So You Think You Want to Tone Up?
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
- Fat Loss and Body Recomposition -
One of the most common goals I hear among the women I train is “I want to tone up”. It’s a phrase the media have used for years, so we understand the gist of what it means: look a little stronger and a bit leaner, or see more muscle definition. However, it’s really not specific (and therefore measurable) and ‘toned’ will mean something different to everybody. As a coach I’ll ask more questions to get to the nitty-gritty of the client’s goal (how lean/muscular/strong do they want to become, and how will we know when they get there?). Often I see a fear of building muscle or becoming ‘bulky’, and a belief that ‘toning up’ a body part is achieved through exercises that work that area and reducing fat. While this is true to a degree, the mechanics of achieving a more defined, lean, muscular silhouette are a little different.
We Need Fat!
In order for muscle to be more visible, the fat that surrounds it needs to be stripped away to reveal the contours of the lean tissue beneath. Some areas of the body naturally hold very little fat: for example, many people will be able to see the contour of their larger calf muscle (gastrocnemius). Other areas tend to hold onto fat for dear life… literally! In women, commonly the abdomen, thighs and hips are seen as ‘problem’ areas, because despite our best efforts with exercise and dieting, the fat in these areas is the last to go, like an unwelcome guest at the end of a party. Why? (God why?!) … Survival. We need a certain amount of this essential fat in order to produce the necessary hormones to tell our brain and reproductive system that we’re able to support new life, and therefore menstruate.
You may be aware of the syndrome known at RED-S where people who exercise too intensely for the amount of energy they’re taking in, lose their periods. It’s a serious problem that can lead to low bone density and fertility issues. If you are already in a leaner body it’s important to consider how much fat you really need to lose, and how much you need to keep hold of for your general health. This will look different for everyone – while some women may function perfectly well at the ‘essential’ body fat percentage of 14%, others may need to be far above this to have a healthy menstrual cycle, and this number may increase with age (lucky us!).
Spot Reducing Fat and Building Muscle
It’s important to realise that losing fat and gaining muscle is not a linear process, and there is no way to spot reduce fat. Your body wants to hold onto a certain amount of vital visceral fat, and this tends to linger longer in our 'problem' areas. When losing weight, you will likely see a reduction in fat in some areas while it won't budge from others. There is no correlation between working a muscle and the fat burned from that area. Working a muscle, will however, use energy and building muscle boosts our metabolism, both of which can help push you into a calorie deficit. So resistance training is your friend!
Unfortunately, in order to build lean muscle tissue we generally need to be in a calorie surplus, in order to provide enough energy building blocks to generate new muscle fibres. Resistance training which challenges the muscles creates micro-tears in their fibres, which need to be repaired. During recovery (rest) and with sufficient energy (calories) these tears will heal building stronger and (over time) larger muscles. Muscle tissue uses more energy (burns more calories) at rest, than fatty tissue. So this is one way you can boost your resting metabolic rate (RMR): more muscle = more fuel burnt even at rest.
When we’re in a calorie surplus and consuming more energy than we are burning, some fat gain is to be expected in the vast majority of people. There is indeed a sweet spot where muscle is being built and fat is reducing, but this is usually under tightly monitored conditions unattainable without precise nutrition and training. So if there’s an area of your body you feel is weak, underdeveloped, or you feel generally sluggish, I suggest working in a muscle building phase first. Focus on solid resistance training with a supporting diet: rich in protein for muscle growth and repair, complex carbohydrates for energy to fuel your sessions, fruit and vegetables, and of course plenty of water!
For those who have been resistance training consistently and are feeling strong, but not as lean as they’d like, a calorie deficit is needed to strip away excess fat. This should only be a maximum of 500 calories per day, below your maintenance calories (the amount of calories you need to maintain weight consistently) so that hunger isn’t insatiable and weight loss is steady and sustainable. There are online calculators you can use to estimate your maintenance calories, however they're generic and inaccurate so use the calculation as a rough guide and adjust according to results you see. It’s vital that you don’t consider this a ‘diet’, rather a life-long eating plan which is balanced and enjoyable rather than excessively restrictive and joyless. The main macronutrients of carbohydrates, fats and proteins should be sourced from natural wholefood ingredients, within in a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, and from a variety of food sources to ensure micronutrient balance (vitamins and minerals). High protein, fiber and adequate fat will all help you feel satiated while in a calorie deficit. (Fat is vital for hormone function, so don't shy away from it!)
Remember, you cannot out train a bad diet! Although you will use energy through exercise, you may well be burning fewer calories than you think, and it's the movement for the other 23 hours of your day that will have a bigger impact on overall energy expenditure (walk around the block anyone?). Fitness trackers are also wildly inaccurate when it comes to calorie tracking (research shows they vary in inaccuracy by 30-50%) and are not even consistently inaccurate! So use them rather for step count, to make sure you're meeting your daily movement target. Consider how hard your really worked in a session by how you feel, and what you achieved, rather than how many calories your tracker says you've burned. With practice you will learn to listen to your body and adjust your food needs accordingly.
Forget the Fad Diet
I cannot stress enough that crash or fad diets are the route to failure. You may lose a large amount of weight swiftly, but research shows that weight lost in this way is always regained, usually plus a little extra (reserves the body keeps for the next time it perceives you’ve entered an extreme famine!). So if you want to end up heavier than you started, heavily restrictive, low calorie diets are the rabbit hole to go down. The one caveat to the slow and steady approach would be if you need to lose large amounts of weight swiftly for medical reasons, in which case you should be meticulous guided through this process by a dietitian.
Should you want further advice and personal guidance on weight loss through diet, I would recommend you seek out a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist (check if a Dietitian is registered at: www.hcpc-uk.org, or a Nutritionist at: www.associationfornutrition.org). For more information on the fascinating topic of how diet culture has set us up to fail, and the scientific research to support this, I recommend you read Why We Eat (Too Much): The New Science of Appetite by Dr Andrew Jenkinson. (Don’t be put off by the alarmist title as I initially was, this is an evidence based unpicking of our dietary downfalls, written in an accessible way.)
In conclusion, be honest with yourself about what it is you want to achieve by ‘toning up’. Is it really so useful to focus on that aesthetic goal, or would being able to achieve a new physical feat in your training be more fulfilling? Is it just that you want to be able to fit into a certain piece of clothing again, or are you setting yourself an unrealistic weight-loss target? Finally, remember that slow and steady wins the race. Quick fixes are easily undone, but by implementing lasting changes you can transform your physical and mental wellbeing for the long term.