The Best Workouts If You Just Want to Tone Up

Not all workouts are created equal — especially when it comes to burning calories, building muscle, and losing weight. But sometimes we’re not looking to make big changes when it comes to our body. Instead, we’re merely looking to tone up and add some definition in the form of muscle. If that’s your A-game during the transition from winter to summer, add these 12 expert-approved workouts to the top of your to-do list.

1. Weight training

Woman performs a dumbbell squat.

Lifting weights can help you get toned. |

Lifting heavy weights might not be your favorite way to get fit, but it’s a fast way to achieve a toned physique. “Weight training causes tiny micro tears in your muscle fibers that help tone your body by building lean muscle mass,” Chris Ryan, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., and fitness expert said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “The key to achieving that toned, lengthened look is by keeping the weights lighter and the reps higher.”

2. Sprinting

Man running on a treadmill

Sprinting does more for your muscles than you might think. |

Sure, jogging or distance running is associated more with traditional cardio, but sprinting takes on a whole new level in the running domain. “A sprinter’s body, unlike a distance runner’s body, is put under great amounts of stress for short bursts, which causes muscle toning and a killer physique,” explains Ryan. The best part? You don’t have to be Usain Bolt to achieve great results either. “Training is relative to everyone’s own efforts, so if you can sprint at close to 90% of your maximum effort for 8-10 rounds of 100-200 meters in length, with a minute or two rest, you’ll be well on your way to toning yourself up like never before,” he says.


3. Jumping rope

woman and man jumping rope

Jumping rope is one of the best ways to tone up. |

It may seem simple and easy, but jumping rope is one of the best means of toning up and torching serious calories. “After just minutes of jumping rope, you will start noticing your heart rate increase and burning in your shoulders, legs, and back,” Brooke Taylor, fitness instructor and creator of the TF Ignite Program and Taylored Fitness NY LTD, said during an interview with The Cheat Sheet. For folks on the go, jumping rope is an excellent exercise for travel, as it’s an easy-to-pack piece of equipment that you can bring with you anywhere.

4. Banded resistance training

Man and woman practice resistance band training

Resistance band training is another great way to work on toning. |

“Bands are a great way to tone your body because they offer variable resistance throughout the range of the exercise in of itself,” Ryan explains. “For instance, a 10-pound dumbbell is always a 10-pound dumbbell, but bands can increase or decrease in resistance with every inch of pull or push against the band itself.” This variable resistance creates constant tension increases and decreases that keeps the muscles engaged at different intensities throughout the same movement — a surefire bet to a beautiful toned body.

5. Martial arts

Karate school for adults and children

Practicing karate helps build muscle. |

These ancient forms of fitness, especially intense varieties like karate, offer a way to build muscle through athletic movement done at high intensity. That’s why, if you’ve ever seen a professional-caliber karate match, the participants are typically highly sculpted. This is because they’re using almost every muscle in their body to perform those quick movements.

6. Swimming

woman pushing off the wall in a pool

Swimming laps is a fun way to get toned up in any season. |

Just a glance at any competitive swimmer’s body and you can see the incredibly toning benefits the sport can provide. “Water acts as a natural resistance force for you to move through space, giving you a strength workout and a cardio workout at the same time,” explains Ryan. “You also burn more calories while swimming simply due to the temperature of the water being well below your body’s average.” In other words, your body naturally burns more calories to stay warm than if you were doing the same sort of intensity on land.

7. High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

man and woman doing plank exercises

HIIT workouts give your muscles greater definition. |

Also known as HIIT, high intensity interval training is a term that describes any workout that alternates between intense bursts of physical activity with low-intensity “rest” periods. Think boot camp classes or CrossFit-style workouts where you may never fully stop moving throughout the entire workout period, but fluctuate between intensity levels. “The best part of HIIT training is the constant variance of putting the muscles under stress with little rest to ensure toning of the body overall,” explains Ryan.

8. Calisthenics

Man performing stretch on track

Calisthenics increase strength, fitness, and flexibility. | iStock

These bodyweight exercises consist of a variety of movements all intended to increase strength, fitness, and flexibility. Some examples of such movements include pulling or pushing oneself up, bending, jumping, or swinging, all while using only one’s own body weight for resistance. “Calisthenics can provide the benefits of toning and conditioning, in addition to improving balance, agility, and coordination, by varying intensity, repetitions, angles, and using (or not using) gravity to your advantage,” explains Ryan. Once basic calisthenic movements like push-ups, squats, and pull-ups are mastered, then muscle toning will greatly increase.

9. Pilates

participants at a Pilates class

Pilates can help strengthen your core. |

Pilates is a low-intensity workout that focuses on firing all the intrinsic muscles along the core and spine. “It’s better for toning because you’re really concentrating on specific movements for targeted areas of your body such as the arms, legs, hips, buttocks, and abdominals,” Kristin McGee, celebrity yoga and Pilates instructor in New York City, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “But it’s also great for easing back pain, considering how easy it is on your joints, especially when compared to running or jumping exercises.”

10. Barre

Happy people rehearsing ballet dance

Barre is a more intense workout than some people think. |

A quick glance at a barre class from afar and you might think it’s a fairly easy workout, but this is far from the truth. Barre is actually very intense, even though it is low impact. “Even though barre is easy on the joints, it targets all the deep muscles of the spine, hips, legs, glutes, and arms,” explains Taylor. “So, depending on the repertoire and progression or design of the class, barre can have bouts of intervals working your heart rate in various zones,” explains Taylor. By adding pulses, repetitions of small movement patterns, barre can sometimes be even more intense than a basic lunge sequence.

11. Cardio dance

Women in dance fitness class

If you want to have fun while you tone up, try cardio dance. |

Cardio dance comes in a wide variety of classes, but one thing they all have in common is toning serious muscles while having a ton of fun. “Cardio dance can sustain your heart rate well above 100 beats per minute for an entire class,” says Ryan. “But the best part of all is that, while you’re simply having staying on beat and keeping up with the choreography, you’re burning serious fat and toning up intensely.”

Cardio dance has a mind benefit as well. For the 45 or 60 minutes of time you’re bopping to the beat, you can relax, get high off the endorphins, and forget all about school, work, or the bills you have to pay and just let loose.

12. Yoga

Women in downward facing dog during a yoga class.

Yoga class can build serious arm strength. | Pixabay

Yoga is one of the most universal exercises out there because it’s really, well, for anyone and everyone. “Yoga offers numerous benefits including strengthening your body through the use of its own weight and establishing balance, mobility, and, of course, your mind,” says Ryan.

There are many different practices of yoga to choose from, from hatha for beginners, kundalini for those looking for a spiritual, yet rapid experience, ashtanga for more advanced and athletic folks, as well as hot, or Bikram, yoga for a sweaty, intense experience. The flow of yoga can vary widely within each practice as well as depending on the teacher, but one thing is for certain: You will get toned and open up your mind and body like never before.

[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 21, 2017]