“I want to look toned” is hands down the biggest request I’ve had from female clients across the board. The intention is good, but what they want to achieve doesn’t match up with what it takes to get those results.
What Women Think “Looking Tone” Means
Far too often I’ll see mostly women going overboard on their cardio. They figure, cardio is the best calorie burn for fat loss, and that lifting weights means looking like a man, so they stick with cardio. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
If you are in a deficit, and do cardio long enough, your body will prioritize burning muscle and holding onto fat. It doesn’t know that you want to look tone, it just wants to keep you alive. Excessive cardio doesn’t require much muscle, and it is calorically expensive to hold onto muscle, so it’ll be the priority to eliminate as your diet continues. This is the opposite of looking tone.
What Looking Tone REALLY Means
Tone is just a marketing term catered to women. In reality, it just means being leaner and muscular. We have to stop associating the word muscular with looking bulky. Bulky is when you have built up muscle, but never got rid of the extra fat gain you either already had, or gained in the process. In this sense, yes you might feel like you look “bulkier” or “manly” but even then that's a bit of an overstatement. Once you get rid of the unwanted body fat and diet down you will achieve the shapely look you are going for.
What does this involve? STICK WITH YOUR WEIGHTLIFTING! By incorporating at least 2-3 days a week of resistance training, you are providing your body with the optimal stimulus to hold onto, or gain muscle, while still burning fat. You may not burn as many calories as the same time spent doing cardio, but you are increasing your metabolism (aka increasing your potential to burn more calories at rest), by gaining muscle. Cardio will not provide this for you. I talk about this more in my article Resistance Training vs. Cardio for Women.
Cardio Has Its Place
That doesn’t mean you should never do cardio and always be afraid of it. It just means you should use it more as a tool in conjunction with your resistance training to further create the caloric expenditure to help you lose that unwanted body fat. The optimal fat loss program usually involves a combination of both. The trick is not to go overboard with the cardio. If you need to do 45-50 minutes of cardio, 7 days a week and are still not losing weight then that either means you need to take a break from dieting because you’ve been at it for too long, or that you’ve put too much emphasis on cardio and not enough on weight lifting.
Build Up Your Metabolism First
You won’t get bulky overnight. Gaining muscle takes time. Those guys you see in the gym spend their whole lives trying to look “too bulky” and most will never achieve it. I recommend starting off by increasing your calories slowly above maintenance, while following a good 2-3 day a week weightlifting program. Each week try and bump your calories just a little more while progressing in weights or reps. The goal here is to build your caloric intake up high enough where you are sick of eating, and thus ready for a fat loss phase. The beauty now is, your calories will have built up to 2,000-2,500 calories so that when you now lower the calories to diet, you are starting from a much higher and more manageable intake to lose weight on. This will give you more room to diet longer, feed your body more food while losing weight, and become easier to adhere to.