The Difference Between Gaining Muscle, Losing Fat, and Toning

Bigger muscles.  Less fat.  Leaner, buffer, bulkier, trimmer, more toned.  Every aesthetic goal out there comes down to managing levels of muscle mass and body fat.  They often go together, although that relationship isn’t exact.  It’s correlation, not causation.  Today let’s consider how they interact.


We often see big differences between training programs based on goals.  We’ll see sprint intervals, low carbs or calories, and minimal rest for fat loss.  We’ll see slow sets, big surpluses, and long rests for muscle gain.  Pop open the latest fitness magazine, and you’d be led to believe that every goal has a highly specific strategy for attaining results.  You’re not being lied to, but…

Success isn’t about variation; it’s about consistency.

The best fat loss programs and the best muscle-gain programs are 80-90% similar than they are different.  A “toning” program varies from muscle-gain more in terms of calories than anything else.

When we train, we move well first, then we get stronger.  This happens most readily with big, simple movements.  Compound exercises use multiple joints and a whole lot of muscle, providing the greatest stimulus for results.

Selecting exercises or equipment is simple: Use a barbell for squats, bench press, deadlifts, and overhead presses.  Do push-ups, pull-ups, and chin-ups.  Row and press your dumbbells.  Swing, snatch, and clean your kettlebells.  Employ a variety of single-leg or single-arm exercises to involve the core.


The necessity of the human body to push, pull, hinge, squat, carry, and crawl does not change based on our specific goals.  Every program should include variations of these foundational movements.  If it doesn’t include those moves, question it.  What is it missing, and why is it missing these movements?  They’re essential for building muscle, burning fat, and any combo of the two.

Diets are Dead.

Once we’ve accounted for our movements, let’s account for our food.  We all eat it, and in the food that we eat, we’re searching for wholesome, nutritious food that fuels our body and supports our goals. It’s often easy to find this by following an arbitrary elimination-style diet, like Paleo, Whole30, or Vegan, while for others it’s easier to track calories and tally up our protein, carbs, and fat.

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If it’s working for you, do it.  If it’s not, then do something else.  The majority of diets have more in common than you’d think; we’re eliminating excess calories either by counting them, or by assuming that certain food groups offer us more than we actually need.  The number of calories or quantity of food that we’re eating can have the biggest impact on what our exercise program actually does.  Why?

Well, you’re squatting, benching, rowing, and lunging.  You’re slowly adding more weight or reps over time.  You’re nailing it.  In a caloric deficit, this program should remind your body to maintain or increase muscle mass while burning fat.  In a caloric surplus, this program should remind your body to build muscle mass while minimizing fat gain.  Resistance training serves the purpose as the muscle building, fat burning messenger… but the amount of calories you’re taking in make all of the difference.

What the hell is toned?

“Toned” doesn’t mean anything. It has absolutely no definition in the exercise physiology literature.  It does however have a big social connotation and while arbitrary, many would agree that being “toned” is the presence of muscle mass and the absence of body fat.  The degree of each is extremely subjective and in the eye of the beholder.


While “toning” isn’t scientific, it holds a special place in our society.  Fitness magazines offer toning workouts.  Celebrities are noted for their “new” bodies.  We secretly search, “How can I tone my ___” when our friends aren’t looking.Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 6.22.10 PM

For many of us, “toned” is where we sit at our most comfortable or confident.  It’s the amount of muscle we want, along with the amount of fat we want. More muscle, less muscle.  More fat, less fat.  It’s absolutely a case of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which makes it so damn difficult to discuss or agree on.

You don’t have to agree.

Perhaps you have a perfect picture in your head of what it means to be “toned.”  Or jacked, ripped, shredded, huge, hyooge, slim, lean, or trim.”  Perhaps try on a different definition.  I imagine that the person who’s exercising next to you can have a wildly different definition, and that’s okay.  How we feel is drastically different, and yet…

We move well.  We get stronger.  We eat to support our physical activity and our physique goals.  This holds true for all of us, and far often than not we see results from the exact same things.

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