The Truth About Toning Part 1: Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?

Anllela Sagra, (main picture) an Instagram fitness model, is considered “toned” and sports an impressive physique, but what is “toning” and how can you produce this look?

Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as toning! There is only lean tissue gain or loss, or fat gain or loss. There is some evidence of muscle shaping, but more on that in part 2. Since muscle “toning” has no scientific definition we are going to take a quick look at two common operational definitions to avoid confusion:

Toning situation #1: “I want to tone up for summer”
Toning situation #2: “I want that long, lean, dancer look”

Situation #1

When someone comes up and says, “I want to tone up for summer” they usually have accumulated an extra ring around the middle and have gone soft due to inactivity and sneaking a few extra Christmas cookies. In addition to the extra fat doing all sorts of pesky things like messing with insulin sensitivity, nutrient partitioning (where the energy goes), increasing estrogenic activity in both males and females creating a sort of positive feedback loop that makes getting fatter even easier, you also have to deal with the loss of energy burning lean tissue, lowering your daily energy expenditure and reducing anabolic hormone signaling.

On top of all that, one of the less commonly known effects of sedentary lifestyle is that inactivity shifts you into an anaerobic state more often, with less ability to burn fat as a fuel while at rest/very low levels of activity; fat can only be metabolized aerobically, but don’t think that’s a license to start running long miles to achieve the summer body of your dreams. Aerobic training (or cardio as it’s more commonly referred) will affect the fat loss side of the equation but it comes at a cost: approximately 3% of the energy demands of steady state cardiovascular training will be supplied by your body’s proteins. To make matters worse this protein degradation comes without an anabolic signalling to rebuild what is lost (think of anabolic signalling as your angry mother that is telling you to fix everything you just broke)! So while initially losing some fat, you are playing a dangerous game with your metabolic rate and are losing your muscle tissue in the process. Studies show that unless you are constantly increasing your distances, runners actually get fatter over time! The result is that most cardio-only trainees end up as shrunken down “skinny fat” versions of their former selves.

When someone comes in and says they want to look like Michelle Lewin, Anlella Sagra, Paige Hathaway, Kayla Itsines (just to name a few) or Lazar Angelov, Ryan Reynolds, etc. Most likely they need to not only gain muscle, but also lose fat. So the question remains…

Can you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? YES! But it has its limits.

Studies repeatedly show that especially in untrained (underactive previously) or detrained (underactive currently, but previously active) individuals, the answer is unequivocally yes, for about 8-16 weeks, even on a carbohydrate reduced diet. However, fat loss will occur at a much greater rate than lean tissue gain and both goals will be compromised (meaning they won’t have happened as fast as if they were focused on solely). With untrained or detrained individuals, almost any type of training works, so long as it provides adequate anabolic signaling. This means that whatever you’re doing better have a PLANNED hypertrophy (muscle gain) component in addition to whatever metabolic conditioning methods you’ve included (battling ropes, stair climbs, skipping, sprints etc.) and ideally should happen on a different day than your conditioning. Bootcamp or Crossfit “workout of the day” style programming where different modalities (strength, anaerobic, aerobic etc.) are often mixed together in circuit fashion will confound some of the anabolic signaling effect of the hypertrophy (muscle gain) and further compromise the lean tissue gain effects. The completely untrained will succumb to this effect to a greater extent than the detrained. More likely is that lean tissue will be spared and fat will be lost, but this has a short lifespan so:

Is there a better way? YES, but wait until progress stalls with a mixed program.

What about trained individuals, can they gain muscle and lose fat? YES But it’s even harder.

The secret is to move fast.

Take a look at the physique of a top sprinter or an Olympic weightlifter (aside from the heavyweights) and try not to be impressed. Most of these athletes are single digit body fat percentage, sport great muscularity, and definitely do not do bulking and cutting phases like bodybuilders. The link between these two types of athletes is that they both move incredible weight at a high speed. The weightlifter obviously does this, but consider that a sprinter is landing with impacts of 6+ times their own body weight on a single limb! A 2008 Japanese study linked load and velocity of movement to metabolic parameters and came up with some interesting results that should be of great interest to you if you are trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, high velocity training targeting type II muscle fibers produced:

“A reduction in accumulated white adipose tissue and improvements in metabolic parameters independent of physical activity or changes in the level of food intake”

Translation: reduced fat through a different mechanism than diet or energy debt due to the amount burned during exercise also known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)

The mechanism of this change is beyond the scope of this article, but I recommend you do some further research if you are interested. Take note that fat loss was not affected by level of food intake.

Read that again, fat loss was not affected by level of food intake!

Now, within reason, don’t think that you’re going to be able to crush a box of Krispy Kreme’s daily and get away with it, however, when you train high force at high velocity the extra calories are more likely going to be shuttled to their anabolic duties building lean muscle tissue while fat levels reduce and stabilize in the single digit range! The key is not to compromise quality of output, so focus on fewer reps and larger volume of sets stopping at the first signs of fatigue. Sprints, squats with bands, kettlebell movements, weighted jumps, explosive weighted throws all lend themselves to this style of training!

Basic prescriptions for this type of training

Pair a moderate load explosive movement with a low load high velocity movement in quick succession. A prerequisite is the ability to handle explosive training, so technique must be addressed and adequate strength levels must have been acquired in the introductory phases. Examples are posted below:

  1. Lower Body Variations
    1. A) Squat Variation 3-5 reps with 60-80% controlled lowering, explode up
    2. B) Continuous Broad Jump 5 reps, max distance OR 10 yard sprint OR hurdle hops 3-5 reps
      1. Option 2:
        1. A) Deadlift, Hinge, or Olympic Variation 3-5 reps 60-80% explosive
        2. B) Kettlebell swing 5-10 reps OR Overspeed kettlebell swing 5 reps OR kettlebell snatch, clean etc. 5 reps use low resistance and move fast
  2. Upper Body Variations
    1. A) Bench Press 3-5 reps with 60-80% controlled lowering, explode up
    2. B) Medicine Ball Chest Pass 5 reps OR Standing banded horizontal press max reps in 7 seconds OR Plyometric pushups 3-5 reps
      1. Option 2:
        1. A) Weighted Chin-up 3-5 reps, control descent, lift explosively, no kipping!
        2. B) Medicine Ball Overhead Slam 5 reps OR Shock Chin-ups (explosively lift yourself past the bar and let the hands go, catch the bar on the way down)

The options are limitless, and once you have mastered the dual exercise complexes, you can move on to a more advanced version that pairs a moderate load explosive compound lift with high velocity low movement, with a timed very high velocity extremely low load movement

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