This is probably one of the most common questions that I get on an (almost) daily basis. And it comes under many different disguises:
- “I just want to tone up.”
- “I just want a six pack and nice arms.”
- “I don’t want to get huge.”
- “Like, Taylor Lautner in Twilight.”
- “How do I fix this [shakes arm while pointing at triceps]?”
If you’ve ever said, asked, or been asked any of these questions, you aren’t alone.
Bodybuilding isn’t inherently about size. The proof lies in the fact that the biggest competitors often don’t win bodybuilding competitions. However, most professional bodybuilders do pack on a few extra pounds of muscle.
It started in the late 1960s and 70s with guys like Arnold and Lou Ferrigno. (And in case you don’t know who Lou Ferrigno is, he’s the Hulk, literally.) This quest for size was fueled by the availability of anabolic steroids and these “mass monsters” still exist today.
But most of us don’t have any interest in looking like the Hulk.
First, it was women. Girls would always say that they wanted to “tone up,” but not be too muscle-y. But then we started hearing the same thing from guys, too. Nowadays, it seems that everyone is shying away from the heavy weights in favor of high-rep, isolation exercises designed to build “long” and “lean” muscles.
(But muscles are already “lean” by definition and, as Dean Somerset would say, the only way to make a muscle longer is to break the bones that it attaches to and make them further apart.)
Tone isn’t, by definition, an aesthetic word. In fact, it actually means, “give greater strength.” But I know that when somebody wants to “tone” something, that is an aesthetic goal. Instead, we might use the word definition. Synonyms include obviousness, clarity, prominence, and distinctness. The goal then becomes clarity of muscles.
So if your goal is to “tone and shape” your “buns and thighs,” I have the answer for you right here, right now.
Take a look at the picture above. I’ve drawn 5 pairs of concentric circles. Think of each circle as a cross-sectional view of your arm or leg. The center circle is the muscle (I’ve omitted the bones, blood vessels, and many other things for simplicity’s sake) and the outer ring is your bodyfat.
Let’s start with #1. This is you, now. You have some muscle and maybe 20-30% bodyfat (give or take, it might not be to scale). If we move to #2, we can see that although you’ve lost weight (because muscle is denser than fat), you are actually the same size. You’ve even gained a bit of fat.
How would this happen? Most likely through long-duration cardio (long being 90+ minutes), low protein intake, not enough lifting, maintenance(ish) caloric intake, or any combination of the above. This is you, squishy.
For now, let’s skip #3 and move down to the bottom of the page, #5. This is you with more muscle, but also more fat. I will say that this is a bit more typical of those looking to gain serious amounts of muscle mass, as they aren’t afraid of a caloric surplus. This is the traditional bulking phase.
You’ve lifted plenty of weight and ate plenty of food and you have put on some muscle to show for it. Unfortunately for you, your caloric surplus is far beyond what it takes to steadily build muscle. If you didn’t consider yourself “chubby” at #1, you probably are now.
And that brings us to the exact opposite end of the spectrum, #4 in the bottom-right corner.
If you are #4, maybe you’ve focused on caloric expenditure as your primary motivation behind exercising. Or maybe you’ve simply been on a strict diet with low protein and minimal weight training. While there’s nothing wrong with any of that, you’ve lost some fat and plenty of muscle. You are now skinny-fat.
The fat loss came from the general caloric deficit. The muscle loss came from long-duration cardio, low protein intake, not enough lifting, and a caloric deficit.
And that brings us to #3, the “toned” body that we all yearn for. You’ve succeeded at lowering your body fat, but also managed to maintain and even gain some muscle mass. You have created definition, prominence, clarity of muscle. You aren’t huge, because #3 is the same size as #2, which is the same size as #1. You just look vastly different. (Oh, and you actually weigh more because muscle is denser than fat. But you look damn good in those new clothes you bought so weight doesn’t even factor into your confidence level anymore, just the way it should be.)
But how did we get there? Assuming no outlier-type scenarios like adaptive thermogenesis, we can look to our other four body types for clues as to how we can get the toned body that we want.
1. PUT DOWN THE PINK DUMBBELLS.
If it weighs less than your cat, it’s probably too light for you.
In order to gain muscle, we must lift weights with proper frequency and intensity. We also must use progressive overload. If the weight never gets heavier or the volume never gets higher, your muscles will never grow.
As for frequency, our best bet is to lift at least three days per week. Four would probably be even more optimal. This way, we optimize our responses to exercises, such as an increased rate of protein synthesis.
Two days a week is okay, but given our desire for simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain, three would be better.
As for intensity, it should be sufficient to build muscle. This means working at a 10-12RM or heavier. This doesn’t mean picking up any ol’ random pair o’ dumbbells and pumping out 20-30 reps.
Yes, there will be blood in your muscles and you will be “pumped.” No, it will not build muscle if that is the only lifting that you’re doing.
2. Are you training for the marathon?
If not, avoid long-duration cardio (90+ minutes). With long-duration cardio in the neighborhood of 90 minutes or longer, your body switches over to amino acids as an energy source. This is a one-way ticket to muscle loss.
With an adequate protein intake, most endurance athletes can maintain at least most of their muscle mass, if not all of it. However, their protein demands are second only to strength athletes and is usually somewhere between 1.1 and 2.2 g/kg of bodyweight (between 0.5 and 1 g/lb).
Additionally, long-duration cardio does not invoke the same exercise intensity as interval or weight training. Therefore, the effect of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption is minimal. A better choice would be interval training with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:3-5.
And third, multiple 90+ minute bouts of endurance exercise would take away time that could be used for lifting and other types of exercise. When you consider lifting, stretching, interval cardio, sleep, food, relationships, and work as competing demands, it’s tough to make a case for long-duration cardio except in the instance of actual competing endurance athletes.
3. You can’t ever go to Taco Bell because you’re on an all-carb diet.
You can’t outwork a bad diet and vice versa. First and foremost is caloric balance.
If you eat far too much, you’ll gain weight. Both muscle and fat, as in version #5 of you.
If you eat far too little, you’ll lose weight. Both muscle and fat, as in version #4 of you. And worst case, you may end up suffering from some adaptive thermogenesis, which throws your entire metabolic system out of sorts.
The best place to start your caloric intake is at maintenance. If you’d rather bulk and cut, that’s fine, but just remember that you’ll be spending half of the year in a “bulking” phase. A maintenance caloric level provides a good basis for body recomposition (gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time).
Second, adequate protein intake is required to build muscle. You can’t build a brick house without any bricks.
4. Additionally, you must drink enough water, reduce stress levels, and sleep enough.
These things should just go without saying. Whatever your fitness goal, it will be easier to reach if you drink at least half of your bodyweight in ounces of water, reduce your stress levels to a minimum, and sleep at least 7-9 hours each night.
So there you have it. How do you get ripped? Get your bodyfat down to the middle or low teens first, then incorporate some kind of cycling or fasting to help with the last bit.
How do you get ripped while maintaining your current size? Well, you better replace that lost fat with muscle, or else you’ll just be a scrawny, ripped guy (or girl). Avoid low protein intake, extended steady-state cardio, and extreme calorie diets (in either direction). Your golden ticket to body recomposition is lifting and interval training.
If your goal is to “tone,” then your goal is actually an obviousness, clarity, prominence, and distinctness of muscles. But without any muscle, there’s nothing to clarify anyway. Don’t forget, muscles give your body shape and you can decide where to make them larger or smaller. Fat just hangs off the body like the friend that nobody likes. You don’t need to be ripped either. You can decide that a certain bodyfat level is where you want to be and stop there. It’s not fat or ripped, pick one. It’s a continuum and you can decide where you want to be.