The “Get Toned” Hoax: The Most Destructive Buzz Word in Fitness

She’s “toned”…and she didn’t get that way doing 5 lb. dumbbell curls…

We hear the word all the time.  Pilates studios tell us we’ll get,  “Long, lean, and toned muscles!”.  The covers of fitness magazines tell us “Tight and toned in 4 weeks!”.  Yoga studios tell us, “A total body tone!”.  Have you ever wondered what “toned” really means?

“I Want to Tone Up!”

To most people, “toned” means ripped, shredded, defined, cut….whatever you want to call it, in your mind, it means you have well-defined musculature.  Women in particular think of “getting toned” as the alternative to “getting big and bulky”.  Fitness providers are wise to this, and thus, use the word toned, especially when targeting potential female consumers.  This doesn’t mean they’re doing something dishonest, they’re just using a buzz word they know their potential customers are paying attention to and looking for.

So what does “toned” really mean?  Well first off, when someone says they want to get “toned”, they are really saying, I want less body fat covering my muscles, thereby making my muscles look more defined, pronounced, or……toned.  That’s all being toned really is.  People with less body fat covering their body will look more toned.

How You DON’T Get Toned

Now that we know what “toned” really means, isn’t it obvious there aren’t specific exercises that lead to a “toned” appearance?  Lifting 5 lb dumbbells won’t lead to less body fat covering your biceps.  It’s ridiculous to think this even possible.  Just like there isn’t only one weight that will lead to toned muscles, there aren’t specific exercises that will make someone toned, while other exercises make them “big and bulky”.  Talk to any fitness professional who isn’t trying to sell you something….they’ll all tell you to forget what you’re reading on the fitness mag covers about how to get “toned”.

How You DO Get Toned

Knowing what we now know, the goal of getting toned has become much easier to reach.  A well-designed plan that incorporates ample amounts of cardio (to burn the fat covering your muscles) and compound exercises (to actually build the muscle) will eventually result in a toned appearance.  The line between too much cardio and not enough is fine.  Do too much cardio and you’ll start wasting away your muscle gains and start looking like a marathon runner (not toned).  Not enough and you’ll never burn the fat covering your muscles.

Additionally, change your diet and you’ll start noticing changes fast.  Getting toned is about being lean.  Eat foods that help you reach your goal while avoiding foods that hinder your progress.  Consume ample protein to build muscle tissue and make sure to avoid sugars and other simple carbs that your body will easily store as fat.

The Big and Bulky Myth

All of you reading this have the potential to develop a beautifully tight and toned body.  For many of the women out there, they never accomplish their goal because they allow themselves to become too scared of getting “big and bulky”.  This topic has been beaten to death, but allow me to very quickly explain to you why this won’t happen.

  • Female bodies do not possess the same levels of the hormone testosterone  (15-20 times less than men).  Testosterone is an anabolic (muscle building) hormone.  On the other hand, women have far more of the hormone estrogen than men.  Estrogen is a catabolic hormone (muscle destroying).
  • Men are genetically predisposed to building more muscle.  Under a perfect scenario a man could theoretically gain up to half a pound of muscle a week.  Women, if they’re lucky, could gain a third of this at best.
  • You don’t get bulky overnight.  Instead of refusing to do certain exercises, or using heavy weights for fear of getting bulky, give it a shot and see how you look/feel before swearing them off.
  • You aren’t eating like a man, are you?  Muscle doesn’t build itself out of thin air.  There is a reason bodybuilders, big men, and high-caliber strength athletes eat thousands upon thousands of calories a day.  In order to build serious muscle, you’ve got to feed your body insane amounts of food.  If you aren’t eating like an offensive lineman, you don’t need to worry about turning into one overnight.

The “Get Toned” Plan

A lot of you are now probably wondering, “Okay great, now how do I get toned…I mean, how do I burn fat, build muscle, and build a healthy and lean physique?”  So glad you asked.  As I mentioned before, you need a well-designed plan that walks the fine line between not enough cardio and too much.  Given the opportunity to test and re-test the ratio on myself and clients over the years, I believe I found something that will work will for MOST individuals.  As I always preach, fitness is NOT an exact science.  What works for one may not work for another.  Tweak things here and there as needed for your body type.  If you need a little more cardio, add 10-15 minutes a day…Have a hard time building muscle? Cut back until you’re able to keep muscle on.

A 5 day routine looking like something below would be ideal…Notice that each workout has been defined as either fat burning, muscle building, or a combo of both.  When subbing in your own workouts, if you so choose, opt to keep the ratio of fat burning/muscle building workouts.

  1. Monday – Explosive plyometric cardio workout, 45 minutes (primary-fat burning/secondary-muscle building)
  2. Tuesday – Lower body weight training using compound exercises (leg press, squats, Bulgarian squats, box jumps, deadlifts, etc) 60 minutes (muscle building)
  3. WednesdayComplex workout sessions, 30-40 minutes (primary-fat burning/secondary-muscle building)
  4. Thursday – Upper body weight training using compound exercises (bench press, dips, military press, lat pulldowns, etc.) 60 minutes (muscle building)
  5. Friday – Intense interval cardio, 45-60 minutes (fat burning)

Feel free to sub in some HIIT cardio on cardio days or add an extra day of yoga, pilates, kickboxing, etc. on the weekend.  If you’re looking for a huge database of full-length OnDemand fitness classes (like the ones mentioned above) you can take at home or anywhere else you have an internet connection, come check out our full premium site and sign up now for free access.

Change Yourself

The only thing stopping you from developing the body of your dreams is yourself.  You’re the one who allows your know-it-all inner voice to talk you out of doing the right things.  You allow yourself to be overcome with doubt and fear of getting too bulky.  Forget that.  For once, listen to a fitness professional who ISN’T trying to sell you something.  Once you make better decisions in the gym and in the kitchen that lean, athletic, and “toned” body won’t seem so far away after all.

What are some workouts that have been particularly great in helping you develop your body?  Comment below and share your workout tips, advice, and secrets!  Good karma will follow…!

13 thoughts on “The “Get Toned” Hoax: The Most Destructive Buzz Word in Fitness”

  1. Great article. Too many people I know think getting ‘toned’ means pounding away the hours on the treadmill. Needless to say they are a long way from their ‘toned’ goals.

    1. One of the biggest obstacles I face is getting people to move away from their steady state cardio routines. Yeah, I mean you might get really good at running on a treadmill for hours on end..but if the goal is to develop a lean physique and increase athleticism you might wanna try something different! Thanks for the comment! 🙂


  2. I hear the Big and Bulky myth all the time, and combat it exactly the way you explain — thank you for shedding light on this excuse!  Terrific article.  I’d love to see a follow-up piece that lays out each workout you described for the week! 

  3. Matt, what if I don’t want to build muscle at all except in my glutes? For my tastes, my legs are perfect as they are from my current workout routine, but my butt isn’t. My concern is that if I do a heavy workout for my glutes, let’s say lifting harder, I’m working out my thighs too. I really don’t want to add the tiniest amount of muscle on my legs. Can you suggest me some workouts that are appropriate for me?
    Sorry for my broken english!


    1. Sorry for the delay, I’m usually much faster at getting back, I’ve just been out of town.

      To answer your question, if you want to focus on your glutes in particular, you need to keep in mind that you’ll hit your quads to a very slight degree in most exercises. Don’t worry about this as 95% of the workload will be performed by the hamstrings and glutes. The best exercises to develop a killer butt…

      Bulgarian Squats, Reverse Step Ups, Lying Hamstring Curls, Deadlifts.

      If you need a video demonstration of any of those, just head over to and browse our body diagram of exercise demos. Any other questions, please ask!


  4. For cardio I love the bodycombat class at Goodlife. It is addictive and so good for the mind not just the body. I am fairly active with walking, golf etc. I can only get to the gym 3 – 4 times a week. Should I be doing two bodycombat classes and two weight lifting? I use the weight machines and it gets so boring. Do you have any past posts suggesting some weight lifting with free weights? By the way I am 47 and am at a good weight. I have the food part (probably the most important part!) under control. Thanks! Love your site!

    1. Hey Angie – thanks for your comment/question. Since Bodycombat is primarily cardio work, I would highly recommend at least two weight training sessions a week. I hear you on machine work getting boring – we’ve created tons of strength workouts that will hopefully keep you more engaged.

      First, I’d suggest checking out the MetCon Challenge workout. Also, take a look on the blog for The Superset Complex Workout. Both of these are great options to help you pack on lean muscle mass.

      Alternatively, you could check out our OnDemand library of strength classes found on our main site ( These are essentially like an exercise DVD or group fitness class – you follow along with the instructor leading the class on your screen. Many of our users have found keeping pace with the instructor provides a great workout and is a more fun way to workout.

      Congrats on getting the food part in check – you’re right that IS the most important part.

      So glad we’ve been able to help you – hope to see you around here for years to come! If you need any more advice, please don’t hesitate to reach back out to us; we’re always here for you!


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