There are a lot of keywords in health and fitness that drive me crazy because they mean absolutely nothing yet are used ad nauseam. “Natural” is one of them (in terms of describing food products). “Fat-burning zone” is another (very confusing way to trick people into thinking their indoor-recumbent-bicycling is taking them on the short path to weight loss).
But the worst offender of all, in my opinion, is “toning.”
Toning is a fake fitness word that savvy marketing execs invented to sell weirdly-wedged sneakers, tiny little hand weights, and complicated thigh-squeezing contraptions. The gentle and highly feminized concept of “toning” gives women the (misguided) idea that they can firm up / tighten / reduce the size of their body parts without having to – dare I say it – lift heavy weights in the gym.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of Instagram-famous influencers and trainers out there that have bodacious bods that they may (or may not, cough) have gotten though one or more of the following “toning” go-to workouts: spin, yoga, Pilates, barre, or pole. But the reality, gals and gents, is this:
if you are a woman under 35, you need to lift weights and build lean mass to protect your bone density, anchor your core strength (especially if you plan on having healthy pregnancies/postpartum recoveries), and speed up your metabolism while you still can
if you are a woman over 35, you need to lift even heavier weights (!) to maintain your lean mass (as it starts to decrease with every passing year no matter what you do, sigh), kick your slowing metabolism in the booty, and hey, make sure certain body parts (most often: tush & tum) don’t fall victim to the ongoing threat of....gravity.
And don’t be fooled, folks – pretty much ANY exercise (and in many cases, none at all) will “tone up” a genetically stick-skinny twentysomething subsisting on a steady diet of gluten-free oxygen puffs and armed with an endless set of Photoshop and Insta-filter tricks (and on a semi-unrelated note, a bunch of those booty-licious internet babes claiming to have gotten their backsides from a few cable kickbacks and good genes may be uh, as they say, hiding some implants under the hood as well).
Snark much? I digress.
But the main point of what is unexpectedly turning into a rant is this: lifting heavy weights (often heavier than you think, even weights attached to bars, and even bars that weigh more than your actual body) will not make you bulky. Lifting weights in excess of 4KG / 8 pounds will not make you masculine, or hulk-ish, or broad. Very few women (and I’ve trained hundreds of them of all ages, races, backgrounds and sizes for over 16 years) start a serious weight-training regimen and get bigger – unless gaining mass/size is the goal. As I’ve noted before:
Lots of women carry around excess body fat precisely because they don’t lift weights, and therefore do not build or maintain adequate lean mass to help burn off the calories they eat – plus they tend to undereat protein and overeat carbohydrates and fat, which is a post for another time (but still a common and significant issue).
Ok, so enough of making the case.
What exactly should you be doing in the gym (and kitchen) to achieve the “toned” look (sigh, but for the sake of the post, humour me – and know that the “toned” look can of course mean different things to different people, just like the term “bulky” can mean different things to different people)?
Allow me to give you some true trainer-tried-and-tested tips:
first, get a coach. Shameless self-promotion? Maybe a tiny bit. But before you start picking up heavy things, you should make sure you have at least one session with a certified professional who can show you how to pick up heavy things correctly, then put you on a program to continue lifting those things in a way that makes sense.
next, streamline your goals. Do you want killer arms (hello bench presses and pull-ups)? An overall lean bod (try power movements like thrusters). Legs to kill (meet your two new best friends, squats and deadlifts)? Six pack abs (spoiler alert: these are actually made mostly from protein and salad; less from crunches)? No matter what your preferred aesthetic and physique might be, weight training is actually the best shot you have at getting it (unless you're reading this as Cindy Crawford's daughter).
third, get a program. Whether the aforementioned coach (ahem) designs it for you or you get it from another reliable source, make sure you have a specific, measurable, progressive strength training program to keep yourself accountable to – and don’t forget to keep records of sets/reps/etc. to make sure you’re on track
fourth, progress yourself. A lot of my clients have sailed through steps 1-3 but then hit a wall, thinking that once they know “what weight they use for different stuff” they’re good to go forever. Not the case for getting lean n’ mean. You’ve gotta keep upping the ante and building your body stronger (and yes – leaner in the process) within a reasonable program of progression. Again, a coach really helps with this specificity.
finally, eat your protein. Even the best-toned of intentions fall flabby when they’re not coupled with a protein-focused diet. If you’re looking to build lean muscle, consider 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (about 2 grams per KG), and if you’re looking to maintain your muscle, consider about .75 grams per pound (1.5 grams per KG). Lean protein sources are best here, so think about egg whites, chicken breast, protein powder, white fish, and Greek yogurt.
My lovely people over at Girls Gone Strong sum it up best: "Lifting heavy” doesn’t give you one particular body type. Lifting heavy will give you a strong, sexy, fit, kick-ass version of the body you were given."
And isn't that truly what we all want?