Ep. 74: How To Get Toned

While most of my clients are looking for a lot of functional improvements when they embark on a fitness journey – things like playing with kids more easily, being pain free, or just having more energy – a vast majority of the time they want some aesthetic changes too. The most common aesthetic changes I see amongst women is wanting to look longer, leaner and more toned.

At the end of the day, you can’t actually change the length of your muscles, but how they appear is within your control, by focusing your  exercise on building muscle and reducing body fat. In this episode I break down exactly what that all means and the various ways you can go about it.


Welcome back to the, not your mama podcast. This is your host Kelly Bryant. And today we’re diving into what it means to be quote toned. This is an incredibly common goal that I hear amongst my clients, as well as just women in general. And it’s something that I’ve talked about myself in the past. So way back when, I was a Barre instructor and I absolutely told the potential clients coming into our studio, that barre was ideal for creating the long lean aesthetic that they were looking for.

Now that was a little bit of marketing bullshit, but it really plays to what a lot of women are looking for. When I talk to a new client, very, very regularly, they give me kind of two primary goals. One is usually more of a functional goal. I want to be able to chase after my kids. I want to improve some health indicators. I want to feel good in my body. I want to have less upper back pain. And then the other is usually an aesthetic goal. And I would say nine times out of 10. The aesthetic goal is to be toned. They don’t necessarily want to get jacked, which is like, generally my life goal is like, I’m like give me all the muscles. I would like to have all of the muscles. That said I come from a background of having always been very skinny. So I think that colors it for sure. But Yeah, most women are out here trying to get toned and you will see toned and long and lean in marketing speak, all over the place. And you may also see some people on social media going out there and saying you can’t get long lean muscles. That’s not a thing that’s such BS. Like just get strong, just focus on getting strong, focus on feeling good, focus on moving in ways you love.

I think we can have both. And I get that we live in a culture, in a society, right? We are not a population of one. So we live in a society that shows us that toned that toned aesthetic is appealing and that’s what we should want. And that’s what we should look for. And. For me, it’s a, both. And I think we can say like, let’s get strong, let’s buck the societal norms. Let’s go after just being our best self.

And I also get that maybe you don’t feel comfortable just getting jacked as hell and it’s okay to have a particular aesthetic that you want to go after. So if that’s you, if you’re one of those people, who’s like, I want to get toned, but I also get that, like, I’m seeing these reels on Instagram that say that getting long lean muscles, isn’t a real thing. And I shouldn’t care about that. And you feel kind of stuck in between. We’re going to dig into it today.

What does it mean to get toned? Right? What are we talking about when we say, quote, unquote toned. How do you do it? And is it something that you should try to pursue? Does it matter? So let’s start with My story here, which is like that I absolutely, you know, was a Barre instructor. And I definitely told people that they could get long lean muscles from barre.

And my lived experience was that the people who I saw in my classes all the time did generally develop toward that aesthetic. Now here’s the catch. I don’t know if the people who are really successful in barre, including myself were successful because they already tended toward that type of strength, that type of work, that type of movement and were successful not because barre was doing something in particular, but because barre was just a good format for them and therefore they had more success that way.

It’s a very, very plausible explanation. So. I think there’s like a yes, and there that, you know, We can say that something like barre, Pilates may be very effective for getting that kind of physique, but also if you don’t love those formats or if they don’t feel good to you, or if you don’t want to do them, you don’t want to pay, you know, $150 a month to go to a barre studio where there’s no childcare and the schedule is really complicated and whatever that’s okay. You can still achieve that aesthetic without it.

Now, what does it mean to be toned? Now I’m making this definition up, right? I haven’t like Googled, like what does tone mean? I am as a trainer, as an expert in the field, I’m giving you my interpretation of what I think people mean when they say they want to be toned. And to me that is that they want a low body fat percentage with visible muscle tone.

If you have heard long lean muscles. That’s not a thing. So you kind of make your muscles any longer because your muscle length is based on the ends of your bones, right? Your muscles attached, where they attach, unless you are somehow making your bones longer, you are not going to get longer muscles.

Similarly muscles are lean tissue. So the idea of having long lean muscles, your muscles are the length they are, and they are exactly as lean as they can be. Now, could you have less fat integrated throughout your muscle? Yes. That’s where we get into that body fat percentage. Having a lower body fat percentage is going to mean that you have leaner muscle tissue or.

Your muscle mass generally has less fat tissue integrated into it. But that is not owned by any one particular training style. That is any and all efforts to reduce your body fat percentage and increase your visible muscle mass is going to result in having longer looking. Cause it’s an optical illusion, right? Like the thing is the same length, but it’s now thinner than it used to be so longer looking.

Leaner tissue generally, which is composed of more muscle. I know that sounds like a bunch of like, Okay, this is kind of esoteric. Does it really matter what we mean? I think it does. I think as a consumer, you should know what people are talking about. You should be able to be smart enough to say, Hey, look, I know that nothing is going to make my muscles longer and leaner. However, I want to have an aesthetic that makes me look like

I am leaner and therefore I look maybe taller, right? I look taller and thinner because I am leaner. It’s not the same thing. And that means that there are so many ways that we can achieve it. So let’s break it down into those two things. Low body fat percentage. Visible muscle mass, low body fat percentage.

One, there are healthy and unhealthy ranges for body fat percentage. And what I’m talking about is not being too fat. I’m talking about being too thin. So there is absolutely a too low end of the body fat percentage, a spectrum, particularly for women where you start to see implications in your cycle. Lots of hormone dysregulation also, it just becomes like lifestyle wise. Very difficult to maintain a normal life. Right. You’re like overly pursuing Body fat loss. You are going to have a harder time being a normal person who can go eat at restaurants and go to parties and do things. So there’s absolutely too far. And I am not encouraging anyone to go there. I am also going to tell you that you don’t have to lose any frigging body fat at all. You are exactly perfect the way you are. You are good enough. You don’t need to lose any body fat percentage to be healthy, to be fit, to feel good. You can do all of those things without changing your body fat percentage.

And I don’t necessarily think that reducing body fat percentage is a meaningful goal. It’s not something that I pursue. It’s not something that I encourage my clients to pursue. So that’s like the asterisk asterisk asterisk here. Is that like, To achieve a longer leaner look. You may have to lose body fat percentage. And I don’t know that that’s worth it, but you are the boss of you. And therefore I would rather you know what it really means then buy into some BS program that says it’s going to make you toned. So. You have to reduce your body fat percentage. If you want to look more toned than you currently do.

The reason that I say you have to, you are going to 100% is because body fat percentage is a percentage. So you could reduce your body fat percentage just by gaining muscle mass. You would weigh more. You would get bigger. That is something that you kind of have to like wrap your head around and be okay with.

So without dieting, without losing any weight without losing any body fat, you could have a lower body fat percentage. And therefore look more toned, have more visible muscle mass. Simply by increasing your muscle mass. That is not what most women mean when they say they want to look toned. They, most people mean that they actually want to lose body fat, as well as reducing their relative body fat percentage. I hope that distinction is clear. So, in order to lose body fat. You are going to most likely have to be at some kind of a calorie deficit. Not most likely, you WOULD have to be at some kind of a calorie deficit. And that calorie deficit can come from two places. It can come from burning more calories or eating fewer calories. I always lean toward the burning more calories. Now, if you go to a diet app, a Noom out there, I wrote the fricking articles myself, way back in the day back when I worked at Noom 6 million years ago.

They will tell you that it is harder to lose weight by exercise. We’re not trying to lose weight. We are trying to lose body fat and increase muscle mass. It is very hard to do those things at a strict, heavy calorie deficit. And if you only cut calories, if you only reduce calorie intake, you will not gain muscle mass. So if we want to gain muscle mass as well, and lose body fat. We’re going to have to exercise. So a good amount of our calorie deficit is going to come from increased exercise. It’s also going to come from increased metabolic rate because your BMR increases as you gain muscle mass. So we are not looking at a very significant calorie deficit at all, coming from our food. If any.

So maybe you cut 1, 200, 300 calories a day, max off of what you are currently doing. Assuming that right now you are sitting at maintenance. You have been the same weight for six to 12 months without any change. The way that you’re currently eating is your maintenance calories. You don’t need a calculator.

You don’t need to do any math. You don’t need to figure anything out. All you have to do is say currently more or less how I eat. That’s maintenance. And so, and that’s, again, if you’ve been at the same weight for like six to 12 months, right. If you’ve been actively losing weight because your postpartum, or if you are newly postpartum and therefore your weight has only gone up recently and just kind of like dropped postpartum.

Then you don’t necessarily know what your maintenance is. Like. It’s a little bit more complicated. I would lean towards saying don’t intentionally cut any calories until you establish a baseline. So get to that place where your six to 12 months. Maybe three is okay. Three to six or 12 months of a steady weight, you know, plus, or minus three ish pounds.

Get to a steady weight first establish what your maintenance needs are. No calculator needed. And then just look at how you generally eat and ask yourself the question, where could I cut one to 300 calories a day. Maybe that’s one glass of wine. Maybe it’s two glasses of wine. Maybe, you know that you don’t eat the same Monday to Friday as you do Saturday and Sunday. And so you look at Saturday, Sunday and say, where do I cut?

A thousand calories across these two days, but eat exactly the same as I currently am. Monday to Friday. There’s a lot of different ways to split this up. And I don’t want to get into the weeds of Calorie deficits in this podcast. So we’ll set that topic aside for now. And we’ll just say you reduce your body fat percentage by increasing your lean muscle tissue, which increases your metabolic rate, increasing the amount you exercise, assuming that you currently don’t exercise much at all.

And slightly, if at all, decreasing nutrition, you don’t want to drastically, not decreasing nutrition. Don’t decrease your nutrition, keep your nutrition really solid, but decrease the calories that are coming in. So you don’t want to significantly reduce calories because one you’ll be hungry. You’ll be pissed and you will have more trouble gaining muscle.

Which ultimately is going to mean that you don’t. Keep your BMR, your, your metabolism quite as high. Then we have increasing our visible muscle mass. Now there are 10,000 benefits to having more muscle mass beyond just looking toned. And I often find that for my clients who start on a strength training program, they see those other benefits.

Often before they see any physical change. It depends of course, where people are starting from. But if you are currently not exercising much, if at all, and you start strength training three to five days a week, you are going to probably have much more energy. You’re going to feel less achy. You’re going to.

Sleep better at night. There’s going to be so many benefits. You’re going to feel more competent, more capable, stronger. It’s going to be so many benefits beyond just the physique changes and it can really help with, with sustaining those changes. If you’re paying attention to those benefits, if you have your eyes really open to all the other things you’re gaining from your movement practice.

Now. Any, and all exercise is going to be helpful with toning. I do not want to suggest. That the only way to tone is by doing endurance strength training. Any kind of any kind of strength training and kind of resistance training is going to contribute to increasing muscle mass. That said the reason that formats like barre and Pilates seem to kind of own the The space of toned, looking toned, that aesthetic is because they are endurance strength training. They’re low weight. They are high repetition. A lot of people also like it because that’s easier on the joints. So that’s a cool benefit too. That low or low weight, high rep, low rest. Right. So you’re moving a lot of the time. You’re not, you know, sitting resting. If you do like traditional strength training, you’re going to like, do a few reps and then rest for like two minutes. You don’t do that in a barre or pilates class. So that generally lends itself toward getting stronger, gaining a little bit of muscle mass, but not getting quote unquote bulky. We’re going to circle back to bulky in a second. You don’t have to necessarily do Barre or Pilates to do endurance strength work. You can slightly increase your muscle mass, increase your strength, or at least the endurance component of your strength and contribute toward getting more toned without ever stepping foot in a barre or Pilates studio.

Any strength programs. So if you’re currently doing something in the gym and maybe you do three sets of 10 reps, if you take that up to 12 to 20 reps, reduce the rate and reduce the rest time. Turned off, you’re doing endurance strength training, and you’re going to contribute toward that endurance strength goal.

Now here’s where we get into that whole bulky thing. I would argue that the fear of getting bulky is bullshit. It contributes to women keeping themselves weak, to being less functional and to ultimately hampering their progress toward looking more toned, increasing their health, improving their metabolism, a million other things, muscle mass, high muscle mass.

Is incredibly beneficial for your health. It is anti-aging right. It keeps your, your connective tissue strong. It keeps your immune system strong, like there’s so, so many benefits to increasing your muscle mass. And the fear of getting bulky is preventing women from taking advantage of all of those benefits and it makes me bonkers.

There is some aesthetic difference between the muscle that you gained from endurance strength, training versus hypertrophy strength training, and hypertrophy refers to strength training with the goal of gaining muscle mass. There’s some aesthetic difference. I will allow it. True. It is not so significant that you should not be doing hypertrophy training, that you should not be doing max strength training. We need all of the components of strength to be healthy, functional individuals.

And so I would really caution against only doing a barre, a Pilates and endurance type strength program because you’re afraid of getting too bulky because honestly, Who the fuck I’m saying bad words. We’re putting the explicit on this one.

Who the fuck cares if you’re too bulky? Who decides what too bulky is? And why do we care about their opinion? Like, go be the bulkiest biggest baddest bitch. You know how to be, because like, Why not right? Like you only get to do this, this whole having a human body thing once you might as well make it the strongest most bad-ass body that you can. And don’t let that idea of being bulky stop you from going after being strong and capable and competent.

I’ve given you the best pitch that I have for hypertrophy strength training from not only doing endurance strength work. They’re both functional. They’re both important. We need both.

Maybe I haven’t convinced you.

So if I haven’t convinced you and you still don’t want to look bulky. I would suggest that you try some hypertrophy training anyway. I do this with my clients all the time. I basically say like set a timeframe where you can tolerate continuing to get quote unquote bulky. Bulkier and bulkier and bulkier.

So maybe it’s three months, because what generally happens, let’s talk about thighs because bulky thighs are like a huge concern amongst my clients.

Look at your thighs. And let’s just accept for three months, maybe six months they’re going to get bigger. You will not die. I promise. Because the amount of fat tissue they have on them is the amount of fat tissue they have on them. If we start increasing your lean muscle mass, it’s going to be like putting a sweater under a sweater. So they are going to physically get bigger.

We have to see that through. We have to continue to tolerate. Continuing to get bigger and bigger and bigger until we hit what I like to call this like inflection point. So there is a point where we increase our muscle mass and increase our metabolic rate and maybe slightly decrease our calorie intake enough that we start to see fat loss.

And that tipping point is where you get to kind of peel off the outer sweater and are left with just the muscle tissue that you’ve developed underneath it. You are never going to only have muscle tissue on your thighs. Like. I mean, no human does truly, no human does, but particularly women, particularly people with female hormones are going to see that they routine more fat mass likely in their hips and thighs.

That’s part of being human.

I think it’s totally fine. I think we all could just like focus on getting behind deciding that it’s fine. But if it makes you really uncomfortable, if it’s a really tough. Like psychologically, emotionally tough thing for you to just accept. Then I would say set that timeline of saying like, I’m going to ignore my thighs, getting bulkier for three months, for four months, for five months, for six months, whatever.

And see this through and see if I can get to that inflection point where I start to lose body fat and therefore look more toned and feel a little bit less, most likely, a little less uncomfortable with that bulk because one, the size will probably decrease, but also the. Quality of the tissue will change. Right.

It’ll be muscle mass instead of. Fat tissue. So.

Again, First choice. Just get bulky, love it up. Be bulky. Be your best self. Second choice is if you really can’t handle being bulky, give yourself a timeline. Maybe you take photos along the way. Maybe you take measurements along the way. But give yourself some time to be bulky. And see if you can get to a place where you start to lose body fat and therefore reduce your, your size and actually.

Again, I’m going to finish this off by saying.

The toned aesthetic is not objective really better. There is nothing particularly more healthy or necessary about being more toned, you can be healthy and fit and feel amazing with a lot of body fat. You can feel healthy and fit and amazing with really big ass muscles. But if that’s the aesthetic that you’re going after.

One being an informed consumer know that there’s nothing that anyone is going to do that makes your muscles longer and leaner. It is just a matter of reducing your overall body fat and increasing your visible muscle tissue. Then. Know, that you don’t need to partake in a particular exercise format to do strength training in general. And if you’re going to limit yourself to just endurance strength training, which is that high rep, low weight kind of training you can do that with any program, any like reasonable set of exercises can just be done at a higher rep count. Less rest, lower weight and you’ll get the same benefit.

I hope that this has been helpful. And I hope most of all that everyone is just like, yeah, I’m on board. Let’s get bulky. Let’s do it. Join me. Let’s all go get bulky. Have an amazing week. And I look forward to seeing you back here.

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