Toning is an often misunderstood concept. Most people know what toning is but get confused when trying to achieve it. Toning is simply increasing muscle definition by burning fat. Exercise and diet play an important role and ignoring either will delay any results.
Body Fat Percentage
The amount of muscle definition is directly linked to body fat percentage which is linked to your calorie intake. When you eat more calories than you burn, your body stores them as fat and your weight and body fat percentage will increase. This will obscure any muscle definition you had because fat is stored on top of the muscles.
If you eat less calories than you burn, your body will use its fat stores for energy and your weight along with body fat percentage will decrease. Once your body fat starts to go down, your muscles will appear more defined because they are no longer covered by as much fat.
The formula for getting a more toned appearance is cutting down on your calorie intake and increasing your exercise level. That will create a calorie deficit and force your body to use fat stores for energy which over time will cause a reduction in your body fat percentage.
There are two main types of exercise that will help you achieve a more toned look: cardiovascular and strength training. Cardiovascular exercise is anything that gets your heart beating fast and continuously over a long period of time. Cardio burns plenty of calories which will help you create a large calorie deficit. You should do cardio 3-5 times per week at 30-60 minutes per session. The more weight you need to lose, the more cardio you should be doing.
Though strength training is often ignored by those who are trying to tone, it has some real benefits. Strength training (aka weight lifting) builds muscle which can help you burn more calories throughout the day.
Muscle tissue burns calories when it isn't even doing any work. You can be sitting on your sofa, watching TV and your muscle tissue will burn energy. The more muscle you have, the more energy your body will burn all day long.
When you increase your muscle mass, you also increase your body's energy requirements which makes your calorie deficit bigger and will help you shed body fat quicker. Strength training should be done 2-3 times per week at a minimum.
Concentrate on compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, bent over rows and pull ups. These will burn more calories because they target larger muscles and a greater number of them than isolation exercises such as bicep curls or sit ups which will help you increase your calorie deficit.
Exercise will yield only minimum results if it isn't coupled with a good diet. Even a long cardio session won't burn enough energy to allow you to enter a calorie deficient state. To do that, you also need to cut your calorie intake.
Your calorie intake is the main part of your diet that will help you get toned. You can gradually lower it by cutting out junk foods that are high in sugar and refined flour such as pastries, cookies, chips and sodas.
The types of food you eat can also have a big impact on how toned you look. Foods that are digested quickly leave you hungry and going back for more way too soon. If you drink a 300 calorie soda, you'll be a lot hungrier within the hour than if you had eaten a 300 calorie whole wheat bagel. Foods that are made from sugar and white flour get digested very quickly.
Foods that are high in fiber and complex carbs are digested a lot slower which will help keep you full and therefore reduce your daily calorie intake. Good examples of these foods include 100% whole wheat bread/pasta, brown rice, vegetables, fruit and oatmeal. Foods high in lean proteins can also help keep you full (poultry, tuna, low fat dairy).
You should be consuming 500-1,000 calories less than you burn everyday to see results. You can get an estimate of how much your body burns daily by using a tool such as the calorie calculator.
One sure way not to get toned is by attempting to focus on your problem areas. When your body stores fat, it chooses the location and there's nothing you can do to change that. The same thing happens in reverse when your body is burning fat for energy; it chooses where the fat comes from and there's no way you can direct your body to burn fat from your thighs or your stomach.
If you're doing sit ups in an attempt to improve your midsection, you're wasting time. Sit ups and other exercises that target the abdominal muscles are good for strengthening that area of the body, but they aren't good for burning calories.
The same rule applies to tricep extensions for getting rid of fat on the arms or a butt blaster for getting rid of fat on your legs. Exercises that target certain areas of the body will build that muscle up but won't burn the fat that's sitting on top of it. Strength training is important but it shouldn't replace calorie burning exercises such as running, biking or swimming.
The Bottom Line - No Shortcuts
There are no shortcuts to getting a toned and defined body. Pills, creams and off the wall diets are all a waste of your time and can be detrimental to your health. By taking your diet and exercise routine seriously, you'll get healthy and long lasting results.