What does it mean to want to get “toned?”
When most women talk about getting “toned” they mean they want visible muscle definition with little fat covering up, resulting in sculpted arms, legs, abs, and back.
This requires a twofold process:
#1: You need to develop the size of muscle cells to provide shape and
#2: You need to reduce any excess body fat that is covering up the muscle.
Unfortunately, women often get sidetracked from these goals due to widespread misconceptions, such as the faulty belief that women will automatically get bulky if they increase muscle or that “toning” can be achieved with special (completely bizarre) exercises or high rep, super light weight lifting.
Therefore, this article will give you our ten best body composition tips that can help you get the lean, toned body you want.
#1: Train With Weights
You already know that training with weights will give you lovely sculpted muscle, but you might not know that it’s also highly effective at reducing body fat. Not only does muscle increase metabolic rate, but it increases how much fat your body burns by up to 93 percent. It also increases insulin sensitivity so that your body is better able to handle carbs, which is a major bonus for long-term weight management.
#2: Do Compound Lifts
Best results will come from training the multi-joint compound lifts that use the largest muscles in the body. Include exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, presses (bench and overhead), rows, and pull-downs or chin-ups. Alternate between upper and lower body or agonist/antagonist exercises (bench press followed by rows) in order to reduce rest periods and get the most out of your training time.
#3: Include Heavy Load Training
By “heavy” we mean weights that are between 65 and 80 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. This correlates to reps ranging from 8 to 15 per set. For example, if you can squat 100 pounds one time, then you need to use a weight that is at least 65 pounds when doing squats for reps.
#4: Plan Your Training In 4 To 6 Week Phases
Once you’ve put in some time and learned proper lifting technique, don’t be scared to go even heavier than 80 percent. When you overload your body by lifting heavy weights you’re not accustomed to, it causes changes that safeguard your body from injury, fat gain, and muscle loss. The catch is that you only get these adaptations in the muscle fibers that get trained, and they only way to hit the highest threshold, “strongest” fibers is to lift weights that are near the maximal amount you can lift.
It’s recommended that every 4 to 6 weeks you include what is called an “intensification” phase in your training in which you lift weights above 80 percent. This means that you should use weights that you can only do 3 to 7 times before reaching failure.
#5: Train Intervals
Sprint intervals work wonders on body composition by stimulating muscle and reducing excess body fat because they raise your 24-hour metabolic rate due to a killer “afterburn.” They also increase hormones and enzymes involved in fat burning. For example, in a 2014 study, young women who did running sprints 3 days a week for 6 weeks lost 1.2 kg of body fat and lowered body fat percentage by 1.7 percent. Note that these women were not overweight, which is particularly noteworthy because it’s harder to reduce fat when you’re already fairly lean.
Novices can try ten 60-second moderate intensity intervals interspersed with 60 seconds of active rest. Intermediate trainees can do five 30-second maximal sprints on a bike, track, or treadmill interspersed with 3 to 4 minutes of active rest.
#6: Avoid Severe Calorie Restriction
Everyone knows that in order to lose fat, you have to create an energy deficit. However, the body responds quickly and unforgivingly when you slash calories below your resting metabolic rate, conserving calories by slowing metabolic in an effort to preserve fat stores.
Interestingly, the opposite occurs when your calories are abundant: In this case, you experience an increase in metabolic rate and you have a tendency to be more active.
This means you want to get an estimate of your resting metabolic rate (RMR), and then bump that number up to cover energy burned in spontaneous physical activity and possibly energy burned during workouts. For example, a 5’2”, normal weight woman’s RMR will be in the range of 1,440 a day. She should never go below this value and may need significantly more, depending on physical activity and training volume.
#7: Go High In Protein
A lot of mainstream sports nutritionists focus on carbs for fueling exercise, but protein is actually more important when your goal is leaning up and increasing muscle.
First, it blunts hunger and helps you manage your appetite, while also reducing insulin so that it’s easier to create an energy deficit and burn body fat. Second, protein consumption stimulates the body to repair tissue and increases muscle cell size.
Finally, there’s evidence that the body doesn’t process protein calories in the same way as calories from fat or carbs. For example, a recent study had trained, lean individuals (including a number of college-aged women) eat an extra 400 calories a day from protein while doing a heavy strength training program similar to the one we recommend.
Subjects lost an average 1.6 kg of body fat, gained 1.5 kg of muscle, and reduced body fat by 2.4 percent by the end of the study. The take away is that by giving the body the protein and calories it needs to recover from hard training, you can maximize the “toning” process for the greatest body composition gains.
Of course, the burning question is how much protein should you eat? A baseline intake of 1.6 g/kg is indicated by the research. Whether you should go higher will depend on dietary preferences, genetics, and training, but it’s reasonable to try progressively increasing protein if you’re not seeing changes in your body.
#8: Time Your Carbs
You know it’s important to radically reduce refined carbs (bread, cereal, low-fat packaged foods) from your diet in favor of healthy carbs (vegetables, fruit, whole grains) but it’s also smart to eat your carbs at the most opportune times.
For example, having carbs post-workout rather than at breakfast means they are more likely to be stored as fuel in muscle tissue (called glycogen) than as body fat.
Dinner is another key time for healthy carbs because they will increase the release of calming, satisfying neurotransmitters like serotonin so you can unwind and get restful sleep. Finally, a lot of women find it useful to cycle carbs, getting a higher intake on training days and eating fewer on off or lower volume days.
For instance, on a heavy training day in which you’re doing weights in the morning and sprints after work, you could eat 200 grams of carbs, whereas on off days, carb intake could be in the range of 50 to 100 grams. Note that we typically don’t count green vegetables in calculating carb values, so these are essentially “freebies.”
#9: Eat Healthy Fat
Low-fat diets cause a lot of trouble for women. When women avoid dietary fat, they often experience hormone imbalances because the body uses the cholesterol provided in fat to manufacture hormones. Adequate androgen hormones (like testosterone and estrogen) are necessary for muscle recovery and they also play a role in metabolic rate and fat burning. Meanwhile, balanced cortisol (another hormone made from cholesterol) is key for stress management and fat reduction around the waistline.
#10: Cope With Stress/Get Your Zzzzs
Both lack of sleep and stress increase cortisol, which leads to fat storage, muscle breakdown, and increased hunger cues to the brain. You’ve got to find a way to get 8 restful hours of sleep a night. Coping with stress will pay off by improving sleep so you’re fully recovered each day and by making your daily reality a more productive, pleasurable experience.