This article is part of the “Body Toning Series,” which comprises of 5 articles. Read part 1, part 2, part 4, and part 5 for more information.

As a fitness professional, I hear “I want to tone” as one of the most common answers when assessing a prospective or current client’s goals. Other synonyms I’ve heard for this goal are to “cut”, “trim up”, “chisel” or “get lean”. In most cases, the client would like to tone specific areas of their body. It is important to know that if you want to look toned, you first must have a low body fat percentage. Maintaining a low body fat percentage (a big part of which is dietary) will allow you to achieve greater overall muscle definition (a.k.a. getting “toned”). You may think it’s just for those on the covers of fitness magazines or professional athletes, but I’m here to tell you that you can DEFINITELY achieve it for yourself! Later, we’ll talk about some toning exercises for women, but for starters, let’s get the facts straight on fat:

The Science Behind Body Fat

Burning fat can be tougher for women than it is for men. The reason for this is because the major hormone in a woman’s body, estrogen, negatively effects lipolysis (1). Let me explain: the cells in our bodies contain fat along with both beta and alpha receptors. Beta receptors speed the process of fat release into your blood stream, where the fat can then be burned as energy. In contrast, alpha receptors slow the process of fat release. In order to stimulate the fat burning process, we must trigger the beta receptors via our fat releasing hormones: catecholamines. The major fat releasing catecholamines are dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline; these increase during exercise. These hormones bind to the beta receptor, releasing the fat held inside the cell. The issue for women is that estrogen increases the influence of alpha receptors, which (as previously mentioned) attenuates the process of fat burning (1).

Your genetics also play a big role in body fat distribution (2). Some people are genetically predisposed to accumulate adipose tissue in disproportionately specific areas, such as the glutes, midsection, under arms and inner thighs. This kind of fat storage is known as subcutaneous fat. In fact, our bodies store three kinds of fat: subcutaneous fat, visceral fat and Intramuscular fat. Each has a different structure, but for the purpose of this article we will focus on subcutaneous fat.

Subcutaneous Fat Distribution

Getting Rid of Subcutaneous Fat

Why is subcutaneous fat so difficult to lose? As opposed to visceral fat, subcutaneous fat is significantly less effective at burning free fatty acids and is less metabolically active (3). Another reason is that subcutaneous fat has a higher density of alpha receptors, slowing the release of fat from that specific area (3).

This information could give the impression that “spot reduction” should be your go-to method. In fact, spot reduction is a method of training a specific body part or region that you want to burn fat from. For example, you might want to lose belly fat, so you only workout your abs. This is where we run into a problem. Although this methodology can be an effective part of your training program, it is important that you have first achieved what is considered a normal body fat percentage for your age and gender. You must first reduce your overall adipose tissue in order to uncover the lean muscle tissue underneath. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, healthy or “normal” body fat percentage for women is as follows: ages 20 – 39, 21 – 32.9%; ages 40 – 59, 23 – 33.9%; ages 60 – 79, 24 – 35.9% (4). The lower your number is within that range, the better chances you have that spot reduction will be effective for your problem areas.

Why Explosive Exercises Work

With all of this in mind, you should burn fat and tone your body as rapidly as possible. One of the most effective ways to get toned is by performing explosive exercises. This method of training will help you recruit a high level of muscle fibers during your workout, which will stimulate a higher metabolism. This style of exercise can also increase your level of growth hormone (HGH). HGH is responsible for increasing muscle tissue that will fight off the storage and production of adipose tissue. One study found that this kind of training over a period of time can increase growth hormone release by almost 45% (5); it should be noted, however, that the time span required for this increase has not yet been determined.

Protein Powder for Muscle Growth

Another reason to perform explosive exercises is because it will improve your insulin sensitivity. As opposed to insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes, insulin sensitivity is a good thing. The more insulin sensitive you are, the less likely your body is to convert blood glucose into stored fat. Your body stores glucose in three places: the liver, your muscles or as fat. This method of training not only increases your muscles’ ability to store glucose (6) but also uses glucose as its primary source of energy, meaning there will be less of it to convert into stored fat. You can also add in high density strength training (say 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps each) at submaximal intensity, as this too utilizes glucose as its main energy source.

Here Are Some Explosive Exercises: Perform at a High Velocity with Weight at 3-4 Sets of 5-8 Reps

Kettlebell Swings

  1. Stand with your feet wider than should-width apart. Taking a kettlebell in both hands, lean down from your hips to place it on the ground a short distance in front of your body. Be sure to push your chest out and straighten your back.
  2. Keeping your back straight, lift the kettlebell off the ground and swing it gently back between your legs. Then from this position, thrust your hips forward and fully extend your body to press the kettlebell out in front of your body.
  3. Raise the kettlebell to shoulder height. Once there, lower the kettlebell back down between your legs so it’s ready to thrust forward again.
  4. Your arms should remain extended throughout these movements. Repeat for the recommended number of repetitions.
  5. To complete this exercise, just take the momentum out of the downwards swing until the kettlebell stops in its bottom position. Then lower it down to the floor.

Kettle Bell Swing: Step 1

Box Jumps

  1. Stand in an athletic position, with your feet shoulder-width apart, at a comfortable distance from the box.
  2. Push through the floor (jump) to propel yourself onto the box.
  3. Land “softly”, allowing your knees to bend after your feet make contact with the surface (this should be relatively quiet).
  4. Pause and momentarily hold this position at the top of the jump to decrease injury risk.
  5. Carefully step off the box backwards and repeat for recommended number of repetitions.

Box Jumps: Step 1 Box Jumps: Step 2 Box Jumps: Step 3

Wall Balls

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart while facing a wall and holding a medicine ball at your chest. Hold your shoulders back and your chest up high. Stand three to five feet from the wall. This will be your starting position.
  2. Descend into a squat by pushing your hips and butt backwards. Continue down until your upper legs are at or just below a parallel angle to the floor. Inhale as you perform this portion of the movement.
  3. Push through your heels to ascend. As you begin to push upwards, eject the medicine ball up and towards the wall by fully extending the arms. Aim to throw the ball to a height of 10 to 12 feet.
  4. Catch the ball and return to the starting position. Immediately begin the next repetition.
  5. Repeat for recommended number of repetitions.

Wall Balls: Step 1 Wall Balls: Step 2

Burpees

  1. Start by standing up into a fully extended position with your chest up and shoulders held back and down.
  2. Quickly move your hands down to the floor and jump your legs back to a fully extended position while lowering your body into to the lowest position of a press up.
  3. Bounce your legs forward while pushing up with your arms and then jump up fast and high.
  4. Keep your head in a neutral position throughout this sequence of movements and don’t allow your hips to drop below the point where your body is straight from ankles to head.
  5. Repeat for recommended number of repetitions.

Burpees: Step 1 Burpees: Step 2 Burpees: Step 3

And don’t forget regular strength training! These exercises are often slower and involve maximal or close-to-maximal strength, but the improved strength will help you even more with explosive exercises as well as rapidly improve your overall physique.

Here Are Some Strength Exercises: Use a Challenging Weight (70-90% of 1RM) with 4-5 Sets of 3-8 Reps

Front Squat

  1. Stand with your feet parallel at a comfortable distance apart and your weight evenly distributed between both legs.
  2. To add resistance, take a dumbbell in each hand and hold them up by your shoulders at the front of your body.
  3. Keeping your chest up, bend at your knees and then hips to lower your butt down towards the ground behind you.
  4. Go as low as you can while maintaining control – ideally your hips should go below your knees. Keeping your heels planted on the ground, push back up into the start position.
  5. Repeat for recommended number of repetitions.

Front Squat: Step 1 Front Squat: Step 2

Sumo Stance Deadlift

  1. Stand with your feet wide and toes facing outwards at approximately 45 degrees. Your weight should be evenly distributed between both legs.
  2. Keeping your chest up, bend at your knees and then yours hips to lower your butt down towards the ground behind you. Once you’ve done this, take hold of the dumbbells at roughly shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keeping your heels planted on the ground, push back up fast to a standing position and lift the dumbbells towards your hips.
  4. Keep your hips, knees and chest fully extended at the top position.
  5. Controlling the dumbbells, slowly reverse the movement to the start position.
  6. Rest the dumbbells on the ground for a few seconds before repeating for your total reps.

Sumo Deadlift: Step 1 Sumo Deadlift: Step 2

Push Press

  1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold them shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold the dumbbells just above your shoulders while keeping your elbows close to your body.
  3. Bend your knees and lower your body into a quarter-squat position.
  4. Press the weight over your head as you push through your feet to explosively stand tall.
  5. Pause and slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the recommended number of repetitions.

Push Press: Step 1 Push Press: Step 2 Push Press: Step 3

Power Row

  1. Grip a dumbbell in each hand. Bend at your hips and stick your butt back by making your torso nearly parallel with the floor.
  2. Make sure your back is straight and your core is tight.
  3. Bend your knees and keep your hips back while you slowly lower the dumbbells closer to the ground, keeping your arms close to your sides.
  4. Explode back up to your bent-over starting position as you pull the dumbbells back up, leading with your elbows slightly behind your torso.
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blade muscles together horizontally (not shrugging them up toward your ears).
  6. Repeat for the recommended number of repetitions.

Power Row: Step 1 Power Row: Step 2

In conclusion, by performing a mix of explosive exercises and strength training, your body will be a glucose burning machine, where you can store glucose in ways that help you reach your aesthetic goals. This is especially important if your goal is to reach an optimal body fat percentage where you can ultimately show off your beautifully toned muscles! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of my favorite compound workouts for better results; keep in mind that the idea of resistance training making women “big and bulky” is a myth. And finally, it is true that burning fat can be more challenging for women due to the effects of estrogen. However, implementing explosive exercises and strength exercises into your workout routine will help you to maintain muscle and burn fat efficiently – keeping you in shape for years to come!

Read more from our “Body Toning Series”: 

References

  1. Pedersen, et al. Estrogen controls lipolysis by up-regulating alpha2A-adrenergic receptors directly in human adipose tissue through the estrogen receptor alpha. Implications for the female fat distribution. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. April 2004;89(4):1869-1878.
  2. Genetic determinants of regional fat distribution. Claude Bouchard. Physical Activity Sciences Laboratory, Laval University, Ste-Foy, Quebec, G1K 7P4, Canada
  3. Ibrahim, et al. Subcutaneous and visceral adipose tissue: structural and functional differences. Obesity Reviews. January 2010;11(1):11-18.
  4. Gallagher et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 72, September 2000.
  5. Craig, B W, et al. “Effects of Progressive Resistance Training on Growth Hormone and Testosterone Levels in Young and Elderly Subjects.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 1989.
  6. Way, Kimberley L., et al. “The Effect of Regular Exercise on Insulin Sensitivity in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Diabetes & Metabolism Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 2016, p. 253., doi:10.4093/dmj.2016.40.4.253.