For some obscure reason, many women and some men are convinced that lifting over 5 pounds will magically cause muscles to bulk up. This is simply not the case -- it takes a considerable amount of effort and time to bulk up and even then, there's no guarantee. Rather than bulking, people prefer to "tone" with light weights. Ironically, in order for your muscles to appear more toned or firm, you must build muscle and lose fat. To create a firm, lean appearance, you'll have to step out of your comfort zone and fraternize with the big weights.
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Choose nutrient-dense, fresh, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean sources of protein.
Create a deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories each day to achieve a weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week, which is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests for successful weight loss. This can be done through diet alone, strictly exercise or through a combination of of the two.
Perform cardiovascular exercise on most days of the week to burn excess fat and make your muscles appear more toned. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends performing from 150 to over 250 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week. Activities such as jogging, brisk walking, elliptical training, rowing, kickboxing and spinning are all effective means of cardio.
Target the major muscle groups with strength exercises including squats, lunges, stepups, deadlifts, chest presses, shoulder presses, rows and abdominal exercises.
Build lean mass and create a more toned appearance with heavy weights. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends performing three to six sets of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise to build muscle. Choose a weight that's heavy enough that you cannot perform more than 12 repetitions with it.
Stretch regularly to create flexible muscles. Include a stretching session at the end of every workout to target your worked muscles. Add yoga or Pilates to your routine two to three days a week for deep stretches to further encourage muscle flexibility and improve range of motion. Keep in mind that your muscles have a predetermined length depending on muscle type, attachment points and heredity so despite your best efforts, your muscles can only be a certain length.