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“I don’t want to be muscular, I just want to be toned.”
If I had a dollar every time a woman said this to me, I could retire to a beach somewhere.
Here’s the thing…
It’s not the absence of size, it’s the addition of muscle that gives you that "toned" look you're after.
You don't get toned by restricting your diet 365 days a year, doing loads of cardio, and ignoring the importance of recovery.
That’s how you get burnt out, tired, frustrated, and not see the results you’re hoping for.
Muscle, underneath your skin, and the healthy layer of fat that everyone has, is what gives you that “fit, toned” look. In fact, the more muscle you have, the better your shape is going to look even with a bit higher body fat because it’s those smooth, curving muscles that give your body shape.
Let’s chat about some of the most common mistakes holding you back from achieving that lean, toned look you’re after.
What many women fail to realize is that “getting toned” involves creating new tissue, not simply melting away fat.
In order to do that, you have to fuel and nourish your body properly! If you’re constantly restricting calories and always “on a diet,” your body will not prioritize building muscle or recovering adequately.
You have to eat enough food (especially protein) to support muscle growth & recovery. Your body is very smart. If you’re not giving it what it needs, it’s going to default to putting any and all of the calories that you do consume to surviving – breathing, keeping your heart beating, getting up off the couch – the simple, everyday processes.
Your body is NOT going to prioritize muscle growth, which again is the #1 key to a toned physique.
Learn to properly nourish your body in a sustainable way by focusing on eating enough, prioritizing protein (more on this below), and letting go of the restrictive mindset.
Take some time away from constantly trying to restrict yourself and think about how good you will feel and how much more energy you will have to crush your day when you fuel your body the right way.
To piggyback off the last point, consuming adequate protein is essential when it comes to changing your body composition and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle.
Here are just a few of the main reasons why protein is SO important:
Ultimately, changing your body composition entails two primary goals – gaining muscle mass and losing body fat.
Gaining muscle mass occurs in response to proper resistance training (discussed below) and sufficient intake of dietary protein.
If you’re not consuming adequate protein throughout your day, you’re missing out on a lot of potential progress and benefits.
Focus on consuming high-quality, nutrient-dense protein sources at every meal. Check out this Protein Cheat Sheet for lots of ideas!
If you really want to optimize your protein intake, a general guideline to shoot for would be around 1 gram per pound of body weight. So for example, if you weigh 160 pounds, you would aim for 160 grams of protein per day.
One common concern among women is that lifting weights will result in a “ bulky” body composition. Ask anyone who's been lifting weights for a while – no woman has ever “bulked up” or become too muscular by accident. Our physiology doesn’t allow it – and frankly, neither do men’s.
In order to become what most people regard as “over-muscled,” both men and women have to work very hard, for a very long period of time while also making sure they have all their ducks in a row (i.e., fueling optimally, recovering adequately, training properly, and much more).
Due to the amount of work that goes into creating new muscle, it takes consistent effort over years (and decades) to build “significant muscle mass” naturally.
It’s also worth noting that more body fat and less muscle mass is usually what makes one appear "bulky," not muscle.
For example, if someone has 30 pounds of fat and 120 pounds of lean mass, he or she will look much leaner than someone who has 30 pounds of fat and 100 pounds of lean mass.
Focus on lifting to get stronger while following a progressive, smart training plan.
Stop doing random workouts you see on Instagram and instead, commit to a long-term and structured plan that you can adhere to, is challenging and fun for you, and includes adequate load, volume, and intensity.
If you're looking to achieve a lean, defined physique, doing hours and hours of cardio-style training is not going to get you there.
Losing body fat comes down primarily to diet... BUT, what is often overlooked is the fact that building more muscle actually equates to MORE fat loss.
The MORE muscle you have on your body, the LEANER you will be.
The less muscle you have, the less efficient your body is at using the calories you consume on a daily basis, and the greater decline you will have in your overall health.
In order to change your body composition (for good), you MUST focus on building muscle mass and consuming sufficient amounts of protein to support this.
If you’re constantly “chasing the sweat” during your workouts, you’re focusing on the wrong thing! Sweating doesn’t necessarily equate to a good workout.
Stop focusing on exercising to burn more calories or “chasing the sweat.” You don’t need to be dead on the floor after your workout for it to be considered effective.
It’s not just about what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it. Focusing on progressive overload is critical.
Progressive overload is simply providing an increased stimulus to the body to make improvements over time in order to achieve a targeted goal.
If you don't progressively overload your muscles by forcing them to do more than they're accustomed to, they will not adapt and grow and you will not continue to see the results you’re after.
Exercise to build, not to lose!
This should really be #1 on the list because it’s something I see SO many women neglecting when it comes to training and just life in general.
When you’re chasing a goal, it can feel tempting to work nonstop to reach it. I did this for years too! When I finally understood the importance of recovery, that’s when everything changed for the better!
There’s a BIG difference between hard work and being overworked. When you’re working hard, you should be inspired, fulfilled, and motivated. When you’re overworked, you will feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and unmotivated.
You must treat your recovery with as much respect as your training sessions if you want to see results.
The ability to recover isn’t just about rest days, it also has to do with what’s going on in the rest of your life: work, relationships, sleep quality, diet, and other lifestyle factors.
Busier people with more stressful lives and less time to recover are the ones who MUST prioritize recovery the most.
Sleep, stress management, nutrition, and real downtime matter the most.
If you want to look toned, you have to put the work in to build muscle!
Constantly undereating, stressing your body with chronic cardio, and never lifting heavy is a recipe for frustration and burnout.
Creating the physique you desire takes time, patience, and consistency.
And you don’t have to do everything at once! Just start with one solution above. Focus on improving that area, then move on to the next. You got this!
Rachel Gregory is a Board-Certified Nutritionist, Strength and Conditioning Coach, Author, Podcaster, and founder/CEO of MetFlex Life. In her day-to-day coaching business and membership group, The Flex Fam, Rachel guides her clients to becoming the best, most confident version of themselves. She has a passion for educating those dedicated to optimizing their physical and mental well-being while improving long-term health and fitness goals. You can connect with Rachel on various social platforms and access more of her nutrition and fitness content HERE.
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Published: April 21, 2022
Last Updated: April 22, 2022
7 min read
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