen after your slow running sessions.

You want a programme that has you working as many muscles as possible throughout your session in as intense way as you can. Intensity is key in my book. If you remember that: the bigger muscles you’re working are, “the more calories you’ll burn” and consider this before and during every session, you’ll improve your workouts no end and be in a far better place to promote the fatloss you crave. In short; big compound exercises (google it) especially for the legs as opposed to little isolation exercises (google it) for the arms.

In simple terms: squats over sit-ups.

Building Muscle

My next job is probably trying to persuade you that you do need to build a little muscle to cut the excess body fat, and that to do this you need to lift weights. No, not just the 2kg dumbbells, but decent weights. I can hear your thoughts:

“I don’t want to get big!”

How heavy is your handbag? The one you lug to work or the shops everyday. About 15kg? Weigh it. You lug that around for hours on end, not just for 1 hour in the gym, yet you don’t have one big arm or shoulder. See what I’m saying? You will be exercising your whole body, not just one arm with a handbag, you won’t get big. You’ll strengthen all your muscles, burn loads of calories and burn body fat. Having said that, it’s a slow process. It happens over weeks, not days. Think of obtaining your “toned” body as Marathon training, not an overnight sprint.

Without preserving/building muscle you will not obtain the body you want. Have you seen the pictures of some of the overly skinny human skeletons with absolutely no backside? They have destroyed/broken down their own muscle as they have cut their calories way to low, performed no weights training and spent hours on end doing cardio work. Their bodies, hearts and immune system are in pieces. It’s not a good look and leaves you feeling drained, tired and looking gaunt and ill. Muscle is your friend, it helps you move, work, play and stay alive longer, with a host of health benefits linked to a healthy muscular body, aiding against osteoporosis and even some cancers. Ask any man what is more attractive: a female who’s jeans have no backside to keep them up or a “toned” bottom crafted in a gym squat rack. Forget it, you don’t need to ask. You know the answer already.

The answer: squats, lunges, deadlifts, overhead press, chest press, bent over row should all be performed with a weight that makes you struggle over 8-12 reps. Not 20, not 30, keep the reps low and challenge your muscles and your heart, not just your heart,

Eat to get “toned”

So, along with your full body weights training, lowering your body fat is also down to nutrition. A good nutrition plan firstly involves getting rid of the foods that are making you fat. Nope, they aren’t those that contain fat, they are the crisps, chocolate, biscuits, cakes and alcohol that you know you shouldn’t have, along with all the fruit you eat when you “eat healthily” for a day or so. Fruits are very high sugar. They are also easy: apple, orange, banana so think of them as “fast food” and limit their intake for one piece straight after exercise. Berries are a good substitute however and full of antioxidants t help your body rid all the free radicals your daily life, diet and training cause. In general though, eat greens and non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower they contain more nutrients than a lot of fruits but far less carbs.

You want to eat only 300-400 less calories than you burn on a daily basis (taking into account exercise on training days) but still ensuring your macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fats (fats are not to be avoided, the right fats are actually good for you and far better than bad carbs) are ingested adequately. This not only needs to happen when you are training, but everyday. A bad day of eating; eating well in excess of your calorie needs, especially if alcohol is involved, does not just cancel one good day, it cancels about 4 good days.

To work out your calorific needs, use Health Calc’s calculator.

Remember, you want about 300-400 calorie deficit. No more.

In conclusion:

If you want to look “toned”, train intensely with weights, eat well and ensure a small calorific deficit daily. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. Quite fit or incredibly unfit, training in this manner can enable you to show off the naturally shape of your body by helping you lose body fat. Just be consistent and patient.

“If it was easy, everyone would have it. If everyone had it, it would cease to be special and no one would want it anymore.”

Sean Lerwill - Author

Sean is an former-Royal Marines Commando Officer & Physical Training Instructor. He has been published as a writer five times, has a BSc in Molecular Genetics and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. He is also a MaxiNutrition ambassador.

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