When it comes to setting fitness goals, a common one is the desire to tone up. Achieving a lean and taught physique is the reason lots of people exercise. We’ve all got areas of our body we’d rather weren’t there. And it’s easy to see exercise as a way to get rid of them. (Although exercise offers so much more than that).

But what actually is toning up? It’s not really a recognised fitness goal and is a little bit too broad to offer any specific workout routine or training programme.

Let’s get to where we actually want to be by understanding what toning up really means for the body and the exercises that can help us do it.


What does toning up mean?


When you picture it, a toned body probably looks pretty lean and has muscles that are defined. Overall size might be irrelevant, it’s more about the firmness of a physique.

The first thing to note is that being ‘toned’ isn’t directly related to fitness levels. We’ve put it in quotations here for just that reason. It’s really just an appearance that’s an aspiration to some people. And that’s okay. It’s up to you to decide whether your motivation to exercise is fitness driven, appearance driven, or neither. Do what matters to you.

If you are looking to achieve a more ‘toned’ appearance, your overall muscle mass percentage must increase. There are actually two ways to go about this:

1. Increase muscle mass

2. Decrease body fat

So, in real terms, toning up is about either losing body fat or increasing muscle mass. Maybe both in equal measures. It depends on your starting point.

When you increase the amount of muscle in your body, it will become visible. But only if you have an amount of body fat that allows it to. You can have an extremely high volume of muscle mass, but if it’s hidden by a high volume of fat, you won’t be able to see its definition. That’s why toning up is about increasing the percentage of muscle mass relative to body fat.


How does the body lose fat?


The body loses weight by being in a calorie deficit. That means you burn more calories than you consume. It’s a simple science. If more goes out than comes in, your body will use its stored reserves of fat to convert into energy for use.

It doesn’t matter what you eat, when you eat it, how much you exercise, or what you do. When it boils down to purely weight loss, a calorie deficit is the only way to go. It must also be maintained for a prolonged period to have any significant impact on overall body weight.

For these reasons, weight loss isn’t a clear sign of health. Losing weight doesn’t depend on a nutritious diet or high fitness level, and these two markers are much more critical when it comes to a healthy body than just one that weighs less.


How does the body increase muscle mass?


Muscle mass is developed by exercise-induced damage and repair. Resistance training must be done to increase muscle, as cardiovascular exercises don’t recruit muscle fibres enough to stimulate any changes.

When you do exercises that require the muscles to contract and produce force, it leads to improvements and adaptations in your ability to do this. Notably, this includes increases in muscle mass.

There are many types of training that you can do, and types of muscle fibres developed as a result.

Lifting extremely heavy weights for few reps and sets to develop strength. Doing this and eating significant amounts of protein and probably calories is a tactic to ‘bulk up’ and see substantial increases in muscle mass and overall body weight. That’s not for everyone.

Lifting lighter weights for full body and compound exercises, and doing more reps and sets, with little rest in between, can help develop muscular endurance and more discrete growth in muscle mass. This can be done alongside fat loss efforts to get a more ‘toned’ physique.


Do you need to do both?


Including resistance training in your routine is key to increasing your muscle mass percentage. Reducing the amount of body fat you have in tangent is also helpful.

A reduction in body fat isn’t necessary, but if you have large amounts of it, it helps make your muscles more defined than muscle growth alone.

Remember, we all have abs. But to reveal them, you need to have an extremely low layer of body fat surrounding them. For example, you could have the world’s most muscular stomach, but if you have more than 10% body fat, they won’t be visible in that six-pack style. However, this is just to demonstrate the role body fat plays in muscle definition. We’re not suggesting you need to strive for abs. It’s not a marker of elite fitness and can even be detrimental to your health, especially females.


The best workouts for toning up


If you are looking to shift your muscle vs fat percentages, there are some key features your workout should have to help you achieve that:


Interval training

Interval training involves structured periods of work and rest. You’ll do various exercises for short but intense periods, then rest and recover before repeating again.

Interval workouts are usually structured using key compound exercises sewn together in a routine that targets the major muscle groups in the body. They can be upper body workouts, lower body workouts, or full-body workouts.

The work periods can range between 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on the exercise’s intensity. You’ll lift relatively light weights for many reps, helping to develop the endurance of the muscles being worked.

Interval training is sometimes labelled high-intensity interval training or HIIT. The difference is that this type of workout is much more intense. The work periods will be much shorter and the rest times longer as you’ll be asking much more of the body during these times. Because these exercises’ energy expenditure is so high, it’s recommended to do this type of training no more than 1-2 times per week.

The benefit of interval workouts is that they condition your muscles and encourage growth, but they also get your heart rate up too. The intensity means you’ll burn a fair few calories at the same time — two birds with one stone when it comes to toning up.


Full-body conditioning

Full-body conditioning is a very broad term that can be used to describe many workouts. There’s no set structure or time limit, and it can take many forms.

However, the key feature is that full-body conditioning takes you through a range of different types of fitness and involves all the major muscle groups rather than focusing on only a few.

You can expect to experience strength training, endurance training, mobility training, and flexibility training in a conditioning class. Basically, everything your body might need to develop well-rounded fitness. Not only is this type of training great for improving your muscular ability and encouraging growth, but it also helps to maintain your joint, bone, and muscle health too.

If you don’t have too much time to spend thinking about exercise and doing it in the gym, total body conditioning workouts are the perfect option.


Aerobic workouts

Although aerobic workouts won’t help you build more muscle, they help you reduce the amount of body fat you have. By doing this, by default, your muscle mass percentage goes up. The joys of maths.

Aerobic workouts help to improve your cardiovascular system and burn high amounts of calories. You can also maintain them for a reasonably long time, meaning that energy expenditure increases further.

Aerobic workouts can take many forms. Running, walking, swimming, cycling, and rowing are all different exercises you can do at your leisure. Intensity isn’t as important here, and it’s better to go for something that you enjoy doing often.


The best exercises for toning up


If you’re looking to plan your own workout with the aim of toning up, here are the key exercises to include to stimulate full-body strength and endurance that will be reflected in your physical appearance too.



Combining the squat with the overhead press, this exercise takes two highly effective upper body and lower body compound exercises and sews them together into one intense movement.

Your bum and legs will work to perform the squat, while your arms and shoulders will push that weight overhead. What’s more, is that your core plays an important part too. To bring the weights up, your whole torso will need to brace to stabilise you. In this way, the thruster will take effect on the body in no time.




Push-ups can be difficult if you don’t have lots of upper body strength but are still worth including in your routine. Even if you can’t achieve a full bodyweight push up, there are many alternatives for those who need some additional support.

Wall push-ups, incline push-ups, box push-ups, knee push-ups, and eccentric only push-ups are helpful variations to work your way up to the whole thing.

For those looking for something more advanced, decline push-ups, dumbbell push-ups, wide push-ups, staggered push-ups, and pike push-ups are perfect for your next challenge.

Either way, this core-recruiting, strength-building compound exercise calls for full-body participation and will lead to improved muscle condition in no time.



Everyone’s least favourite exercise, but it’s still on the list.

The benefits of burpees are extensive, which is why it’s earned itself a place in your routine. The reason it’s so hated is because of its intensity. But that’s what makes it so effective too.

The burpee can get your heart rate going whilst also contracting key muscles, meaning your developing aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, endurance, and strength, all at the same time.

The many phases of the movement mean it targets lots of different muscle groups. Moving from a plank, to a push-up, to essentially a squat jump means your whole body gets involved in this intense and explosive exercises.




A plank is an isometric exercise, meaning there’s no movement involved. You just hold the position for as long as possible. It won’t be long before you feel the burn.

By creating a strong straight line from your head to your toes, and contracting every muscle involved, your whole body will benefit from this endurance-boosting exercise. In particular, your core strength will develop and serve to make you stronger in lots of other lifts too.


So, a toned body is the result of muscles that have strength and endurance. This, combined with a lower percentage of body fat, means the definition will be there.

Although it’s okay to have an appearance driven goal, it’s also okay not to have one too. There are plenty more reasons to work out that have nothing to do with what you look like.

Do what matters to you. Move often, and enjoy exercise.