When many people talk about being "toned" what they are referring to is a firm body with muscular definition and shape. This is generally a fitness goal that many women have (but also men) with the majority of their emphasis usually on their arms or more specifically their triceps.
Mistakenly, due to the media many people (mostly women) think in order to "get toned" all they need to do is very high repetitions and very little resistance with moderate to long rests. They also don't take into account cardiovascular activity or diet in order to get "toned".
The Myth Of Toning
Lets dissolve the misnomer of "tone" right now. The firming-up or toning is due to an increase in muscle tissue as well as a low enough bodyfat percentage to see the definition and shape of the muscles and get rid of the "jiggle".
Muscles do not go from soft to hard or hard to soft—they either shrink or grow in size. Muscles themselves do not "firm-up" or "tone".
Strength Training And Fat Loss For Tone
There are no two ways about it—in order to achieve the look of muscle tone or a toned body you need to engage in strength training as well as shed the layer of fat covering your muscles.
Traditional resistance training alone doesn't produce the toned look desired, especially when an individual resistance trains in the fashion previously mentioned with unnecessarily high repetitions, little resistance, and little if any stress on the muscle.
A calorie deficit also needs to be created in order to shed some of the subcutaneous bodyfat (fat under the skin).
The Myth Of High Repetitions To Tone
Just because you are not looking to get "bulky" or add muscle mass doesn't mean that you should shy away from stressing your muscles with relatively heavy weight (women and men).
Effort needs to be given and your muscles need to be stressed in order for them to change and grow. And simply going through the motions will produce little if any results because the muscle is not being stressed enough and therefore has no reason to adapt and change its current condition.
Generally, training with a resistance that produces fatigue between 8-12 repetitions works well for most individuals. That doesn't mean that you can give up after the 8th or 12th repetition—it means that there is no way that you can get the 13th.
If you can get 13, then the resistance is not enough. Don't forget to include cardio conditioning into your fitness program in addition to your strength training.
Fat Loss Benefits From Strength Training
Strength training and cardio don't necessarily need to be exclusive from each other—you can get a cardiovascular and fat burning benefit from strength training both directly and indirectly.
Indirectly, the more muscle tissue that you add through strength training the greater your basal metabolic rate (resting metabolism) will be and therefore you will be burning more total calories and fat at rest. This is more of a permanent solution to weight loss.
Directly, if you use large body movements and keep rest periods short you will elevate your heart rate and therefore be getting the same immediate calorie and fat burning benefits as traditional cardiovascular exercise.
This is the more temporary solution to weight loss. These two reasons are why every weight loss program should include weight training.
You can kill two birds with one stone this way—you can get the resistance training benefits as well as the cardio benefits in one short and sweet workout if designed correctly. Generally you should use repetitions as low as 10 and no higher than 15 for most exercises and muscle groups.
You generally should be taking short rest periods in-between sets—ideally no longer than 30 seconds for most exercises and muscle groups (in order to keep heart rate elevated as well as give the muscles a brief rest and recovery period before the next set).
Again you should come to failure at the end of every set and not just be going through the motions. Don't be afraid if you can't complete as many repetitions as you did the previous set—that is to be expected because the rest periods are so short that the metabolic byproducts haven't had a chance to be completely removed yet.
Eventually your body will adapt to the metabolic stress and become more efficient at recovery and you will be able to lift more weight in a shorter period of time.
If you dip below 8 to 10 repetitions you should decrease the weight though. Having a simple stopwatch or keeping your eye on the second hand of the clock in order to time your rests may be a good idea in order to stay on task when beginning this type of training.
After you become accustomed to this kind of training you will know when to do another set without watching time because it will be ingrained.
In order to have a shorter and more efficient workout as well as ensuring your heart rate is elevated and remains elevated, you may want to consider circuit training.
Circuit training is where you go directly from one set of an exercise to another exercise that works a different muscle and so on.
So you have a series of exercises where you go straight from one to another with absolutely no rest—hence the name "circuit training".
You may take a brief rest if need be only after each circuit. This type of training requires being focused (so headphones or avoiding distractions is a must for an effective workout) but it is extremely effective at burning fat and building strength, endurance, and muscle and creating that toned look.
Making It Work For You
When designing your program keep in mind that larger muscle group movements such as those that involve legs and back and others that incorporate numerous muscle groups at once such as the bench press burn more calories than isolated exercises like dumbbell biceps curls.
Examples of excellent exercises to achieve an elevated heart rate include but are not limited to: any variety of squats, deadlifts, straight-leg deadlifts, any variety of lunges, bench step-ups, etc.
Don't be afraid to get creative and combine movements either. An example might be doing a repetition of the dumbbell shoulder press and then going fluidly into a repetition of the dumbbell biceps curls and then back and forth for a complete set of 20-30 total reps (10-15 each).
This is where a reputable personal trainer may come in handy to develop "non-traditional" exercises for you with your goals in mind as well as to show you how to perform them properly.
As long as the resistance is sufficient enough to create fatigue by no more than 15 repetitions, your rest periods are very short, if at all, and you have a solid nutritional program, you'll see your muscles tighten-up, firm, and become more pronounced giving you that tone that you desire.