Can you really tone your body with just exercise?

For many, having a toned body is something to strive for. Too much flab is a no-go, especially for an athlete, but so is an overabundance of muscle that can make it harder to move quickly in certain sports that place a greater emphasis on speed and agility than size and strength. However, the internet is full of myths and misinformation about how to get a toned body. In this blog, we shared the top exercises to tone up. Here are some facts on what toning really is and why agility exercises may be your best bet as you work to obtain that toned body you've been looking for. 

What is toning?

Before we get started, you need to discard any preconceived notions you may have about what toning really is. You may have an accurate mental image in your head of what a toned athlete looks like, but the underlying process and reasons behind what it takes to get tones are probably not exactly what you expect. Toning doesn’t come from working the same spot over and over, many reps of light exercises, or even anything to do with weights at all. The simple truth is this: having a toned body doesn't come from how much muscle you have, it comes from how much fat you don’t have.

This may sound crazy -- particularly in the world of fitness, where there's a big emphasis placed on hitting the gym to build muscle and strength -- but the logic is actually pretty simple. Whether your muscles are about ready to burst from your body and take on a life of their own or just firmly worked from a little lifting each week, they already have a distinct shape. Even if you don’t work out a lot, your muscles may already look exactly like you want them to. The problem is that you can’t see their shape clearly and your skin doesn’t contour around them in a way that looks great by modern beauty standards. What you need to do is get rid of that pesky fat that’s distorting your muscles and hiding their true shape.


How exactly does one get rid of that fat and tone their body?

Even though most people don’t know exactly how to tone their muscles, they do know how to get rid of fat. Reducing caloric intake and exercising more are two tried and true methods to cut fat. There are no miracles here. Just hard work, building good habits, and a dash of genetic predispositions.

If you want to get started on toning, then you really need to get rid of fat first. This is because you can’t really figure out how happy you are with the shape of your muscles if you can’t get a good look at them. Run a caloric deficit and continue to work out, then once you’ve burned that fat out of your system, you’ll be able to see the outline of your muscles. From there, you can determine whether a more strenuous workout is necessary to achieve the shape you want.

Is it possible to tone through exercise alone?

In a word, yes. If you work out and burn enough calories to wear down the fat in your body, then you can certainly achieve a toned body without making adjustments to any other part of your life. With enough diligence and determination, you can do it. That being said, it can be faster and easier if you simultaneously eat less and eat better.

Does spot training work at all?

One of the big popular workout techniques that people recommend for toning is spot training. The basic idea is intuitive enough: if you work out a certain muscle repeatedly, that muscle will get more toned. However, if you’ve read this far, then you know why that wouldn’t really work. Working out a muscle makes that muscle bigger, sure, but it does not mean you will see an increase in muscle definition. If the fat is still there, any gains you made will be invisible as far as toning is concerned. In fact, you may be even more dissatisfied than before because it’ll bulk up the muscle without making it appear any more defined. You’ll be stronger, but you might be further from your ideal mental image or the body type you're hoping to achieve to excel in your sport or activity of choice. 

There is another big drawback to spot training to keep in mind as well. If you want to work out exactly one muscle in your body and see no changes anywhere else, you’re going to have a tough time. Most exercises work out multiple muscle groups and can create an uneven appearance if you’re aiming to smooth out a particular part of your physique. Of course, beginners also aren’t always the best at identifying exactly what they need to change in order to reach their ideal appearance, so consulting a trainer is often a good choice to make as you start your toning journey. 


Will lifting weights work?

In the most general sense possible, lifting weights contributes to a toned body. Pumping iron builds muscle, which is important in providing something to show off, and more importantly, the process does burn calories. If you’re working out and reducing body fat, then you are on the path to a toned body.

That being said, lifting weights won’t give you perfect toning in the affected muscle groups for the reasons listed above. Lifting more and more on your bicep curls won’t give you perfectly toned arms if you’re not cutting down on bad foods and/or working on cardio.

So what’s the best way to tone muscles?

The short and sweet answer is agility training. Strength training is great, but it has a number of serious drawbacks if your primary goal is to tone your body. To start with, strength training expends a lot of energy on your part in order to build muscle in a very specific location. Rather, what you want is to work out your entire body and maximize caloric burn. Working out as many different muscle groups as possible means that the workout will be as even as possible. If you want a nice even body without any bulging muscles in any one area, then dexterous training is ideal.

What agility exercises are best?

  • Ladder Drills - An agility ladder is one of the most convenient aids when it comes to toning your body. With this one simple tool, you can do a wide variety of exercises that work out a ton of muscles all at once. Start out simple with knee-high runs straight through or try something a little more involved like alternating between squats and hops. The true value of the agility ladder is how it provides you with a convenient and intuitive pattern to work with. To spice things up, try lateral runs where you hit both feet in each box, two jumps forward and one jump back, alternating squats and hops, or even lateral lunges.


  • Shuttle Runs - If you don’t know what shuttle runs are, they’re short sprints that have a forward and backward component. You set up two markers about 25 meters or yards apart, then sprint between them. One rep consists of a full round trip and a set consists of anywhere from 6-10 reps. They’re very popular among basketball and football players since they help train explosive speed. If you want to mix things up a little, consider running forwards to the marker, then running backwards on the return trip. Lateral runs are another option as well.
  • Hurdles - When hurdles are mentioned, most people think back to their high school gym class of picture the Olympics, but hurdles can actually be pretty useful for regular people like you who just want to get their muscles toned a bit. As it turns out, hurdles offer a pretty comprehensive workout, because running and jumping in conjunction works out a ton of muscle groups. What most people don’t appreciate is that hurdles don’t have to be the daunting waist-high obstacles used at the pro level. You can have the hurdles set at only a foot or two, allowing you to leap over them with only a little bit of effort. The objective isn’t to leap over tall buildings, but to work out new muscle groups by running in a way that you wouldn’t normally.
  • Box Drills - With just a single sturdy box, you can get a much more comprehensive workout than you might think. Step-ups, lateral step-overs, and box jumps give you ways to work very different muscle groups. However, you do need to make sure that the box is both the right height and sturdy enough to support your fully weight easily. If the box is too short, then the workout won’t be as good as it could be, if the box is too small, it might be hard to keep your balance, and if the box isn’t sturdy enough, you could fall and get injured. There are a number of resources you can refer to online to help you make a sturdy box yourself, or purchase one if you aren't the handy, do-it-yourself type. 
  • Lateral Jumps - Even if you don’t have any aids at all, you can do lateral jumps. Fast, explosive jumps from side to side give you a solid workout through your body. Jump at an even pace for at least a minute and you’ve got a good rep that combines cardio with a good leg workout.
  • Dot Drills - In many ways, dot drills look more like a game than an actual exercise, but make no mistake, they can help tone you like nothing else. If you don’t have a dot map, you can make do with some tape marks on the floor. Depending on the exact pattern you choose, you can work out very different parts of your body. Run through the pattern and then turn around when you reach the end, or try doing it backwards if you feel you’re up to the challenge.

What can keep a person from toning properly?

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s possible to do everything right and still fail. There are factors that can prevent a person from getting toned muscles -- or at least make it very difficult, including genetic factors. If you believe that something other than diet and exercise might be holding you back, consider consulting a doctor.

What’s the bottom line?

Getting toned isn’t about building muscle, it’s about burning fat until your muscles can be clearly seen. It’s possible to accomplish this purely through exercise, but adjusting your eating habits on top of that can help a lot. While strength exercises are great for building muscle, they aren’t necessarily the best for toning and showing off the great muscles you already have. For that, you want to focus more on agility exercises.

We've outlined a number of helpful agility exercises on this page, but if you're looking for more ideas or just need a little more guidance, be sure to check out the Movements and Drills page for a full array of resources at your disposal!