Toning or Defining, What’s the Difference?

Toning or Defining, What’s the Difference?

When we start out in the fitness world, we often have trouble deciding between a toning and a defining exercise routine.

In this article, we provide you with information you’ll need to clarify the difference between the two concepts and execute successful training sessions, oriented to your objectives.

What does toning mean?

The term toning refers to the ability of a muscle to increase its muscle tone.

By muscle tone we mean the permanent contraction of the muscle, even when at rest, which allows you to maintain a posture and tone according to each movement.

Each person has a different muscle tone.

Through training, the muscle will be toned until it reaches its limit, and by continuing to train we’re able to maintain it, although we will reach a point where it won’t get any harder.

What does toning mean?

With toning, we’re looking to gain muscle mass and burn fat, while increasing resistance and strength.

But keep in mind that gaining muscle mass and reducing your fat percentage are two contradictory concepts: When you start, it seems like both happen at the same time, but when you really take time or want big changes, you have to dedicate a clearly differentiated time to each of them.

The reality of the term toning

The action of toning is not achieved instantly.

Many people when they start in the gym think that with a few days they’ll have a muscular and toned figure. Nothing could be further from reality…

Muscle toning requires a commitment that involves weeks, months and even years of work, also depending on our physical condition when starting training and genetics.

The process of “building muscle” is achieved by going through a phase of muscle hypertrophy, followed by another phase to lose fat.

Reality about the term toning

So toning is not an isolated action, it’s conditioned to other variables that determine the intensity of our workouts and the duration time for each phase.

It’s of utmost importance to understand that to get a toned and defined body, you must know how to differentiate between toning and defining.

What’s the difference between defining and toning?

By toning we work to harden and improve the muscle.

The more strength exercises you perform, the better the results you’ll get until the muscle reaches its complete toning, or until you look the way you want it to.

On the other hand, defining refers to marking the natural shape that the muscle possesses, showing its fibres and joints.

Definition is achieved by removing the fat surrounding the muscle: You can achieve this through strength and functional workouts.

By burning more fat, your muscles will be better defined.

What's the difference between define and toning?

But of course, always hand in hand with a correct diet.

A well-defined muscle is sure to be well-toned; but the reverse is not true. Having achieved muscle tone does not mean that you have good definition. To define, you must first “create muscle”.

Here’s where the fundamental difference lies.

Both activities are related, but their essence is different: They are part of a process with specific phases whose order is to first acquire your maximum muscle tone and then seek to define your muscles.

Muscle mass gain phase

The muscle mass gain or volume phase consists of a period intended for building muscle.

This phase is achieved primarily following a high-calorie food day, providing the body with more calories than we actually spend. It’s important that the dietary pattern is personalised, considering each individual has a different metabolism.

As such, it’s also recommended to limit body fat to 25%.

If we exceed the maximum value, we’ll spend more time in the later stage of definition, at the risk of losing part of the muscle mass gained and even making the skin stretch too much and then obtaining an unwanted appearance.
  • A correct exercise routine should be performed alongside an appropriate diet.
  • It’s recommended you start with cardiovascular work once a week; or with a little after each weight session, in addition to following a hypertrophy routine.

As for the duration of this phase, it depends on each person and the progress made.

After achieving a toned body, we’ll be ready for the next phase of definition.

Definition phase

During the definition phase, we focus on eliminating as much fat as possible.

Our goal will be for the body to eliminate the fat gained in the previous stage.

In this phase, we follow a low-calorie diet in which we restrict the intake of food to generate a deficit, with the consequent loss of weight.

  • To be successful in this phase, the diet should be accompanied by training with loads, incorporating variants in terms of intensity, strength routines, repetitions and periodisation.
  • It’s recommended you perform a few 30 minute sessions of cardiovascular exercise daily, either on an empty stomach, at another time of day, or after strength exercises.

The duration will be subject to the percentage of body fat you have.

Definition phase

However, it shouldn’t be excessively prolonged or drastically lowered, to avoid losing muscle mass.

Our body is complex, and moulding it requires taking the necessary time in each phase, with the corresponding requirements in terms of the diet criteria, physical exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

Keys for good toning

We now know how important it is to have a completely toned body before defining it to our liking.

Here are some keys to help you do that, according to your condition when you start out:

If you’re slim

It is possible to start with a skinny build, which presents flabbiness.

In this case we’ll be underweight, but with some fat. In such a situation we should start with strength and hypertrophy routines, maintaining a moderate calorie surplus.

The intensity of the workouts won’t be very high until you control the exercise technique when you’re starting out. Once you have it controlled, you can increase the intensity.

If you’re overweight

If we start from a position of being overweight, the first thing to do is to eliminate excess body fat by doing intense muscle-building exercises so that the body can tone up a little, but this is essential in conjunction with a low-calorie diet.


If your goal is to gain muscle tone and you’re starting out in the gym for the first time, you’ll be starting from a very low base.

Keys to good toning

The work will consist of intense weights routines along with low or high-calorie nutrition.

This depends on whether you need to complete a fat burning phase first or whether you need to start building muscle mass directly.

Don’t over-do it with cardiovascular exercise

If we overdo intense and prolonged cardiovascular exercise, the result will be to eliminate much of the muscle mass that we need to look toned.

Now that you have both phases clearly differentiated in your mind – tell us about your own experience. Have you gone through these phases?


  1. “Fisiología del esfuerzo y del deporte” Jack H. Wilmore y David L. Costill 2007.
  2. “Musculación, entrenamiento avanzando” Tudor O. Bompa y Lorenzo J. Cornacchia 2010.
  3. “Manual del entrenador personal” Felipe Isidro, Juan Ramón Heredia, Piti Pinsach y Miguel Ramón Costa 2007.
  4. Professional and personal knowledge and experience.

Related Entires

  • Maximum muscle definition guide, go now.
  • Can you do ‘cardio’ in a volume phase? Read our answer here.
Review of Toning

What it is - 100%

Gaining muscle mass and defining phases - 100%

Toning VS Defining - 100%

Keys - 100%


HSN Evaluation: 5 /5
Content Protection by
About María José García
María José García
María José has been linked to sport since she was a child when she entered and even competed in various sporting disciplines, such as skating, swimming and gymnastics.
Check Also
Hip Mobility Exercises
Hip Mobility Exercises

Improve your hip mobility and back health with the exercises we teach you in this …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *