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The Top 3 Mistakes Women Make When Trying To Tone Up

Every summer as Personal Trainers we hear the same phrase over and over again - "I just want to look, slim, trim and above all - toned."

Yet most women make three fundamental mistakes when trying to achieve that toned summer look.

  1. They lift very light weights for a high number of repetitions and fail to progress them over time.

  2. They eat hardly any calories practically starving themselves.

  3. They perform loads of cardio, burning off the little muscle mass they have left.

In the video below I demonstrate the first fundamental mistake that women make - light weights for high reps and how to fix it.

1. Light weights for high reps - what you should do?

Start increasing the weight!

Make sure your programme includes sets and reps in the 8-12 rep range and try to increase the resistance over time (this is known as progressive overload).

This will help to change your body composition as you will start to build muscle mass and thats what that toned look is all about - having some muscle mass!

SO, what is progressive overload anyway? 

The principle of progressive overload dictates that in order to keep pace with adaptations that happen from prior workouts, we need to increase the difficulty of the training stress. To simplify progressive overload is - “doing more over time”.

The simplest way to think about it is:

S - Stimulus 

- Exposure to a stimulus (the workout).

R- Recovery 

- Your body needs to recover before it can adapt. Your eating and sleeping habits and further training sessions will have a big impact on how long it takes to recover.

A- Adaptation 

- In order to achieve the same stress as before the magnitude of the stimulus must be increased. In other words - it has to get harder!

This is known as the SRA CURVE.

So how do you increase the stimulus?

It's NOT just about the weights getting heavier... In fact there are 7 ways to increase the stimulus, heavier weights is just one of them!

  1. Adding load for the same number of reps and sets (volume). 

  2. Adding sets with the same load and reps (volume).

  3. Adding reps with the same load or sets (volume).

  4. Lifting the same load for increased range of motion. 

  5. Decreasing rest time between sets (density).

  6. Lifting more often throughout the week (frequency).

  7. Doing the same work in less amount of time (density).

So you know what rep ranges you want to work in, and you know that you need to apply the law of progressive overload over time but what types of movement should you do?

AND Prioritise Compound Lifts

These movements will help to engage many muscles in one movement and increase overall strength. They will also increase your mobility, burn more calories and help you to achieve more muscle mass. 

What are compound lifts?

Exercises that include using more than one muscle group at a time e.g. squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull ups, lunges etc. 

Compound exercises burn more calories.

Exercises that require more muscle tissue, require more oxygen. The body expends around 5 calories to every 1 litre of oxygen consumed therefore, if the movement requires more muscle tissue the body increases its calorie expenditure!

2. The effects of not eating enough.

Perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to toning up is starving the body of calories. Eight hundred calorie per day celebrity diets have become common place when they are perhaps the worse thing we could be doing to achieve that toned look...


Well "tone" is really - muscle mass in the absence of body fat.

And if we starve the body of calories we enter a state known as catabolism. When we are 'catabolic' for a sustained amount of time we vastly increase the chances that our bodies are going to break down the very muscle mass we're trying to build for energy! That toned athletic look goes out the window and we could end up with an even worse composition than when we started - more body fat and less muscle mass.

So how much should you eat?

Using an online MACROS calculator you will be able to work out what your bodies maintenance calories are i.e the amount of calories required to keep you exactly as you are. If losing body fat is part of your goal setting a target of 500 calories below maintenance is a great place to start. This will give your body enough calories to maintain the muscle mass that you currently have whilst simultaneously allowing you to lose body fat. This will also have the added benefit of keeping your metabolism happy and healthy so there's no sudden weight regain when you when you return to maintenance calories!

We recommend checking out the Precision Nutrition MACROS calculator here.

Prioritise Protein

There are several reasons to prioritise protein on your tone up mission but here are our top three.

  1. Protein is the most satiating (filling) of the macro nutrients, this means that you will be fuller for longer (no more snacking throughout the day).

  2. It is the primary building block of your muscles, we need it to help maintain muscle mass and build new muscle mass.

  3. As we start getting older our muscles actually start to break down! Having more protein in the diet and accompanying that with resistance training will reduce this breakdown massively.

3. Ditch the excessive cardio.

Cardiovascular exercise is an important tool in our toning toolbox but not half as important as many think.

In fact if used in the wrong way excessive amounts of cardio can have the opposite effect on the body, eating muscle mass, slowing the metabolism and draining us of energy.

How to use cardio effectively.

When used effectively cardiovascular exercise can be incredibly effective for our toning mission, helping us to melt body fat, improve aerobic capacity and even build muscle mass.

To take advantage of this incredible tool we recommend prioritising two different methods:

  1. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

  2. Sprinting

HIIT Training simply means working at high intensity for a specific amount of time, say 30 seconds and then resting for 30 seconds.

Working at high intensity for these short bursts not only burns lots of calories in the actual workout but it will continue to burn extra calories as the body recovers over the next 48hrs! Plus the intense nature of the intervals can spur on muscle growth which in turn increase the metabolism.

Sprinting has exactly the same effect on the body as HIIT which is why we recommend it over LISS (low intensity steady state).

Think about the physique of your average 100mtr sprinter compared to a marathon runner and you can very visually see the effects of high intensity on the body!

For optimal results include 2-3 high intensity 20-30 minute cardio sessions in your weekly programme.

In Summary

Don't fall for the common myths when toning up!

  • Lift heavier weights (in the 8-12 rep range).

  • Use compound movements.

  • Eat enough calories to maintain and build muscle mass.

  • Eat a high protein diet.

  • Use HIIT or Sprinting as effective forms of cardio.

Goodluck on your toning mission and if you have any questions feel free to contact us directly at


Equilibrium Studios is a boutique personal training studio offering 1-1 personal training, small group training, nutrition coaching and online training in Petersfield and the surrounding areas Liphook, Liss, Rogate, Midhurst, Hampshire UK.

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