Experts explain why some people look more toned than others, and what you can do to better define your muscles—no matter your body type.
Photo: Getty Images/Cecilie_Arcurs
We all know *those people*—the ones who go to SoulCycle once and somehow seemingly emerge into the light with sculpted biceps.
Many of us refer to this as muscle tone—biceps peeking out, a sculpted back, a carved core. But ‘muscle tone’ has no specific definition, says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., director of exercise science at Quincy College in Quincy, MA. It’s just, more or less, muscles that appear to stand out, he says.
And it’s not always an indication of strength. After all, someone with very little body fat might have much more visible musculature even if they don’t have the strength gains to match it. Same goes for if you lose weight (and thus the fat on top of the muscles), but don’t necessarily gain muscle. “You will become smaller and the muscles, regardless of how developed they are, will show more,” notes Michele Olson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and adjunct professor at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL.
So if it’s that toned look you’re really after (you know, the one that looks good but also powers you through your day-to-day and your workouts)? It involves a mix of genetics, lifestyle choices, and exercise, experts agree. And it’s not as simple as you think.
Here, the deets on why some people look more sculpted than others, and what you can do to firm up—no matter your body type.
The Genetics of Toned Muscles
Part of how ‘toned’ you look comes down to genes, notes Westcott. “Some people are born with long muscles and short tendons,” he says. And this is ideal for that super-toned look. To gauge how long your muscles are, put your elbow up at a right angle, and see how many fingers you can put in between your elbow crease and where your bicep starts. The less space you have (and fewer fingers you can fit), the longer muscle belly you have, which means the greater potential you have for building muscle size, strength, and tone. “Someone born with short muscle bellies does not have as much muscle to work with,” he notes.
And while it makes sense that a tall, athletic woman would have longer bones, and thus, longer muscles, just because you have long arms and legs (or are tall) doesn’t necessarily mean you have long muscle bellies compared to your bones, says Westcott. Someone who’s short, for example, can still have a longer muscle belly relative to their bone and have just as much potential for ‘tone.’
Along those same lines, we’re all born with slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers, says Westcott. When we strength train, the fast-twitch ones are more responsive and grow more easily, he says. So: “People born with a higher-than-average percentage of fast-twitch fibers respond quickly and more effectively to the strength training stimulus.”
Then, there’s body fat. “If you have a higher level of body fat, it’s like having extra blankets covering you on your bed,” says Olson. “This plays a huge role in being able to see your lean muscles.”
How to Tone Your Body
The good news? Genetics aside, we all have muscles and we can all work to develop them, notes Olson.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do differently if you have a shorter muscle belly, but you can adjust your training based on your muscle fibers. If you have more slow-twitch muscle fibers (think: marathon runner), you’ll likely be better at endurance-type activities as these muscle fibers fatigue more slowly than the fast-twitch kind (think: sprinter). That also means they respond better to high reps. So while someone with fast-twitch muscle fibers (which fatigue more quickly) could get away with doing fewer reps and seeing tone faster, you might just need to put in say, 15 or 20 reps to see similar results, Westcott explains. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more work for you. After all, if you’re full of slow twitch fibers, you likely won’t mind the extra work as it doesn’t necessarily feel like “extra.”
If you’re simply born with a higher level of body fat, you could also benefit from more aerobic and cardio work on top of strength, notes Westcott. This can help elevate your resting metabolic rate, burn more calories, and is a huge factor when it comes to keeping a healthy body weight.
After that, the general recipe is simple. “In order to sculpt and develop the muscle, you need to engage in resistance training and to lose body fat, you need to burn calories efficiently,” says Olson.
A combination of aerobic and anaerobic—strength and endurance training—is a solid strategy, says Westcott. Interval and circuit training—where you alternate between several exercises (usually five to 10) that target different muscle groups or alternate periods of moderate- to high-intensity work with periods of either active or passive rest—revs the metabolism and keeps it revved for hours to come, notes Westcott. Coupled with a high protein intake, this can help you lose fat and build muscle.
Since muscles are 75 to 77 percent water, hydration is important, too, he notes. “Being hydrated keeps your muscles functioning better and looking better and does your skin well.”
Then, there’s diet. Sparingly eating foods that can be stored as fat (white bread, sugars) and focusing on protein (which doesn’t tend to go into fat storage) and produce (which contain large amounts of water) is key, says Westcott.
If you have a moderate amount of both fat and muscle, you’ll likely see visible musculature within four to six weeks, notes Westcott. If you have a bit more fat, it might take longer—about eight to 12 weeks.
One other thing: Instead of using looks as a gauge of success, use how you feel instead, suggests Westcott. “Even if you can’t see it, if you feel some hard parts when you’re contracting your muscles, you’re moving in the right direction to getting the muscle harder, firmer, and toned.”