In one capacity or another, I’ve been part of the health and fitness community for over 30 years. I started as a fan of sports men and women, avidly reading about what they did to get where they were and more importantly what they had to do to stay there. I then began putting what I read into practice and started researching exercise physiology and experimenting with different workout techniques. I transitioned from student to teacher, trying to pass on that knowledge through mandated physical training sessions in the military, but for years I was simply out-training a terrible diet. I realised that my nutrition was just as important as what I did in the gym, so I studied clinical and sports nutrition and realised the importance of free thinking, not being a slave to guidelines and outdated principles that are almost certainly corrupted by industry. Many things have changed over those years, a deeper understanding of some principles, the birth of new concepts, but the one subject that has remained constant throughout, is that women WILL NOT TURN INTO MASSIVE GIANTS SIMPLY BY LIFTING HEAVY WEIGHTS!!
I can’t believe that there is still a need to convince women of this. I’ve been meaning to write this post for the longest time; I’ve spoken to so many men and women on social media who are just starting their fitness journey, and the one thing I still hear more often than anything else, is that they don’t want to lift heavy weights; they’re not interested in getting big, they just want to ‘tone up a bit’. Every time I see this, I need to take a deep breath and compose myself before responding. Reading Lily’s post on the myth of the toned body gave me the push I needed to put digital pen to paper, and hopefully, for the last time, say to all of you women reading this, that toning up ACTUALLY MEANS GAINING MUSCLE MASS. That’s right, if you want to tone up, you will need to lift heavier weights than the pink 1kg dumbbells, and maybe move the pin a little bit further down the weights rack.
I’ve read article after article trying to convince women that they will not turn into massive, square jawed, she hulks, but for whatever reason the message just isn’t getting through. So what is it women actually mean when they say they want to tone up? It generally means that they want to see the curvature of muscle in some key body parts like arms, shoulders, ass, and legs, whilst simultaneously getting rid of cellulite and wobbly fat from those, and other, areas. So what does it take to ‘tone up’? It takes a combination of burning fat and gaining muscle mass, and it’s the latter that scares the life out of some women. They see pictures of female bodybuilders like Kim Chizevsky or others and immediately think that 12 weeks of lifting weights will mean that they’ll look just like them. Shocker, you won’t!
In exactly the same way that I won’t look like Ronnie Coleman or Phil Heath or Kai Greene, YOU WILL NOT LOOK LIKE THESE WOMEN. To look like these women you will need to train intensively for years and years. On top of that, you would have to go through a complex and regular cycle of performance enhancing drugs and hormone suppressants. On top of that, you’ll have to eat a shit load more than you probably do. Provided your training is gut wrenchingly intensive, your repeated drug cycling enables sufficient recovery, and your nutrition allows for adequate muscle building, you’ll possibly look like them in 10 to 15 years of absolute consistency, but even then you probably won’t.
As T-Nation reports in a previously linked article, the birth of CrossFit has done more for getting women to lift weights than any other campaign. The concept of fitness, rather than bodybuilding, has encouraged some women to lift heavier than ever before. My personal opinion is that the psychology of the concept is actually really quite powerful. Doing CrossFit is all about fitness. Doing CrossFit can lead to earning the title of the fittest woman on Earth. Bodybuilding, on the other hand, implies that you should be getting bigger in order to be successful, so if you follow a bodybuilding programme you will believe that you will get bigger and that’s where the fear kicks in. The truth is that gaining muscle mass can actually make your body look smaller. 1kg of muscle occupies a lot less space than 1kg of fat, so if you can burn the 1kg of fat and gain the same 1kg amount of muscle, your body mass will fit into a much smaller space, even though you weigh exactly the same amount as before. Plus, the 1kg of muscle will require more calories to be sustained than the 1kg of fat, so you’ll get to eat more just to stay the same body composition.
So what exactly does it take to ‘tone up’? Well, it takes a dedicated and consistent exercise and nutrition programme that will allow you to burn fat and build muscle. You could either do the good old bulk and cut, where you bulk up by gaining as much muscle mass as you can whilst minimising fat gain, and then go through a cutting period where you try to burn as much fat as possible whilst simultaneously trying to hold onto as much muscle mass as you can. This strikes fear into the hearts of most women because the bulk phase requires weight gain and eating an excess of calories. But provided you balance your protein/fat/carb intake, and limit your excess to only 500 or so calories per day, you should minimise the amount of fat you gain. Now this bit is going to completely blow your mind. YOU CAN GAIN FAT AND BE LEANER THAN YOU WERE BEFORE. That’s right, you can, and it’s all because body fat is generally measured as a percentage of total body weight. If you gained 5kg of muscle mass and 1kg of fat, you would technically be leaner than you were before by overall body fat percentage. Granted, on a 100kg person, this kind of gain would equal less than a 0.1% drop in body fat percentage, and gaining that much muscle mass is incredibly difficult, but you get my point. The danger of the cut phase is that you get your nutrition completely wrong and end up losing all the muscle mass you worked hard to gain, and are left with more body fat than you had before. This is why I’m not a big fan of it.
The good news is that there are plenty of other ways, but the difficult bit is finding out what works for you. It depends entirely on how fast you want to achieve your ‘toned’ look and how ‘toned’ you want to be. The easy answer, according to government guidelines, is just eat less and lift more. But if your body doesn’t respond well to carbohydrates, you might be fighting a losing battle against the 70% carbohydrate advice. This could lead to increased fat gain and bloating from water retention. Not to mention that most carbohydrate based dishes are quite calorie dense, so while you may think you’re eating “healthily” you could be having an excess of calories and ruining all of your hard work in the gym. You may be the type of person who responds well to high load weight training sessions splitting each body part once per week, or you might respond well to short bursts of intensive resistance training, working each body part 3 or 4 times per week. My advice is to speak to a personal trainer, or sports nutritionist, and get bespoke personalised advice. But in the meantime, this is my advice for how to get that ‘toned’ look you desire:
Basic Nutrition: Get rid of the notion of cereal for breakfast. Eat 3 meals a day using an average sized dinner plate. Fill half the plate with a lean protein source like low fat beef, chicken, or fish; fill a quarter of the plate with a green cruciferous vegetable like broccoli or sprouts; fill the last quarter with a carbohydrate like wholegrain rice or sweet potato. If this is too bizarre a concept to have for breakfast, have a high protein moderate fat breakfast like scrambled eggs with salmon.
Advanced Nutrition: Work out your basal metabolic rate. This is the amount of calories you will need just to stay alive. You can work it out by using this formula BMR = (height in centimeters x 6.25) + (weight in kilograms x 9.99) – (age x 4.92) – 161. This is for females only, so for example, if your height is 178 cm, your weight is 78.6 kg and your age is 33, you would use: (178 x 6.25) + (78.6 x 9.99) – (33 x 4.92) – 161 = 1,574 calories per day. Multiply this by 1.2 if you do no exercise; 1.3 for 1-3 days of exercise a week; 1.5 for 3-5 days of exercise a week; and 1.7 for 5-7 days of exercise a week. Whatever the final figure you come to, deduct 500 calories from it and try to stick to a ratio of protein:carbohydrates:fat as 40:30:30 on days you work out, or 50:20:30 on days you don’t.
Basic Workout: Train 4 times a week and do the same workout every day. After 4 weeks, increase the resistance by one weight notch on the rack you are using, or increase by one dumbbell/kettlebell weight. Repeat this each 4 weeks. Do 3 working sets per exercise, but make sure you warm up using a lighter weight for at least one set first. Pick a weight that allows you to complete 8-10 repetitions with good form on the first 2 working sets, but one that’s too heavy to finish 8 repetitions on the third working set. Give yourself 60 seconds rest between sets. Find a machine or weighted exercise that will allow you to work the following body parts: chest; upper back; shoulders; lower back; triceps; biceps; legs (quadriceps); legs (hamstrings); calves.
Advanced Workout: Train 4 times a week on a push/pull/legs/push – pull/legs/push/pull – legs/push/pull/legs rotation. These 3 weeks equal 1 cycle. After each cycle, increase the load by at least 5%. Work in the 6 – 8 repetition range with a 1 minute rest between sets and a total of 4 working sets. The fourth set should be a drop set or a lift pause to 15 total repetitions. Work on the following exercises, or find alternatives that suit you: Push – bench press, pectoral flye, shoulder press, lateral raise, close grip bench press, tricep pushdown; Pull – Lat pull down, seated row, dumbbell shrugs, upright row, face pull, preacher curl, hammer curl; Legs – Weighted calf raise superset with no weight calf raise on the floor, squat, leg press, stiff legged deadlift, weight overhead walking lunges, leg extension, hamstring curl.
Either that or join your local CrossFit box…