Getting “Toned”

“So, I want to lose some weight, and, you know, just… get more toned.”

“What was that last part?”

“You know, get more toned?”

“uuuhhhhhhhuuuuhhh.” One eye twitches.

“Are you ok?”

“I’m fine…it’s just….well…”


We hear it all the time. From the ladies. You ALL want to get more “toned.” Rarely does a woman walk into my gym and tell me she wants to get all “jacked-up.”

Here it is. You can’t “tone” a muscle. You can, however, “build” a muscle. Go back and read those two sentences again. Now.

What most women mean when they say they want to get “toned” is they want gentle lines all over their body, smoothly showing off the beautiful curves and contours of their musculature. Look out. I just used the word musculature, in describing beautiful, curvy women. I think I felt the Earth stop turning.

Now that we’ve agreed that women do, indeed, have muscle, let’s talk about how to build it. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t involve anything you’ll find on sites like this.

There are two ways to “build” a muscle. You can make it actually bigger, and/or you can build more connection or “density” into the muscle. This connection/density building in the muscle happens both neurologically (to fire more muscle), and through the circulatory system (to supply more blood). Realize that these are simplifications, there’s a lot going on when you pick up heavy stuff.

If you’re doing things that you can already do, you will get no adaptation in your body. Repeat, “If I can already do it, the adaptation is already done.” Going to “tone” by picking up 2.5lb pink dumbbells and doing sets of 20 reps when the commercials come on? That’s going to have a very limited capacity to elicit change in your body. Try it for the next 30 days. If you end up with monster shoulders, please send me the pic!

When you work with heavy loads (safely), you’re cuing some really sweet change to happen in your body. When your body struggles to move a load, whether it’s overhead, a deadlift, whatever, it sends all kinds of signals out to your body. And, they’re all good!

Legs: “Engineering! We need more power!”

Brain: “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain! I just can’t recruit any more muscle!”

Legs: “We’ve got 2 reps left, and I need that power NOW!”

Brain: “Well, maybe if I cross the pathways to the dilithium…it just might work!”

Legs: “1 more rep! I need it NOW!!!”

Brain: “She can’t take much more, Captain!”

Legs: “Last rep! We’re done….we’re done…great work.”

Brain: “Captain, with your permission, I’d like to rebuild the support structure and communication systems to the engines (legs) so if we’re ever in a bind like this again, we’re better off.”

Legs: “Permission granted.”

Now, it probably doesn’t go down exactly this way, but you’d be surprised how accurate this is. Compare this to:

Legs: “Hey Engineering, how are things going with our current rep scheme & weight?”

Brain: “We’re doing fine, Captain, just fine. Easy as dilithium pie. Are you gonna need any more power?”

Legs: “Not today. We’re just toning.”

Brain: “Good, good. I was going to rebuild the support structure and communication systems, but if you say we’re all good then…’Hey guys! Coffee break!'”

Seriously. This is what happens when you think you’re “toning”. You’re not. You’re just being lazy. You’ve given your body the day off. There’s no reason to adapt, because it can already do 25 curls with 3 lb weights. Now, I’m not trying to get down on people who are just starting out. When you just start out after being away from fitness and pushing your body for a while, yes, you should take it slow. You don’t want to take on the Romulans quite yet…alright, alright, enough with the metaphor.

If you’re just starting out and 10 reps of a movement with super light weights make you sore, that’s fine, but you should be working towards heavier loads. The general guideline here is that it should be heavy enough that you naturally hold your breath for some part of the movement. Yes, there is a more proper way to hold your breath during reps, and yes, I will write a blog post about it. Later.

So here’s the deal. The next time you’re in the gym, up the weight. Use enough that you think you’d have to dig really deep to get 10 reps. It should be enough weight that on rep 4 you’re thinking, “There’s no way. This is too heavy.” Then, make it to 7 reps. Stop. Rest exactly 90 seconds. Do another set. Then move on to your next movement. If this is too easy, rest 60 seconds, or maybe even 30.*

These 14 reps are going to leave you breathing heavy, your brain and body are going to be cranked, and your arms/legs/whatever might even be a little shaky. It’s going to be uncomfortable. That’s the idea. You’re not “toning,” you’re building muscle–sweet, glorious, curvy, sexy, beautiful muscle–both from a neurological point of view (communication) and from a density of muscle point of view (increased circulation). Both of these are what give you that butt you can bounce a quarter off of, and the “right to bare arms.”

*Please, don’t be stupid. If you had back surgery last week, it’s not the time for this. Know your body and where your fitness level is. I’m not there to coach you, so push it, but don’t injure yourself.

You can do this with whatever machines/weights/stones you have available. All of those machines that we as cavemen/CrossFitters make fun of in the gym, with all the cables and pins and plates? Those are actually a good way to start this. They are relatively safe, and if you don’t have a coach, your chances of hurting yourself are very low. Of course, you’re not going to get quite the same response from a leg press as a squat, and if I had my choice I’d choose the squat, but don’t let that keep you from applying this to your next workout.

And this is going to make you a LOT stronger, too. Your brain is actually going to have access to more muscle fibers. It’s going to be able to fire a greater quantity of actual muscle at any given time. So when you go up the stairs, you’re going to feel lighter. When you do your sport, you’re going to be faster. Light weight, high rep just doesn’t stimulate this way. It just doesn’t.

On a side note, very high rep workouts have the potential to make your joints mad. Especially when you start from a zero fitness level. This doesn’t affect everyone, but few people have joint issues in the sweet 5-10 rep range, provided they are moving properly. I could get more into the reasons for this, but this post is long enough already. Maybe in the future.

BTW, the girl in the photo? That’s Stephanie, a client of mine. She squats 250lbs. For reals. Ready to go heavy?

Let us know how it goes! I think Neely just tried it this week and loved it!

P.S. Look for my next post on “But, I don’t want to get big/bulky!” We’ll be “discussing” (setting people straight) on the specifics of muscle adaptation. It’s stuff you’re not going to read standing at the magazine rack at CVS.

PSS – You can thank Rachan and this comment for inspiring this post, their comment got me started and it magically turned into this!




  1. I was originally one of those “I don’t want big muscles” girls. The entire category of weight lifting was foreign and masculine. The jargon is also a bit confusing and quite intimidating. To this day I still don’t know (or care) what a deadlift, snatch or 3 rep max is. Lucky for me you don’t need to know what any of that stuff is to do this. Just pick a heavy weight and start lifting it. Once it stops being really hard, increase the weight. Presto! I was weight lifting. :)

    Now after 10 months of high weight / low repetition lifting, I have put on 10 lbs of muscle but my clothes still fit the same as before. My upper arms look much better in a sleeveless top. Added bonus? Carrying 20 grocery bags into the house at once to avoid making an extra trip is much easier!

    1. Woohoo Daytona!!

      You are awesome! And have a pretty good blog yourself! YOu’ve made some really great progress! Let us know if you’re having trouble getting off your plateaus, we love to geek out on that stuff!!

  2. What are your thoughts on Crossfit? Lately I’ve been into bodybuilding quite a bit, but thinking about going into Crossfit to get that “toned” aspect and the “fit” is appealing to me lately more than the “bulk”. I was thinking about integrating this into my paleo diet blog since paleo and Crossfit usually tie hand in hand. However, I haven’t really seen anything necessarily promoting Crossfit on your site yet, just mentioning it. What are your thoughts/feelings on it?

    1. Hey Bryce!

      Great question! I’m a little partial to CrossFit, since I own CrossFit 1440 in Lomita, CA. :)

      CrossFit has some great qualities to it that I’ve found really help people step up their game and really get their fitness wheels turning. One of the greatest aspects of this is working out in a group. Just that alone makes people work harder. It’s really fun to be a part of the old “misery loves company” crowd. Also, since CrossFit focuses more on overall fitness, I find that people tend to find their genetics expressed the best this way. If you’re naturally a little bigger, stronger guy, you’ll love the heavy stuff, but have to push through the conditioning days. Or, if you’re naturally like me, you’ll have other guys beating you on heavy days, but make up for it on the endurance side.

      The focus on performance may take a little getting used to if you are from a body-building background. In CrossFit, we’re not so much concerned with what you look like as what you can actually DO. Turns out that being able to do 40 strict pull-ups, run 400m in about 1:15, and deadlift 400 pounds makes for a pretty fierce lookin’ human animal, without having “back & bi day.” Know what I mean? ;)

      If you’re lucky enough to have a few CrossFits in your area, check them all out before joining. Find one that clicks for you. We’re all the same, but we also have different “flavors” to each gym. Some like the endurance work, while others really like the strength training. See which coaches you seem to resonate with, and give it a go.

      The one caution I would make about CrossFit is to be sure to not go too hard to fast. It’s REALLY easy, especially as a guy, to get in there and really start pushing yourself before you’re ready. This is where, I believe, some of the injury stories from CrossFit emerge. If it’s your first week there, you probably shouldn’t be doing the 100 pull-up, 100 push-up, 100 sit-up, 100 squat workout. Your shoulders will HATE you the next week, and not for a good reason. Like anything physical, know your limits, and be sure to have good communication with your coaches. They want to push you, but they can’t read your mind!

      Any more questions feel free to ask! And let me know if you want something for your blog too! Cross-Polination is a good thing!

  3. Love this. I am now more psyched than I’ve been in months to get to the gym and that means YOU are doing something awesome. Thank you!!!!! :) I’ll be reading – keep it up!

  4. Omg. You know about dilithium crystals?! I’m obviously in the right place. I’m actually in the process of trying to improve the health of my entire D&D group. Now I can use this in terms they understand. hooray!

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