How To Increase Muscle Tone

Four people perform thruster exercise with barbells in a gym
Thrusters are one of Jamie Lloyd's recommended exercises for improving muscle tone (Image credit: svetikd / Getty Images)

What do you hope to achieve when you step into the gym? Is it losing weight, or building stronger and larger muscles? Or are you shooting for a combination of the two? Doing this – aka “getting lean” or “toning up” – has become one of the most common fitness goals, with hordes now hitting the gym to strip away body fat and reveal a set of impressive, well-defined muscles to the world.

Toning up is certainly not a bad goal to have, and personal trainer Jamie Lloyd has found it to be an increasingly standard target among new clients. It is also, however, quite a vague idea. Compared with, say, losing 5kg, a general goal of becoming more toned lacks, somewhat ironically, definition. So before we get into Lloyd’s advice on how to tone up, we asked him for his take on exactly what that means.

“When people come to me and say that they want to tone up, what they usually mean is that they want to lower their body fat percentage and get lean muscle,” says Lloyd.

“Basically, they want to lose the lard and add some muscle mass and definition – but not so much muscle that they look like a gladiator on steroids.”

“Toning up is a term used to describe the results from a combination of basic weightlifting and fat-burning workouts, where the end goal is that your muscles look more defined.”

Perhaps the easiest way to think of toning up is in contrast to bulking up, which is also a fairly vague term but one that’s easier to grasp.

“Again, there are no rules to bulking up, but it usually means adding a lot of muscle tissue to the body, bringing to mind strongmen and bodybuilders pumping iron,” says Lloyd.

How To Tone Up

People who are looking to tone rather than substantially bulk up their muscles commonly do high amounts of reps with lighter weights to achieve their goal. However, avoiding heavy weights could be counterproductive.

“While there is some truth to the idea that lifting lighter weights for more reps does a better job of increasing the muscular endurance, lighter weights will not help you tone better than heavy weights,” says Lloyd.

“Lifting heavier weights build the strength of your muscles – and yes, the size to a small degree – thereby helping to increase your metabolism and burn fat. Adding a little bit more muscle to your body and decreasing your fat makes you look leaner, not bigger. So lifting heavier weights with fewer reps (eight to 12 on average) and working until you're fatigued is more effective at toning muscles than lifting lighter weights. Not to mention that it’s more efficient, too.”

If you really do fear that lifting heavy weights will result in muscles that are too big, first of all you should be so lucky, but secondly you might be underestimating the level of commitment bulking up requires.

“To really bulk up, you have to put the work in. Bodybuilders spend hours and hours in the gym lifting extremely heavy weights, along with eating a very strict diet that promotes muscle gain.”

Of course, that’s not to say that toning up is easy.

“If you want to lose weight and get lean you should have a strength training plan in place that works every major muscle in the body eight to 12 times per set, using a weight that is heavy enough that the last two repetitions are very tough,” says Lloyd.

“Exercise like deadliftssquats, snatchespull-upsburpees and thrusters are good. You can add in some whole-body conditioning with wall balls, prowler sleds, Ski-erg and kettlebell swings.”

Five Workouts To Help You Tone Up

1. Gym Workout To Tone Up

We have no shortage of workouts you can tackle in the gym if your aim is to get lean. In fact, we even have a full four-week training plan designed to help you achieve just that.

See the gym workout to get big and lean

2. Bodyweight Workout To Tone Up

Joe Wicks is one of the best-known proponents of using bodyweight training to tone up, so check out this four-week training plan from the man himself that contains a variety of excellent HIIT bodyweight blasts.

See the Joe Wicks fat loss workout

3. Dumbbell Workout To Tone Up

Grab a pair of dumbbells and brace yourself – this quick-but-brutal workout from the F45 gym in Kingston burns boatloads of calories and works muscles all over the body.

See the F45 dumbbell complex workout

4. Resistance Band Workout To Tone Up

In just 20 minutes this fast-paced resistance workout challenges your entire body and ramps up your heart rate so you burn more calories.

See the resistance band workout

5. Kettlebell Workout To Tone Up

Kettlebells are ideal for HIIT workouts, because many of the best kettlebell exercises are dynamic which means they improve your strength and get your heart pumping simultaneously. This 20-minute kettlebell workout is a great example of a fast-paced strength workout that is sure to put you on the path to a leaner physique.

See the full-body kettlebell workout

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.