If strong is the new skinny, what's a truly skinny guy or gal to do? The answer is in the weight room, the home gym or maybe even your body versus gravity — all tools for turning "skinny-fat" into a slim, toned body.
Resistance Training for Hypertrophy
Toned muscles. Tight muscles. Lean muscle. Those are all different ways of describing muscular hypertrophy, or growing your muscles enough that you can see their shape through the layer of subcutaneous, "under-skin" fat that everybody has to some degree.
Why is it that some people exit the weight room as skinny but toned guys and gals, while others come out looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger? Genes do play a role in how your muscles develop — but mostly it's the type of effort you put in.
Man or woman, you're not going to come out of the weight room looking like the Hulk unless you work specifically to make that happen. What a modest amount of regular resistance training will do, however, is give you the thin, toned arms (and legs) that you want.
Your Weight Room Goals
How often should you be lifting weight, and how much? Build your goals in terms of sets and repetitions first, and then adjust the amount of weight you're lifting to suit the sets and reps you decided on. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for basic health — doing full-body weight training twice a week — make a good goal for building muscle and good health.
To get the idea of lifting for good results: A meta-analysis published in the November 2016 issue of the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine found that training twice a week offers significantly better hypertrophy than lifting once a week. Start with one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each muscle group in each workout.
Brand new to lifting? Start with just one or two sets per muscle group. As you get stronger, you can add more sets or exercises into your workout routine. You'll also need to increase the amount of weight you lift; it should always be a challenge to finish that last repetition with good form.
Don't plan workouts on consecutive days. Your muscles need at least one full rest day between workouts, because they get bigger during that rest time — not during the workouts themselves.
Your Map to Muscles
It might be tempting to focus only on the muscles you see in the mirror — mostly your chest and arms. But you should really work all your major muscle groups, both for aesthetics and for health.
The following exercises are, in essence, a starter pack for building a slim, strong body that is toned all over. Don't be shy about mixing up your workouts with other exercises or other types of strength training equipment, as long as every major muscle group is getting a workout.
Move 1: Dumbbell Chest Press
This exercise works your chest and the pushing muscles in your arms and shoulders.
- Lie face-up on a flat weight bench, holding a pair of dumbbells close to your body.
- Press the weights straight up over your chest, palms facing your feet.
- Maintain that hand orientation and keep your hands over your elbows as you bend your arms, lowering the weights.
- Press the dumbbells back up over your chest to complete the repetition.
Move 2: Lat Pull-down
This exercise works your back and the pulling muscles in your arms and shoulders.
- Adjust the weight stack or weight plates on the machine, then grasp the handles in an overhand grip as you sit down.
- Tuck your knees under the pads of the machine to hold yourself in place.
- Think "chest up, shoulders down and back," and squeeze your core muscles to stabilize your torso as you pull the machine handles down toward the front of your chest.
- Extend your arms to complete the repetition. (Stay seated.)
Move 3: Triceps Extension
This exercise works the pushing muscles in your arms. Think of it as an optional bonus, because you probably already worked these muscles with push-ups.
- Hold a single dumbbell vertically in both hands: Place your hands against the inside of the weight plate on one end, with your fingers and thumbs overlapping to surround the handle.
- Press the weight straight up over your head.
- Keep your elbows close to your head as you bend your arms, letting the weight sink down behind your head.
- Straighten your arm again, pressing the weight overhead to complete the repetition.
Move 4: Biceps Curls
This is another "optional bonus" exercise, to work the pulling muscles in your arms.
- Stand square, feet about hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms straight and by your sides. Your palms should face forward.
- Keep your elbows by your sides as you curl the weights up toward your shoulders.
- Lower the weights to complete the repetition.
Move 5: Lunges
This go-to leg movement works every major muscle group in your lower body: hamstrings, glutes, quads and calves.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Take a large step forward with your right foot and weight both feet evenly.
- Bend both knees so that your torso sinks down toward the ground. Your hips should stay centered between your feet, and your back knee should be underneath or very slightly behind your hips. Adjust your stance, if necessary, so that your front knee doesn't extend forward past the line of your toes.
- Straighten both legs to complete the repetition.
- For the next repetition, you can either maintain this position and simply bend your knees to sink down again or go all the way back to your starting position and repeat the step you started out with. The latter option is a little harder.
- Repeat on the other side.
As you get stronger, consider adding resistance. You can carry dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides, or carry a barbell across your back, resting it on the meaty part of your upper shoulders (not on your neck).
Move 6: Calf Raises
Although lunges work your calves, doing calf raises puts the focus entirely on this muscle group.
- Stand on a wooden block, the edge of a weight machine, an aerobics step, or any other sturdy, slightly raised surface that'll support your weight, won't flip over and won't let your feet slide off.
- Adjust your position so that the balls of your feet are solidly on the block, but your heels hang off the edge.
- Squeeze your calves to lift yourself up onto the balls of your feet.
- Lower your heels to complete the repetition.
Troubleshooting for Muscle Growth
It's good to use light weights at first, as you master each movement. But once you've learned the movements, it's time to increase the weight so finishing your last repetition with good form is a challenge. If you don't do that — and keep adjusting the weight as you get stronger — you probably aren't lifting enough weight to provoke muscular hypertrophy.
You can also add more sets. According to a study published in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences, there's a clear dose-response relationship between weightlifting sets and muscular hypertrophy — the more sets you do, the more muscle growth you get, which is exactly the secret to firming up a slim but not toned body.
Nutrition plays a role too. Protein is the most important building block your body needs to grow muscles. If you're not getting enough protein in your diet, you might not see enough muscle growth to create that toned look.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition's position stand in the June 2017 issue of their own publication, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, eating 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per day, per kilogram of body weight is enough for most exercisers to maintain or grow their muscles.
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise"
- Journal of Sports Sciences: "Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass"