Toning Muscle - Is it Possible?

Women. What about women? If I were to survey women and men on the concept of toning, I would bet money that women are more interested in toning than men and that is why the topic of toning, although basic, is a high traffic topic across the fitness population. Women and men talk about toning in terms of repetitions, resistance, the differences between toning and bulking; in this article, however, we will put the concept of toning to the test by providing a scientific basis for if toning is real or not, and understanding why.

What is Toning?

Toning is typically attributed to a “slimming” of the muscles or a slimming of a particular body part like the arms. There is a more scientific understanding of the term “tone”, but that is irrelevant to this article, so we will simply ignore it. We are concerned with the process of exercising a particular way to get a slimming effect on the musculature to avoid a characterized “manliness” in muscle size.

Is toning a physiological reality?

Now, in terms of toning as it is described – does it occur in the body? Is there a set behavior we can enact on muscle that will lead to a slimming of the muscle?

The answer is no – straight and simple!

Toning is a concept, but that concept, in physiological terms, is a dichotomy between two body tissues – muscle and adipose tissue (fat). Muscle can be gained, maintained, or lost – the same is true of fat. So, toning is a visual appearance based on a set point of each; typically, it shows in a low enough body fat with a high enough muscular growth. So, to put this in basic science terms:

1. Muscle should grow by thickening of the muscle fibers that make up the muscle belly [1].  
2. Fat should be lost, decreasing the fat cell size [2][3].

These two concepts are true for men and women alike – there are zero exceptions.

We can make this a reality by progressively overloading the muscle, requiring it to adapt and thicken its fibers and this is done by some form of resistance training at a high enough stimulus to elicit growth (heavy strength training, for example). This will create thickness in the arm (or whatever body part you are trying to “tone”), so the arm will look bigger than normal, and this might make a person think they are getting “bulky”, but that is because they fail to realize the other side of the situation – fat loss.

If muscle is built, then to visualize that growth in a sleek, strong arm we need to lose layers of subcutaneous fat (fat directly under the skin, but above the muscle). To lose fat, we need to be in a consistent caloric deficit as this will shrink fat cell size. Then, a combination of these two actions lead to a “toning” of the muscle, but this is also true for growing larger muscles like bodybuilders – the difference is in the degree of attention we dedicate to these activities. So, more accurately stated, we can look at “toning” as the same thing as growing muscle and losing fat for any human being, simply on a smaller scale.



To recap – there is no exercise, repetition range, or specific food that will give you “toned” anything. You simply have to do the exact same thing anyone else would do, man or woman, to grow muscle and lose fat, but tone it back (pun intended!) by doing less of it. For example, if a professional bodybuilder does 5 sets of 5 on an exercise, then simply do 2-3 sets of 5 on that exercise (at your relative intensity). Eventually, you will get to a point that you are satisfied and you will simply maintain it by doing a similar work load day in and day out.

It is that simple.

Writer: Nicolas Verhoeven

[1] Pearson, A. M. (1990). Muscle growth and exercise. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 29(3), 167-196. Retrieved from

[2] Tchoukalova, Y. D. (2008). Subcutaneous adipocyte size and body fat distribution. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(1), 56-63. Retrieved from

[3] Andersson, D. P., Eriksson Hogling, D., Thorell, A., Toft, E., Qvisth, V., Näslund, E., … Arner, P. (2014). Changes in Subcutaneous Fat Cell Volume and Insulin Sensitivity After Weight Loss. Diabetes Care, 37(7), 1831-1836. doi:10.2337/dc13-2395

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