Strength training for toning

Strength training Strength training for toningis an excellent way for both men and women to improve their figure and lose fat in unwanted places. However strength training is unfortunately not the first thing that comes to mind when someone wants to lose fat and improve their figure. Although men aren’t shy of strength training and lifting weights to look better, women are often scared of it, because they fear the body builder look. So sometimes they start special training programmes in which they perform strength training for toning rather than muscle growth. Does this work and if so, what do you need to do?

In another article (Strength training makes women large and bulky) I already covered whether strength training will make women look like muscular men, (Hint it doesn’t) so I will not go into that in this article. However, when women do want to improve their figure and look a bit athletic, or in other words achieve a toned look they are often advised to perform lower intensity strength training using many repetitions.

Classically, strength training intensities can be classified into 4 groups. Strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance and power. And coupled to these strength training intensities is a repetition range. This is the number of repetitions you should be able to perform with the weight you have chosen for that particular exercise.

Training goals repetition continuum


People wanting to ‘tone’ their body, are often advised to stay away from the strength and hypertrophy intensities (power is a different story altogether) and to focus on longer sets of 15, 20 or even 30 repetitions. As can be seen from the table above, this falls well into the muscular endurance section. So the strength training for toning intensity will help to improve the endurance of your muscles. But will it help in improving your figure? Is it the most effective way to tone your body?

Well of course it does help to improve your figure. Especially when you are untrained and start training. Training burns energy and untrained muscles that start to work harder than they are used to will adapt. However since the training stimulus is not that strong. Training adaptations will be rather limited once you get stronger and your muscles get used to this training. Which they will quite rapidly. In addition, because the sets are quite long, it is very difficult to increase training weights, because every increase in weight has to be moved 15-30 or more times.

Compare this to the 6-12 repetitions you do when training for muscle growth (hypertrophy for the initiated), The training stimulus is much stronger and the muscles will have to adapt much more quickly. In addition it is easier to increase training weights because every increase will only be moved 6-12 times. Furthermore, the higher training intensity, also leads to better and faster training results because more muscle fibers are active (and trained) during each set. All these extra active muscle fibers have to adapt to the training as well, leading to increased energy requirements, faster weight and fat loss and quicker muscle growth/toning effect. So training at higher intensities will lead to quicker training results, especially if you are already doing strength training for some time.

Aside from that, the term toning is quite questionable in itself. Muscles can adapt in multiple ways. They can adapt to deliver force more rapidly (power training) they can improve their force (strength and hypertrophy) and they can increase their endurance, mostly by improving  their internal metabolism. The last occurs when training at lower intensities for longer sets. No structural improvements are necessary (muscle growth to cope with the increased weights or training loads) but metabolic adaptations to supply energy for longer periods. These adaptations don’t lead to changes in the look of the muscle. It will not grow larger, it will not change shape, just the internals will improve (mitochondria, anaerobic and aerobic enzymes etc.)

The only advantage of longer sets that are used for toning is that you can use quite a bit of energy during the training which helps in losing fat. However, since higher intensity strength training increases energy demands after finishing your workout more effectively, this advantage is partly negated.

So in order to look more athletic, it is best to use the higher strength training intensities which will lead to quicker and better results. Strength training for toning, can help beginners, but almost everyone will be better off by training harder. And those that are still afraid to look like a bodybuilder can keep in mind that before you look like that, you will already have reached your goal of looking toned. If you don’t increase training frequency or weights beyond those you needed to achieve your goal, your muscles will stop growing and you will maintain your toned look.


I generally advice to start out with weights that allow for around 12 repetitions per set and 2 to 3 sets per exercise. After around four weeks of training you can steadily lower the amount of repetitions to 8-10 and increase the training weights so you keep challenging your muscles.In addition it is very effective to add high intensity interval training at the end of your strength workout to improve fat loss.

See also:

-Interval Training

-Cardio training for weight loss

-Tabata training


-Baechle, T.R., Earle, W.R. (2008). Resistance Training. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. USA. Human Kinetics.