Weight Loss: “Toning” versus “Strengthening”

When someone asks me about losing weight, there are usually two main approaches I discuss with them. I refer to the first as “Toning” and the second as “Strengthening.” Many things factor into deciding which method to use, and sometimes they overlap. I am going to describe how they are similar and how they are different, and what type of client is suited to each approach.

Toning

When people talk about “toning,” they usually mean losing fat and gaining visible muscle tone in a relatively short amount of time; say, three to six months. This is a perfectly reasonable goal to have, but it requires something special on the part of the client. It cannot be achieved haphazardly, passively, or by accident.

This is because toning requires a higher level of caloric burn than strengthening does. The process of losing fat in a rapid way is only achievable if the client follows a strict regimen of exercise and diet. If one of these elements falls behind, the results can be unsatisfactory.

Put differently, more changes in the person’s life are required to successfully “tone.”

Toning is also harder because it is harder to maintain. Once the goal has been approached or even reached, the diet and exercise regimen does not stop. It must continue in some form or the results will go away completely. There is no way around this.

Let’s say your goal is having visible abdominal muscles. You’ve been sticking to your meal plan and watching every calorie for three straight months, and doing your cardio homework three to five days per week. On top of that, you’ve eliminated alcohol from your diet (yes, this is necessary for toning), respected your cheat meal parameters, abstained from the donuts and cakes that show up in your office on a regular basis, et cetera. And one day, you notice something in the mirror that could be referred to as the beginnings of a “sixpack.” You smile big, and feel amazing.

Now that you’ve reached your goal, that doesn’t mean you’re “done.” You can’t stop watching what you eat. You can’t stop exercising. You can’t start going to the bar every night after work and drinking nine Miller Lights. I mean, you could, but everything you’d worked so hard for would disappear in a much shorter time than it took to achieve. I’m sorry but this is the truth.

Despite what “fitspo” memes would have you believe, dieting and toning is not like climbing a mountain, where you reach the top and then go back down. Instead, you must stay either stay at the top or go higher. This is why many people have so much trouble with “weight loss.” Doing it this way—the “toning” way—literally requires you to change almost your entire life. Understandably, it is too much for some people.

But I’ll tell you one thing: it works. Cutting calories, improving food quality, getting better sleep, reducing life stress, increasing daily exercise, keeping bad and self-destructive habits at a minimum or gone altogether…in other words, reorienting the majority of your life around fitness and nutrition totally works. How could it not?!

The truth is that you don’t have the body composition you have now because of one or even two or three bad decisions. You have it because of an entire lifestyle. This doesn’t make you a bad person. Our lives are unbelievably complex and full of obligations, stress, and uncertainty. But if changing your body composition is important to you, you must change your lifestyle, no matter what approach you use. That, again, is the honest truth.

Toning is one way to do this. It is best for people who are already active and comfortable with exercise (therefore requiring less overall life alteration), and who are disciplined in that they more or less stick to a course of action once they have committed to it. Toning is a hard way, an effective way, but not the only way.

Strengthening

Now I’ll discuss strengthening. By “strengthening,” of course I’m referring to strengthening the muscles themselves, but in addition to that, I’m using the word to mean strengthening the mind of the exerciser.

Why strengthen the mind? The amount of people who are willing to do everything I describe above is very small. That’s partly because “toning” requires a level of effort and focus that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. If you’ve a) never exercised before, b) haven’t exercised in a long time, c) are uncomfortable with strenuous activity, d) deal with chronic pain, including psychological pain, or e) would describe yourself as lacking self-control or discipline, you’re in no position to vastly alter your way of being, not because you couldn’t handle it (it’s amazing what the human body can handle) but because you couldn’t stick to it.

One main challenge that some people have with accepting this reality is the moral judgment they attach to it. They feel that because they can’t or won’t completely alter their daily lives and live like the beautiful, fit people on Instagram ostensibly do, that means they’re “bad,” “weak,” “worthless,” or worse.

Unfortunately, this is the standard to which many people hold themselves: comparing themselves to fitness models who are often 10 to 20 years younger, who were probably engaged in exercise from a younger age, who may very well have fewer external obligations like jobs, houses, families, car payments, et cetera, and who essentially work in the (often harshly critical) fitness industry, which can be, needless to say, a strong motivator.

This is why strengthening the mind is so important. Many people lack what I call a “physical identity.” There is no context involving physical activity in which such people feel “like themselves.” Exercise is always a foreign activity, unwelcome, odd, an imposition. And by definition, uncomfortable. Dieting often comes to be viewed the same way. Hence, they have virtually no chance of ever becoming “toned” as I describe above, meaningfully, safely, and sustainably. They have no “way in.”

This is where strengthening the muscles comes in. The term “strength training” refers to the organized and structured process of increasing the amount of weight you can lift in a given exercise.

“But Coach Mark,” you might ask, “how do I lose weight by increasing strength?” Well, I should come clean. You may not lose a ton of weight through strengthening alone. But you will lose fat.

Increasing the size of a muscle by exercising it increases what’s called your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. This term refers to the number of calories your body burns simply by existing. In burning the calories, your body is maintaining its tissues.

Muscle burns many, many more calories in this way than fat. Therefore, if you increase your body’s “lean mass,” which is a fancy term for muscle, it will burn more calories, which will in turn lead to the loss of body fat.

In addition to this, you will have better, safer movements, healthier joints, a stronger back, better posture, more useful strength for daily activities, higher bone density, and greater self-reliance as you age. And if that wasn’t enough, any fat loss you do accomplish will be more evident because of the presence of toned muscle underneath it. These are some of the many benefits of regular strength training.

So, if you engage in this organized and structured process, and each week, you increase the amount of weight you lift even a just a little bit, over time, your muscles will grow bigger and stronger, your BMR will increase, and you will have a healthier, more “toned” body composition. Simple, right?

Well, you can’t outrun a bad diet. If your diet stays the same, there’s a good chance that, although you will feel stronger, more “solid,” and more robust, you will look more or less the same, at least most of the time.

But one of the beauties of strength training is that it helps people develop a positive relationship to exercise. It does this by teaching them useful skills, specifically the squat, the deadlift, the overhead press, and the bench press, among others. It motivates them through the prospect of OBJECTIVE weekly progress: if you lifted more weight, you improved. Simple.

These skills and motivation start to form a competency that can produce a level of comfort with physical exertion that was never there before. In other words, strength training helps them develop a physical identity.

Based on this newly developed physical identity, it can become easier to implement dietary changes. You have seen the results of your exercise in the form of strength gains and you want to maintain them, so this motivates you to change your behavior, even just a little bit: drink more water, go to sleep a little earlier, eat a little less junk food and a little more lean protein or leafy greens, drink a little less alcohol, take your multivitamin, et cetera.

From there, you might want to add some extra cardio work during the week to keep your “work capacity” (which governs your energy levels during a workout) a little higher, or a designated stretch interval during the day to keep your knees and back and hips and shoulders healthy so that you can keep lifting each week without any obstacles.

You might never quite make the jump towards an “active lifestyle,” but you will be objectively healthier, stronger, more aware, more empowered, and more capable of making that decision with an informed mind, specifically regarding whether it’s something YOU actually want or need, and not that person on Instagram with two million followers.

So who is suited to “strengthening” in this way? Everybody! Whether you’re the “get up and go, can’t sit still” type, or you like to chill on the couch with a book to unwind, whether you’re young or old, tall or short, happy or unhappy, injured or sound, strength training is achievable by virtually anyone.

There are so many wonderful lessons that are learned from strengthening your muscles in this way that I will save them for another article. Suffice it to say that even if squatting your bodyweight is not your goal, you will begin to see your body and yourself as the amazing and powerful things that they really are, capable of doing whatever you put your mind to, and the goals that you do have will become that much more achievable.

A Final Note on Female Strength Training

A lot of female exercisers worry about becoming too muscular. I’m going to put your minds at ease in two ways. The first is biological: with very, very few exceptions, women simply do not naturally possess adequate testosterone to ever become “bulky” with muscle.

The second point is a general rule: no one ever got bulky by accident. Doing three sets of five repetitions of squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses two times per week (or some variation of that) is not going to change you into a She-Hulk overnight, overmonth, or even overyear. Getting big, blocky-looking muscles is achieved using many more exercises than just squats and deadlifts and with a much higher amount of sets and reps, often utilizing fairly extreme dieting methods on top of that.

If a woman, including you, wants to look “jacked,” that is totally fine. In fact, it’s awesome. But strength training alone generally won’t accomplish it. So rest easy. You can have stronger, more toned legs, better hip and back health, higher metabolism, and more useful upper body strength without having to look like a “bodybuilder.” At least, not until you want to. :)))

And if you don’t believe me, check out this 19-year-old world-class female powerlifter. Strong, solid, but not exactly a she-hulk is she?