Sunday, November 15, 2009


Lots of people who are trying to lose weight/change their body composition talk about ‘getting toned’. Often in terms of lifting some light dumbbells two or three times a week! The purpose of this blog entry is to spell out in no uncertain terms that no such thing is possible! I don’t say that in any way to dismiss what people want but knowing that what ‘getting toned’ means and how to do it takes a good deal more work and knowledge and thinking about that would make much more sense than scoffing over the language.

What do most people mean when they talk about getting toned? For the purposes of this entry I will assume that what ‘getting toned’ means is where you can see more muscle definition and thus look leaner (because you usually are) and fitter (not always the case but likely!).

For most people definition is a combination of low (or very low) body fat and muscles that have sufficient size to create contours between them. The lower the body fat and the bigger the muscles the greater the definition will be.

Before getting into the physiology I want to give a real world example of why just building muscles will not automatically lead to greater definition.

Imagine a sheet of corrugated material such as is used for certain roofs. On it’s own it is clear what it is. It’s visual contours are easily apparent. So it is with muscle. If we took our skin and subcutaneous fat off, we would all look ‘well defined’.

So what happens when you put a two inch thick sheet of foam rubber over your corrugated plastic? If you stuck it down to the contours I doubt your would have much idea of what is underneath. What about a one inch thick sheet of foam rubber? You might see some definition but some would have been lost. Now imagine that same corrugated plastic with say a huge sheet of cooked lasagne, or a sheet of cling film!

That is what definition is all about. Subcutaneous fat (the stuff under your skin) acts on the contours of your muscles like foam rubber would on a sheet corrugated plastic, the more you have the less you will see of what is underneath.

What about the other side of the equation, muscle size? Well in many ways the extent of definition is not determined in any way by muscle size. Visit any ‘normal gym’ and go to the free weight area and you will see guys there that have built quite huge muscles but have little or no definition. Now I don’t know if that is what their objective is, I know some guys (doormen etc.) like to just have bulk so that they look a bit more forbidding, others will be working their little socks off lifting heavier and heavier weights and wondering why they are not getting better definition.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said great abs are made in the kitchen. So it is true of a defined body, you cannot get it in the gym alone, it MUST be done in conjunction with a good nutritional regime.

A good way to think in terms of what you might like to look like and how you will need eat and train to get there is look at certain types of athletes and how they train to get a steer on how you can do it.

What you need to do will be determine what outcome you are after, some things are easier than others:

The lean look with little muscle bulk:

This look is going to take lots and lots of cardio. Sufficient cardio burns fat but will take with it lean muscle. Take a look at competitive marathon runners. They will carry very little body fat but legs aside they will not have much in the way of muscle bulk. So yes, Paula Radcliffe has a six pack but is probably not what most people think of in terms of ‘toned’. No disrespect intended to ANY marathon runner as they have my total admiration!

This is not a way many non athletes would go to get a really toned look as it takes considerable dedication to get to that level as you are by losing muscle bulk decreasing your metabolism. Not a problem if you are training real hard and creating a need for calories in the way that distance runners do but for us in the real world the likelihood is that it will not be possible to get down to the levels of body fat required to look really ‘toned’ by this method.

The lean look with some muscle bulk:

This is probably the approach that most people who are interested in this subject from an aesthetic point of view will and to come at it.

If you want to lose body fat you will need to lose body fat. This can be done by a combination of running a calorie deficit, burning off the body fat you already have and maintaining/building your muscles. OK more detail:

How much Cardio? I am not sure there is a specific answer to this but certainly 30/40 minutes 4/5 times a week will (combined with good nutrition and resistance training) will see a measurable effect on body fat.

What sort? Again there does not seem to be a definite do this or do that. Research seems to point to working the body to the point where heart rate is raised to a reasonably high level and that activity is maintained for at least 30 minutes. I also believe it to be true that too much cardio exercise can be counter productive as after a certain point the body stops burning fat and starts catabolising muscle. Not a problem for long distance athletes but probably not what most readers here are after.

So having done your running/cycling/cross trainer what then?

If you do nothing else then you will lose muscle mass and while you might get a lower body fat and get more definition than you had you will not have much in the way of contour to be apparent, which is where progressive weight training comes in.

Progressive weight training is as the name implies ‘progressive’ on either number of repetitions and/or weight. Let us assume you start on dumbbell curls with 5kg in either hand. How many repetitions should you do? The consensus seems to be somewhere between 8 and 12 where it is becoming impossible to lift the weight fully on the 11th and 12th reps. (Lower reps higher weight will build more strength and muscle bulk, higher reps will build less muscle bulk but more endurance).

What you are aiming for is muscle hypertrophy, which in simple terms is stressing the muscles sufficiently that microscopic fibres ‘snap’ and need to be rebuilt. It is this ‘snapping and re-building’ that means the muscle gets stronger and under certain circumstances bigger.

If you are ‘failing’ at the 6th or 7th rep you might want to decrease the weight, once you get to the point where the 12th rep becomes ‘easy’ it is time to increase the weight.

The objective of progressive weight training is that you never let your body become used to what you are asking it to do. As soon as it can do what you ask it to do you ask it to do more.

One other vital note here the amount of weight you use should always be the maximum with which you can maintain good form. It is better to do the exercise properly with a lower rate than to do it poorly with a heavier weight. That way lies injury and poor results.

So you are happily burning off fat and weight training for muscle. But may women will say ‘but I don’t want to build huge muscles and look like a body builder’. Which is fair enough, however, if you are thinking that way let me put your mind at rest by pointing out three important points:

1) If you are in calorie deficit (and you certainly should be if you want to lose body fat) it is highly unlikely that you will build any appreciable amounts of muscle. Building additional muscle takes a good deal of energy and as you are not giving your body enough to maintain it’s current composition it is not going to find it easy to build more.

2) Muscle building require certain hormones the major of which is Testosterone, which women on the whole have much less of than men.

3) It takes a lot of very hard work with heavy weights over months with a very strict dietary regime of bulking and cutting (more of that later) to get a ‘bodybuilder’ physique. You will NOT wake up one day looking like Arnie!

What about the diet?

Anyone who knows anything about it will tell you that in terms of losing weight it is a matter of calories in calories out, which is true. You could just eat a Mars bar a day and lose weight. You would not be very healthy.

If body composition is what you are interested in then it is not that simple. In terms of body composition all calories are NOT created equal. If you are looking to get better definition and maintain/build muscle you WILL need to wise up on what to eat and when (now is not the place for that). As every I would recommend Tom Venuto’s Burn The Fat Feed The Muscle as an excellent guide on how to achieve your goals.

In terms of sporting role models, footballers will often have a lean but muscular physiques, think David Beckham or Daveed Ginola with their shirts off. For female examples 400 metre runners such as Kelly Holmes will have low body fat but will need decent upper body strength so are likely to have reasonably developed core, shoulder and arm muscles.

What about the very muscular very lean look?

Well if that is what you want (though personally though I admire those guys dedication it is not a ‘look’ that I particularly like’), you are going to have to put in a great deal of very hard work and dedication. Body builders go through periods of ‘bulking and cutting’. Bulking is a period of calorie excess where they will look to put on as much muscle as possible, but accept that at the same time they will also put body fat on as well. They will then go through a period of ‘cutting’ when through a combination of diet and cardio they will look to lose as much of that excess body fat as possible.

Examples? Any major body builder or the mens 100 metre runners will be an example.

So what is a healthy level of body fat?

We all have to have a certain level of body fat to stay alive, it serves a number of essential functions. It differs between men and women and will differ with age. But absolute minimums would be 2-4% in men and 12% in women. Healthy range in males would be somewhere around 15% for men and 22% for women.

So, still want to get toned? It can be done but it DOES take a good deal more time effort and attention than just doing 200 reps with a light dumbbell in the gym.

Is it worth it? Only you can know that but speaking as a 51 year old that can now wear tight fitting t shirts without looking like the Michelin man I would say yes!

1 comment:

  1. Blimey Will, you write more than I do!!!

    I wish everyone would stop freaking out about the misuse of the word 'toned' - who cares if it's not exactly correct... it's nice that people aspire to look healthy and taut - as opposed to skinny, scrawny, bony etc...

    I think words take on new meanings over the ages, it's nto a bad thing, just progression, people associate 'toned' with looking leaner but shapely too - the label isn't important, it's the progress there and the net result :-)

    I don't think many women when they say they want to 'tone' up mean they want more visible muscle, just less visible fat!!! :-D

    I feel their pain, on the latter point... I definitely *do* want more visible muscle and improved muscle tone, but I don't care what other people call it :-)