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Getting toned or lean is easily one of the most common goals we help clients achieve.
The vast majority of us don't want huge muscles or ultra-marathon endurance. But instead, we want to look athletic and "fit."
To achieve this takes some work, and depending on genetics, work environment, & many other factors, toning up will be easier for some and much harder for others.
In this article, we'll take the guesswork out of what you need to prioritise to give you the best chance of getting in fantastic shape. We're going to cover the following.
WHAT IS TONING UP, AND HOW CAN WE MEASURE IT?
To tone up means to reduce the appearance of body fat by tightening up the muscles and giving them shape. On the other hand, Bulking up means increasing muscle mass to make the muscles bigger.
We have a few options when looking to measure our progress. You may think, well, duh, look in the mirror. But we often don't see changes so quickly, given that we see ourselves every day.
A before photo from the front, side and back is essential as a starting point. We also suggest taking measurements of the areas you wish to improve and getting a starting weight (weigh before food first thing in the morning). Doing this allows you to adjust your strategy depending on the data.
If you are losing cm's around your stomach area, but your weight is staying the same, chances are you are in the right place as you may be putting on a little lean muscle at the same time. Without these measurements, you may see the scales staying still and get discouraged, but you are doing a great job in reality.
TRACK PROGRESS, GET RESULTS
A great way to track your progress is to have a plan that you can keep track of in the first place.
First, reverse engineer your goals by writing them all down.
Next, write down what you need to do to achieve them. Let's go over a quick example. Let's say you want to tone your stomach, legs and arms. You need to train those areas enough to allow the muscles to firm up. You also need to eat well, sleep well and do many other things, but we'll stick with that for this example.
Now work out how much time you have per week and ensure each goal receives its attention.
Results come from small, consistent & intentional steps that you should monitor weekly. If you have 3 workouts to complete per week, note those workouts and what you did each time.
Keeping track will keep you accountable and allow you to see improvements as you go along. Your muscles are most likely improving if you increase your strength and endurance.
You may also not have the time to cook day to day meals. So to offset this problem, cook in bulk and keep a diary outlining what you've eaten each day. Again, this holds you accountable.
Achieving progress is as simple as consistently doing what you need to do each week. Track the actions & progress comes along for the ride.
You can also consider regular photos that you can put next to each other to see changes in the body you may have missed. Use collage mode if you have that feature on your phone, and you may surprise yourself with how far you've come.
NUTRITION TIPS AND STRATEGIEs
Let's be clear that our head trainer Phill is a certified Nutrition Coach and not a Nutritionist or Dietician. So we'll save specific plans for the experts. But we've helped hundreds of people lose weight and get leaner, so we've seen what works and what holds people back.
This section will cover three key areas that will help you on your journey to a lean, athletic physique.
Macronutrients play a vital role in a firm, toned physique. These are fats, carbs and protein, and the ratio you have in your diet can make all the difference even if you don't eat take out or smash chocolate every day.
Getting your protein in is critical, but you don't want to have too much. Protein will help you feel fuller for longer and encourage muscle protein synthesis, which is an essential component to lean muscles.
Excess protein harms longevity though, so on non-training days, it can be a good idea to restrict protein intake and calories in general (more on that in a sec)
According to Healthline and various other sources, the recommended amount of protein is 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilo of body weight.
When it comes to fats and carbs, the timing for each is what matters.
Avoid combining fat and refined carbs together, leading to increased fat storage. When your body receives glucose (refined carbs), this will spike insulin levels.
In this state, fats will be stored "for later" as glucose is a more accessible source of energy for your body to utilise.
Think of yourself as having two energy systems, the fast-acting gasoline refined carbs system and the slow burn fat system. You have two systems, so it's a great idea to put them both to use.
If you want your body to be good at burning fat, give it some time away from carbs so that it can! Use your slow burn system for your earlier meals for sustainable energy throughout the day, then enjoy the benefits of increased serotonin for sleep when you introduce carbs for your final meal. It's a good idea to stick with complex carbs in this process and still reduce refined carbs as much as possible.
2. Caloric restriction / Fasting
Fasting has many health benefits, but we'll stick with the good stuff relating to looking lean for this article. It goes back to what we discussed relating to the two energy systems. Allowing your body some time away from calories forces it to go to your fat stores for energy. A healthy body fat percentage is an essential component of a lean body, so implementing a safe fasting protocol is a great way to do so.
A solid place to start is with a 12 hour fast at night. Avoid eating or drinking any calories at night and let sleep do most of your work.
As you get used to that, you can consider increasing the fasting time to 14, 16 and 18 hours, depending on how your body responds. We don't want light-headedness or headaches, and this is a sign that your body isn't ready or you don't have the right foods in your eating window.
Another strategy is to have two days per week of very low calories and then eat normally for the rest. Play around with different ideas and see what works best for you.
If you have any uncertainties or unique circumstances, please consult your health care professional before attempting any new protocol.
3. What to avoid
Here's a quick list you can rely on to fast-track your progress.
CALORIC DEFICIT OR SURPLUS?
Do you keep calories low to hit your body's fat stores? Or are you better off getting the calories in to ensure you're adequately fueling the muscles?
Leaning and toning are different from bulking up and weight loss, but you still want to ensure the muscles get what they need. So the key to this is to find the sweet spot and operate under a slight caloric deficit with adequate protein intake.
Be intentional with the calories that go in, and don't waste them on things that aren't providing your body with nutritional value. According to a PubMed study, you can check out below titled "Protein requirements during weight loss periods to maintain muscle, " there is a big difference in muscle loss when comparing 1 gm of protein per kg of body weight to 2.3 gms per kg of bodyweight. So aiming for around this will be ideal.
Here's a checklist that will cover what to do to answer this question correctly.
TRAINING TIPS AND STRATEGIES. SETS, REPS, INTENSITY, EXERCISE CHOICES AND MORE.
There are many ways to train, and knowing what will work best can be challenging.
Since we aren't looking at bulking up but still want some lean muscle, do we go heavy with low reps or stick with lower weight and high reps?
According to the PubMed study titled "Effects of high vs low resistance training," muscle hypertrophy (growth) can happen with both strategies. But muscle strength adaptations happen more effectively with lower reps and heavier weight.
Another study showed similar results when training once per week and getting everything in vs three times per week. So we'd advise you to spread it out across the week as best you can, but don't be discouraged if you can only make it once or twice and put in the work!
Here's a checklist to make things easier
IMPORTANCE OF POSTURe
Posture plays a huge role in how good your body looks. If your pelvis is tilted or shifted forward, you may notice your stomach sticking out without even having much body fat.
A protruding stomach can also happen if you don't have good transverse abdominis (TVA) activation or eat inflammatory (bloating) foods. You may feel like losing more weight will help you get a flatter stomach when you need to improve your posture.
We have written an article on posture that will help if you feel this may apply to you. You can also head to the Functional Patterns Youtube channel and check out their catalogue of postural videos.
HOW TO HELP PROGRESS PLATEAUs
Plateaus are an inevitable pain for many of us on our training journeys. There's no need to be discouraged by these, and it's just an opportunity to change things up a little.
Assess what you've been doing and adjust depending on where you're plateauing. If you are struggling to lose some stubborn fat, you can increase your daily movement and look at your food choices a little closer.
You may be doing well during the week and having too much fun on the weekend. Or maybe your training intensity has gone a little, or you need to mix up the exercises a little bit.
Change it up, reassess!
SUPPLEMENTS - WASTE OF MONEY OR WORTH IT?
A ten-year review of various supplements (article below) showed minor improvements in weight loss and higher chances of adverse reactions. Most side effects were mild (gastrointestinal upsets etc.), but some were more serious. This article concluded that supplements were not worth it.
The same goes for supplements used for growing muscle. Some muscle weight increase occurred with creatine, but this was most likely water with the possibility of small gains but not worth doing.
Even protein supplements seem unnecessary as you should be getting adequate protein intake in your diet. If you have an extreme diet style, this may differ (vegan, for example), but for the most part, a well balanced, nutritious diet is where your focus should be.
Our head trainer personally takes vitamin D3 for days he doesn't get sun and a vital all-in-one supplement for 75 different vitamins, minerals, etc. Keep it simple, eat well and follow the strategies in our nutrition section and you should be all good.
IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP AND RECOVERy
Sleep is crucial for many reasons, such as immune health, stress, mood, cognitive function, inflammation reduction, and many other physiological factors.
The following sentence comes from the PubMed article below relating to sleep.
"Our findings suggest that sleep deprivation might be related to an increase of fat mass and obesity while oversleeping could be linked to a reduction of lean mass."
So, the idea is to get the right amount of sleep, which according to another article (found below), is 7-8 hours of sleep per night. When comparing to more than 8 hours, the results were negligible, and under 6 hours, a noticeable negative change took place.
You also want to ensure your muscles are not getting trained constantly. Give them a rest day with some sauna work or ice baths. Even going for a walk for active recovery would be fine.
Weight training around 3x per week seems to be the sweet spot, focusing on integrated exercises and getting the whole body working.
Three consecutive days of exercises decreased muscle performance for the proceeding three days. Our head trainer personally does strength-based work Mon-Wed-Fri and recovery based work on the other days. But feel free to mix it up for what works for you.
As a side note, you must also lower inflammation and stress levels. Better food, time management, removal of stressful situations within your control, good friends, fasting and time in nature are great tools to add to your healthy living arsenal.
There's more to toning up than just exercising or choosing the salad.
We need to ensure we eat the right foods and the correct macronutrient ratios. We also need to avoid foods that cause inflammation and weight gain.
We learned about choosing integrated muscle exercises and engaging the right muscles with each set, choosing 8-12 reps of about three sets and making sure you reach a point of fatigue with each set.
We need to remember that posture matters! You may not have a flat stomach, and the answer isn't always fewer calories. TVA activation and good pelvic position will help flatten your stomach.
We also learned about managing plateaus, the lack of need for supplements and the importance of sleep and recovery.
There is a lot to take in here, and we understand that! If you have any questions regarding any of the info in this article, let us know, and we'd be more than happy to help you out.
If you'd like additional help with toning up, building strength or losing weight, organise an initial session with us, and we'll point you in the right direction.
Toning vs. Bulking Up: What's The Difference? | NASM
The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance - PubMed (nih.gov)
Protein Intake — How Much Protein Should You Eat per Day? (healthline.com)
Why Fat and Refined Carbs Don’t Mix - The Cheeseburger Example - Dr Becky Fitness
The Fire Diet — More Energy, Less Body Fat, And Better Sleep | by Hudson Rennie | In Fitness And In Health | Medium
Health Benefits of Fasting and Caloric Restriction - PubMed (nih.gov)
Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training - PMC (nih.gov)
Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men - PubMed (nih.gov)
Comparison of changes in lean body mass with a strength- versus muscle endurance-based resistance training program - PubMed (nih.gov)
Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength - PMC (nih.gov)
The safety and effectiveness of commonly-marketed natural supplements for weight loss in populations with obesity: A critical review of the literature from 2006 to 2016 - PubMed (nih.gov)
Nutritional supplements to increase muscle mass - PubMed (nih.gov)
Association between sleep duration, fat mass, lean mass and obesity in Korean adults: the fourth and fifth Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys - PubMed (nih.gov)
Relationship between sleep and muscle strength among Chinese university students: a cross-sectional study - PubMed (nih.gov)
Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis - PubMed (nih.gov)
Effects of consecutive days of exercise and recovery on muscle mechanical function - PubMed (nih.gov)