Toning, Fat Loss & Building Lean Muscle

There is a big misconception in the fitness industry at the moment when it comes to “toning”. I receive a lot of questions from girls wanting to lose fat and tone up, but they don’t want to get bulky and build muscle – this always confuses me since it’s difficult to have one without the other. First things first; toning is a combination of losing fat and building lean muscle to improve your muscle definition. However, you also need to realise that fat and muscle have another secret relationship. Building lean muscle helps you to burn fat as muscle is more metabolically active – this means, the more lean muscle you build, the more fat you’re going to burn! So, now that we’ve united fat loss, toning and building lean muscle, let’s look at how we go about it.

Traditional Approach To Toning

When it comes to losing weight or “toning”, most people mistakenly believe that cardio is the answer. Fasted cardio, early morning cardio, getting in the fat-burning zone – these are all standard fat loss prescriptions. However, if you are serious about losing fat, you will find you get better results by doing less cardio and focusing more on strength training. However, for strength training to burn fat as fast as possible, you’ll need to adopt a specific form of workout; the traditional three sets of ten reps will not get you the results you’re after.

Why Is Cardio Not The Answer?

Cardio does burn calories and does burn fat but, unfortunately, it doesn’t burn a lot of either. Fat is very calorie-dense and your body can go a very long way on very little fuel – especially when that fuel is fat. One kilogram of fat is worth around 7,700 calories which will provide enough energy to run approximately 120 kilometres. Not great numbers for fat loss.  

Also, cardio can cause your body to try and preserve fat, which your body views as a precious resource, by using muscle for fuel instead. This means that while all that cardio will help you lose a little weight, your fat to muscle ratio could remain unchanged and, as a result, you just end up skinny-fat instead of improving muscle tone.

Cardio CAN be beneficial for fat loss but doing more than around three hours per week is not an efficient use of your time and could cost you some of your hard-trained muscle. Luckily, there are some great alternatives you can use to burn fat while preserving or even building muscle. Here are 3 of my favourites which are included in your plans:

Circuit Strength Training

Circuit training involves performing a series of six or more strength training exercises back-to-back in such a way that you elevate your heart and breathing rate without doing any specific cardio exercises. Because of the “use it or lose it” exercise principle, this will preserve your muscle while burning calories. To maximize the demands on your muscular system, use moderate to heavy weights and focus on compound and multi-joint exercises.


Supersets are like mini-circuits within your main training program. Supersets involve performing two exercises back to back without resting until you’ve completed the second exercise. This training method increases the intensity and density of your workout so you also complete it faster. It also has the added value of working agonist and antagonist muscles alternately, so your ability to lift in either exercise won’t be compromised. Working harder and doing more work means you use more energy – calories, that is. You can use as many supersets per workout as you like depending on your level of fitness and willingness to tolerate the burn.


High intensity interval training (HIIT) is where you go all-out for a short period, followed by a slow moving period, all-out again, slow moving, etc. High intensity interval training has a greater capacity to increase muscle tone and burn fat when compared to lower intensity cardio as it increases the amount of stress put on both your muscles and your cardiovascular system. Doing this at the end of your workout will push you to your limits and beyond, which is what it takes to really burn fat and build lean muscle.


Lift Heavy

This is my favourite part, and the reason I’ve managed to get such great results in my own transformation. Doing high reps with light weights to improve muscle tone is a myth – you need a combination of lifting heavy weights for low reps (eg. 5×5) along with moderate weights and reps in the hypertrophy range (eg. 6-12). You can occasionally throw in a light weight HIIT finisher like kettlebell swings, but this needs to be after a tough workout or it won’t do much.

Any time you train, you’re providing a stimulus to your muscles and bones to get stronger, denser, and grow. Therefore, the heavier you lift, the larger the stimulus to change. Why? Long story short, your body recruits more muscle units (small bundles within your muscles) to lift the weight when it’s heavier. As you get closer to lifting your 1RM (a weight you could only lift once), there is more neural activation and muscle recruitment to increase tension and strength in your lift – so, lifting heavier means you’re using more muscle and stressing your body more, which means better results!