This is one for the ladies. Almost every woman that has ever come through the doors of Kaos has, at some stage, said they want to be more “toned.” Usually I’ve erupted into a self serving rant about how “toning isn’t a thing, it’s just gaining muscle and losing fat,” which was basically me being an asshole. Yes, “toning” isn’t really a thing, but yes, I know what you mean.
The comment about “toning,” is usually followed straight away by “so I don’t want to lift huge weights and get really bulky, so maybe some light weights and lots of cardio.” Ok…see this is the point where I’m going to return to the condescending arsehole that I was in that first paragraph. Women don’t get too bulky from lifting…they just don’t. I’ve only ever coached maybe 2 girls who were unhappy that they’d put on so much muscle. In short, women don’t have enough testosterone to build “bulky” muscles, what happens instead is that lifting weights accentuates your natural curves. Women put on muscle around the bum, hips and thighs easier than men (who tend to build shoulder, arm and back muscles easier).
“Women don’t have enough testosterone to build “bulky” muscles, what happens instead is that lifting weights accentuates your natural curves”
So, why do we lift heavy weights to tone?
Firstly, if you want to look toned your priority shouldn’t be about how much weight you can lose. It should be “how much muscle can I hold on to while losing fat?” See, your body doesn’t want to have muscle. You body has to work hard to maintain muscle, it’s metabolically demanding, meaning that it’s expensive for your body to have muscle (requires more calories etc). So you need to give your body a reason to hold on to muscle! Muscle is heavy, it’s demanding, if you’re starving yourself the first thing to go will be muscle mass…and you’ll end up looking like a smaller but still equally as chubby version of yourself.
This is almost a “flight or fight” response from your body. If you don’t stress the muscles the body sees no need to hold on to it, it’s not essential for survival to have muscle once you start starving yourself (essentially what your body thinks is happening when you diet) so you need to give your body a reason for it to feel like it NEEDS that muscle. That’s where lifting heavy weight comes in. Your body thinks it won’t survive if you can’t lift weights, so it will hold on to muscle. (for all your scientists out there, yes, I realise this isn’t actually why you hold on to muscle, but it’s a nice analogy that illustrates my point).
Why your body won’t build “big muscles” if your diet is in check.
If you are eating in a caloric deficit (which you should be if you’re trying to lose weight) it’s almost impossible to build muscle after the initial stages of training. Remember secondary school physics and Newton’s second law of thermodynamics? “energy cannot be created or destroyed but only transferred from one form to another.” Well this is universally true. Mass cannot be created from nothing. To build muscle you need to eat more food than your body needs. If you’re dieting, the most you can hope for is to hold on to the muscle you already have…which is “toning.”
So we lift weights when dieting so that you can hold on to muscle you already have. That’s it. It’s no more complicated than that. You lose fat, you keep muscle, you get toned. You lose weight and muscle and you look smaller and just as chubby…which is not toned. Doing endless hours of cardio won’t “tone” your body, your body doesn’t need to maintain muscle to do 20 minutes on a elliptical. It does need muscle to get through a heavy deadlift session.
“Your body doesn’t need to maintain muscle to do 20 minutes on a elliptical. It does need muscle to get through a heavy deadlift session.”
How do we put this all together.
Well first thing is first is you need to change how you think about exercise. Stop using exercise to lose weight, the amount that exercise plays in the energy balance for losing weight probably isn’t that huge. Use your diet to focus on losing weight. Eat in a calorie deficit. This will insure that your body loses some sort of tissue (either fat or muscle) then the type of exercise you do will determine whether that weight loss comes from fat or muscle. Lift weights and your body prefers to lose fat, do endless cardio and your body prefers to lose muscle.
So when we train clients to look “toned” we focus on big, compound movements, that hit the most amount of muscle at one time, think squats, deadlifts, heavy presses, rows, lunges etc. We also tend to superset exercises, one upper body with one lower body exercise, so that while your lower body recovers your upper body is working and vice versa.
“Lift weights and your body prefers to lose fat, do endless cardio and your body prefers to lose muscle.”
How does that look?
Here’s a typical training session plan for this.
- Barbell Lower body movement (work up to top set of 5)
- Barbell upper body movement (work up to top set of 8)
Complete each of the following supersets 4 times.
C1. Lower body knee dominant movement x10 reps
C2. Upper body horizontal press x 10 reps
D1. Lower body hip dominant movement x 10 reps
D2. Upper body horizontal pull x 10 reps
- high rep ab work
- 10-15 minutes of hard conditioning.
The specific exercises that you use aren’t necessarily that important, they should be exercises that you’re comfortable with and that suit your specific goals.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article it’s that lifting weights or using some sort of resistance is key to achieving that toned look that women so desperately want. Cardio should be used, but should absolutely not be the only exercise (or even be the majority of your exercise) instead it should be used to help create the caloric deficit, then you use weights to encourage your body to keep the muscle that you do have.