What You Need to Know About Strength Training for Lean Muscle and Toning

woman doing a bicep curl

As a personal trainer, clients often approach me with the goal of creating lean and toned muscles. While the aesthetic of these muscles is great, the larger advantages are the health benefits that come with being intentional about adding a few days of strength training to your fitness routine. Here is what you need to know about strength training for lean muscle and toning.

What Is Strength Training for Lean Muscle and Toning?

Muscle tone is defined as "the tension in the relaxed muscle." Most likely, when we are referring to muscle tone as a goal, we want muscles that look strong in their most natural state.

There is a belief that lifting light weights is best for building lean muscle and creating tone, but this is entirely not true. While that is one way to tone muscles, you also can create the same muscle tone while lifting heavier weights. Lifting heavy will not create bulk in, and of itself.

The key to building and toning muscle is actually in the reps and how we create muscle fatigue. According to studies, lifting lighter weights at higher reps, and heavier weights at lower reps both contribute to muscle fatigue, and have the same results.

Benefits of Lean and Toned Muscle

The benefits of training to create lean and toned muscles are many. For instance, building lean muscle mass decreases body fat and mortality risk, improves bone density, and improves your blood glucose control.

Though many people hold the fear that building muscle will make you bulky, lean muscle mass actually helps you decrease body fat. Muscle also aids with the burning of fat because muscle uses glucose and fatty acids as fuel.

You also may have heard people say, "muscle weighs more than fat." This is not completely true, as a pound is 8 ounces no matter what you are weight. That said, muscle is more compact than fat. It also is more firm and, therefore, occupies less space.

Another benefit is the role muscle plays in bone density. Investing in our physical fitness increases our bone density, which is particularly important as we age.

According to the National Institute of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Disease National Resource Center, people who "exercise regularly generally achieve greater peak bone mass (maximum bone density and strength) than those who do not." Also, strength training prevents age‐related loss of muscle mass and bone, and enhances functional health—especially later in life.

One of the lesser known benefits of strength training is how it contributes to how we break down and metabolize food. Development and maintenance of metabolically active lean muscle mass is important for enhancing glucose metabolism. Glucose metabolism is how our cells receive nourishment, and what keeps us alive.

How to Implement a Training Program for Lean and Toned Muscles

When you are training to build lean muscle mass, you want to incorporate strength training a few times a week, if possible. According the the current Physical Activity Guidelines, it is recommended that adults do resistance or strength training two or more days a week in addition to aerobic activity.

It's also important to choose your weights based on your fitness level. When you begin a strength training program, you want to choose weights that are appropriate for completing 10 to 15 reps at one time. You should be able to complete the full set with good form. Once that becomes less challenging, you can start to increase your weights. Your form should always take precedence when choosing what weight to use.

The weights you use to build muscle can be found in multiple forms. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, weight machines, or even body weight.

Strength Training Program for Lean and Toned Muscles

Try out this sample strength training program to build and tone your muscles. Complete 10 reps of each exercise for four rounds. Do this two to three times per week, adding more weight as you get stronger and the program becomes less challenging.


Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Research suggests that when adding deadlifts to your training program for lean muscle and tone, you will get strength and power benefits from both a conventional deadlift, and an eccentric deadlift (focusing on the lowering phase of the movement). Here is how to do a deadlift.

  1. Start with you feet hip width apart, and a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Hinge forward at the hips with your knees slightly bent, tracing your legs down until you feel tension in the back of the legs.
  3. Drive your weight through your heels and trace your legs back up to the starting position.

Chest Press

woman doing a chest press with dumbbells

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The chest press is a common exercise used to build strength and power in the chest and shoulders. Because your shoulder rotates in so many different ways, the varying angles give you multiple options for toning the different muscles in the upper body, and can give you the greatest activation of a targeted muscle mass. Here is how to do the chest press.

  1. Start with your back on a bench and a dumbbell in each hand at your chest.
  2. Straighten your arms to press the weights above your head.
  3. Return your arms to the starting position.

Biceps Curl

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

When toning the biceps, focusing on the eccentric movements (lengthening of the muscle) is more effective for muscle growth than the concentric movements (shortening of the muscle) or isometric (static hold) contractions. Because of this, the release to the starting position will be important while training your biceps. Here is how to do a biceps curl.

  1. Start with your feet hip width apart and a dumbbell in each hand with your arms at your side.
  2. Bend your elbows, bringing your elbows up to your shoulders.
  3. Straighten your arms and bring them back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Squat

woman doing a squat with dumbbells

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Squats are a great exercise to implement when you are trying to tone because they can be performed a multitude of ways. Just by switching up the foot placement, you can target different muscles, and obtain different results. Here's how to do a squat.

  1. Start with your feet a little wider than hip width apart, and a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor or where your range of motion allows.
  3. Drive through your heels to return to a standing position.

Other Things to Consider

When you are starting a new training program, remember to start slow. You can begin with lighter weights, then gradually work your way up as you get stronger. Be patient with yourself, as creating muscle tone takes consistency.

Remember that when you are building lean muscle mass, your nutrition is going to play a role. Protein is critical to body and muscle function. According to research, increasing your protein intake will lead to more muscle mass gains when coupled with resistance exercise. It also allows to preserve your muscle mass and limits your age-related muscle loss.

A Word From Verywell

Strength training to build lean muscle and tone has many amazing benefits. Muscle aids in decreasing body fat and mortality risk, improvs bone density, improves your blood glucose control, and increases strength and power.

To benefit from strength training, you need to add a strength training program to your fitness routine two or more times per week. As you get stronger, you should adjust the program to continue seeing results. With a proper regimen, you will reap all of the benefits of of creating a lean and toned body.

Keep in mind if you are new to exercise, you should talk to a healthcare provider first. They can assess your medical history and fitness level and determine if strength training is right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you tone your muscles without bulking up?

    One of the biggest concerns people have about strength training is bulking up. Strength training alone will not create bulk. Bulk is created by eating more calories than your body needs, along with a very specific training program. Most people are not eating in a way that would cause this to happen without trying.

  • Can you tone specific body parts?

    While there are certain exercises that target certain muscles, spot reduction (fat loss from a particular area) is not possible. You can, however, train specific muscle groups to increase strength.

12 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brittany Hammond
Brittany is a Certified Personal Trainer and freelance wellness writer with work in Livestrong, Verywell Fit, and more.