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Best Toning Exercises for Women

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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For people who say they want to “get toned,” it might be more apt to say that they are generally referring to wanting to decrease body fat and increase muscle mass to improve the visibility of their muscles for a more fit and healthy look. This can range from a generally healthy appearance to a more athletic appearance, depending on your preference.

If you are looking for a more “toned” appearance, then strength training coupled with good nutrition is the way to go. This article will show you exercises that will help you get toned, and cover some of the common myths surrounding muscle toning.

What Are Toning Exercises?

Toning exercises are exercises that will help you achieve a toned appearance. There aren’t specific exercises that are classified as “toning exercises”. Almost any resistance training exercise can be a toning exercise when the right acute variables are applied (reps, sets, tempo). This is great news because it means that you’ve got options when you plan your workouts.

The scientific definition of muscle tone is the resting tension in skeletal muscle. This means that some muscle fibers remain active, even while the body is at rest. This is what allows you to stay upright, even while you’re sitting down and resting. You can increase your muscle tone through resistance training and proper nutrition.

Strong muscle tone accompanied by a body fat percentage in the normal to athletic range can give the appearance of muscle definition, even when the muscle is at rest. This is often the look that women are going for when they say that they want to “get toned”.

The Best Toning Exercises to Try

These exercises are great to incorporate into a well-rounded fitness program that also includes flexibility, balance, and cardio. Before diving into a strength training workout, it’s important to perform an adequate warm-up including foam rolling and stretching to prepare the body for exercise.

The goal of the workout is to maximize calorie burn (to help lower the body fat percentage) and to strengthen the muscles to achieve a toned physique. If you’re new to exercise, perform 12-20 repetitions of each exercise with a slow tempo to perfect your form. You can perform 1-3 rounds.

If you’ve been working out for a while and have built a solid base, do 3-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions of each exercise. Choose a weight that challenges you but allows you to complete each set with good form.

Squat to curl with an overhead press


Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, groin, biceps, shoulders, triceps, core

How to do it:

• Stand with your feet hip to shoulder width apart, toes straight, holding dumbbells at your sides.

• Lower into the squat as far as you can go with good form (or sit on a bench like in the video).

• Squeeze the glutes as you stand and keep your abs tight as you curl the dumbbells and press them overhead. Slowly lower the weights down, and begin again.

Bent over barbell row


Muscles worked: Back, biceps

How to do it:

• Stand tall holding a barbell or dumbbells in front of you. Keep your abs tight and shoulders back as you hinge at the waist and slightly bend the knees to get into position.

• Row the weights up, keeping the elbows in and squeezing the shoulder blades together.

• Slowly lower the bar and stay in the hinged position to complete all reps.

Barbell deadlift


Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, groin

How to do it:

• Stand with the bar over midfoot, feet hip to shoulder width, and toes pointed straight ahead.

• Hinge at the hips and slightly bend the knees to grab the bar. Your hands will be slightly wider than your shins when you grab the bar.

• Keep your core tight and pull the slack out of the bar before you lift.

• Push away from the ground with the feet, keeping your torso tight the whole time.

• When the bar is past the knees, drive the hips forward and squeeze the glutes.

• Hinge at the hips to reverse the movement as you lower the bar.

Plank walkup


Muscles worked: Abs, triceps, shoulders, pecs

How to do it:

• Start in a plank position on the elbows.

• Keep your abs tight as you walk up onto your hands, one at a time. Put your hand where your elbow was so that your hands are underneath your shoulders when you walk up.

• Walk back down onto the elbows and repeat on the other side.

You can also add some explosive moves (like the ones listed below) to increase the calorie burn. Throw one of these moves in at the end of your circuit to elevate the heart rate before you repeat the circuit or perform them separately as a final burnout before you cool down. Do 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps for these spicy moves.

Squat jump


• Stand with your feet hip to shoulder width apart, with toes pointed straight ahead.

• Lower into a squat and jump straight up as high as you can.

• Land softly, bending the knees and keeping the toes straight as you load up for the next rep.

• Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Lunge jump


• Start in the lunge position with your arms pulled back.

• Jump straight up as high as you can and switch your legs in the air so that you land in a lunge position with the other leg in front.

• Land softly, bending the knees and loading up for the next rep.

• Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Squat thrust


• Stand with feet hip width apart.

• Bend into a deep squat and place your hands on the ground underneath your shoulders.

• Hop or walk your feet back into a plank position, keeping your core tight.

• Hop or walk your feet forward so that you can return to the squat position.

• Finish the move with a jump squat, landing softly before repeating the move.

What Sort of Workouts Work Best for Strictly Toning the Body?

Strength training is the best way to tone the muscles. You’ll want to do some type of moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week including 2-3 days of full-body resistance training.

Instead of choosing exercises that only focus on one part of the body, perform compound movements (moves that incorporate multiple joints at once) to give you the best bang for your buck. These moves target multiple muscle groups at once and increase the calorie burn of the move.

What Are Some Misconceptions About Muscle Toning?

Spot training. Thankfully, this misconception isn’t as common as it once was, but it used to be believed that if you wanted to lose weight in your stomach, then doing more ab work was the answer. While it is true that you can specifically target a muscle group to strengthen it, you can’t make your body only lose weight in one area by exercising that area. Genetics and gender will often determine where in your body you lose weight first as you begin the journey.

It’s all about working out. Many people believe that working out will be the key to seeing their body composition change, but nutrition is the heavy hitter when it comes to weight loss! Prioritizing a healthy nutrition plan will help you to see the toning results that you’re training so diligently for in the gym.

Stay away from heavy weights. Some women worry that heavy weights will make them bulky, or that very low weights and high repetitions will help them get the physique that they desire. The truth is that developing muscle tone requires you to lift heavier weights for your muscles to have something to adapt to.

Think about the objects that you might lift daily: a heavy purse, kids, pulling a heavy door open, lifting, and moving a big bag or object, etc. Most of these everyday items weigh more than 2-10 lbs., and your body is already adapted to doing that. Therefore, it requires lifting more than what you already lift to see a change in your body.

Only train using high reps. To improve muscle tone, it’s best to train in the 6-12 rep range. You can see a difference in muscle tone by training in the 12-20 rep range when you’re first beginning a strength training program, but once you adapt you will want to begin to lift heavier and decrease the reps to continue to see the muscle tone that you’re looking for.

Do You Have to Worry About Bulking Up When Working Out?

The short answer: Usually, no. The main reason that women don’t have to worry about bulking up as men do is that we have less testosterone than men, and testosterone is a major promoter of muscle growth (Vingren et. al. 2010). Additionally, anyone who has actively tried to bulk knows how difficult it can be. It requires an excess of calories and high-volume strength training (usually training at least 3-4 times per week for an hour or longer per session).

The lifter will also need to follow a specific training program that continually progresses them (using progressive overload) so that they are constantly focused on putting on mass. Unless you’re diligently following a program focused on hypertrophy and following a nutrition plan to achieve it, it’s highly unlikely that you will bulk. Phew!

Bottom line: You can get toned without getting bulky by following a healthy nutrition plan and consistent exercise routine that includes strength training and cardio.


Vingren, J. L., Kraemer, W. J., Ratamess, N. A., Anderson, J. M., Volek, J. S., & Maresh, C. M. (2010). Testosterone physiology in resistance exercise and training: the up-stream regulatory elements. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 40(12), 1037–1053.

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.


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