I'm a "skinny-fat" female - whats the best way to get toned?
July 27, 2016 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I've always been told I'm skinny by my peers. I'm a female, 5'8", and currently 129 pounds. But I feel that my fat percentage overall is definitely rising, although look-wise I might look relatively the same. Ever since I stopped playing sports I've been getting a little flabbier. My friends say don't worry you're still so skinny, but I want to be toned and lean, instead of "skinny-fat". Whats the best way?

I've been counting calories and trying to keep it to 1300-1500 a day. I work in an office so I'm sitting most of the day.

I was running 3 miles five times a week, but now I'm wondering if I should move on to HIIT cardio, and do 30 second intervals of sprinting/resting. I don't have excess to weights but I have those tubular resistance bands. Is cardio enough to cut it, or do I need to do resistance training?

What's the best way to lose fat and get toned?
posted by Junocular to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
"Toned"-ness is muscle. Someone looks toned when they have strong muscle beneath their skin. To look toned you need to build strength. Make sure you're eating enough protein, and start a strength training program. If you don't like the idea of the weight room, you could try bodyweight exercises such as gymnysts use in their training (planks, pull ups, push ups, squats, holds). Reddit has a pretty active bodyweight community, you could try their recommended routine. Or maybe Gold Medal Bodies. Yoga can also work for this, but it's not my favored kind of exercise so I can't recommend anything there.

Working with weights will also work --- Starting Strength has a pretty simple routine. (3 lifts per work out, three sets of 5 reps per lift, plus warm-ups. 5 lifts total.) But there's a ton of weight lifting options out there, some designed especially for women. Whether with weights or just your body, the important thing is to chose a set of exercise you can progress, so that as you get stronger and things get easier you're able to keep pushing your limits. That will build the muscle that will make you look toned.
posted by maggiepolitt at 1:47 PM on July 27, 2016 [14 favorites]

But I feel that my fat percentage overall is definitely rising

I would confirm that this is definitely true before making lifestyle changes that may not be necessary.
posted by crazy with stars at 1:52 PM on July 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Rock climbing and/or bouldering seems to work pretty well. Look at marathon runners - they do a ton of cardio, but I wouldn't call them toned (some exceptions of course). Now look at a rock climber, much more likely to be toned.

maggiepolitt is right on the money, but if you can't stand lifting weights, look into the climbing/bouldering thing. Great community, and you get fit without really realizing it.
posted by backwards guitar at 1:53 PM on July 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a fellow 5'8" woman, an average of 1400 calories is almost certainly a deficit for you (meaning it's below the number of calories required by your body, so you will lose weight). However, your weight is already pretty "normal" for your height, so I agree with others that you should focus on strength training vs trying to count calories & lose weight. You may find that you feel less "flabby" when there is muscle underneath.

I'll also suggest looking at reddit, but specifically the /r/xxfitness subreddit - it's focused on women, and the sidebar has a great section on "getting toned".
posted by jouir at 1:56 PM on July 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

FWIW I've always done cardio and free weights, but I've noticed a significant difference in the overall "toned" look of my body since incorporating more yoga and swimming into my weekly regimen (who knows, maybe it's just improved posture and a tan...whatever works!)
posted by lovableiago at 2:13 PM on July 27, 2016

Medicine balls are good for muscle tone, and to me, they are far more fun to work out with than other methods, YMMV. For tone you generally want lots of reps at lower weight, and medicine balls are IMO conducive to that.

I got a fancy modern one like this that will bounce, but much cheaper options are available, and in a pinch you can fill a basketball with sand.

You can find zillions of plans on what do *do* with a medicine ball, here is a decent-looking set that I just googled up.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:21 PM on July 27, 2016

The r/bodyweightfitness recommended routine linked above is great -- I have been following it for the past couple months and have definitely started noticing changes in muscle tone. Bonus: minimal equipment required! The associated app is great for getting started quickly and tracking workouts.
posted by btfreek at 2:50 PM on July 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Weights! For me, adding two days of small-group strength training with a personal trainer to my usual biking and running routine has made me a 1) faster runner and biker 2) person with visible biceps. It has not made me a person who weighs much less, but I look better in my clothes and feel a lot better about my body and what it can do.
posted by charmedimsure at 3:02 PM on July 27, 2016

One thing that happens as we age is that our muscles will deteriorate if not actively used. So although your weight may stay the same, the mix of muscles and fat in your body will change. This may be what you are seeing. The first goal of strength training is to halt or reverse that process and is an important part of being fit.

The links above are all great. I wanted to add a bit of "why".
posted by TORunner at 3:42 PM on July 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Skinny fat is the absence of muscle. You want a beginner strength training program. Do bodyweights seem interesting? Free weights? Barbells? Take your pick.
posted by mchorn at 4:08 PM on July 27, 2016

Toned = muscle! You'll need to build muscle, which means prob eating more than you are.

Swimming is really good because its gentle and ass-kicking at the same time, barre classes are fun, yoga (flow, astanga) is also neat 'cuz you can do it at home. Weightlifting and compound exercises (squats, planks, deadlifts, pull ups etc.) are also your friends. I really liked messing around with a TRX. If you're interested in HIIT type of stuff, I warmly recommend the insanity workout (just two weeks on it made me feel like the Hulk ..well a less angry/green one, but its pretty fast results
posted by speakeasy at 4:35 PM on July 27, 2016

I'm basically the same measurements as you and felt the same way, that my fat to skinny ratio was rising. I concur with everyone above, weights seemed to be the way that quickly achieved the look I wanted. I started with a personal trainer so I could learn how to do use them properly and not injure myself and after a few months decided to join a gym and do it myself. This last bit isn't working for me - I have little to no motivation to go to the gym! So I may have to enroll in some classes or go back to a PT to make it work. I also found it really helped with my core strength and posture and thus reduced a lot of back pain I was having caused by sitting at my desk all day.
posted by liquorice at 4:40 PM on July 27, 2016

I'd knocked off all excess body fat through an Ashtanga yoga practice -- I don't remember my body fat percentage but it was unreal. Then the guy who I *love* to practice under moved, and I've not found anyone else I like working with (or trust, or connect with in any meaningful way) so I began to practice on my own. But I have found out that yoga on my own is not a discipline that I will keep with. I never particularly liked yoga -- I loved the challenge, and I loved the changes in my body. But I drifted away from the practice.

Like you, when I would say that I needed to lose weight ppl would say "Oh, come on!" -- I'm 6'5" and got up to about 216 pounds. I'm going to tell you to just not listen to them. I knew my body was a mess and I didn't like it. One day this spring it was a perfect afternoon, myself and a friend had our shirts off as we were building a new gate to his patio. I could not avoid the fact that even while wearing my fattest "fat guy" pants my gut was mushrooming out over the top. I was like a muffin.

I don't like being like a muffin.

The next day I committed to riding my bike every day for 30 days, all the way around the Town Lake trail here in Austin, 10.2 miles. When I hit day thirty I was like "Why stop now?" and this evening will be day 154, consecutive. Rain or shine. It's plenty hot here in ATX just now -- we've had a good number of days over 100, a lot of others right at 100. But since I started in the spring I'm totally acclimated to it, it doesn't faze me at all.

I'm down to 198 pounds* but that's not the real number to be caring about; the real number is my waist size (those pants that I was mushrooming, I wrote "Work Pants" on them with magic marker, I'll use them for painting or whatever, hold them up using a belt.) the real number is my waist size and an even more important number is body fat percentage. It's $50 to get body fat percentage tested here, and $50 is not a casual amount of money for me -- I'll wait a while longer before establishing that number.
* muscle weighs more than fat, and my entire lower body is nothing but muscle now, and most (not all but most) of the fat 'round my gut is gone, so even that number is deceiving; the real number is body fat percentage, and your cholesterol and triglycerides numbers.

I saw my cardiologist last week, my regular MD the week before -- both of their jaws dropped to the floor when seeing my blood numbers, cholesterol and triglycerides, comparing them to my numbers from last year. My cardiologist in particular was really happy to see those numbers. Even though I have a pretty good diet -- an avocado a day, salmon and/or sardines, lots of good-guy omega-3 fats, not a lot of carbs -- he told me that yes, my diet accounted for some of the change, but that it's the exercise that has done the deal.

I'm going to join a gym -- Planet Fitness -- they are inexpensive and you're not locked in to any yearly contract. I don't much care for what they have -- mostly cardio stuff by far, and I get all the cardio I could possibly need on the bike -- but they do have two of every machine that I like to use for legs, chest, shoulders, arms, gut, and back. Unlike Ashtanga, I have in the past been able to hold to an exercise regimen in a gym without a trainer or even a workout buddy, though that's more fun.

Get on a bicycle or get back into running or maybe into swimming, whatever, find what your particular body loves -- I love my mountain bike all to pieces, and I love to ride it, too -- find out what you love to do and then do it. It's never going to get any easier -- not ever -- as the years come on it only will get harder; we lose muscle mass faster, bone density fades away if not utilized, etc and etc.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by dancestoblue at 5:20 PM on July 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

But I feel that my fat percentage overall is definitely rising

I would confirm that this is definitely true before making lifestyle changes that may not be necessary.

I wouldn't. If you are dissatisfied with your body, which is the only body you will ever have and which you have to live in for the rest of your life, then you need to set about making changes, and you need to start doing that today. If you don't, you're always going to be a day behind.

Any of the things you suggest are good ideas, and lowering or eliminating your white carbohydrate (rice, flour, potato, sugar) intake is always a decent approach to fat loss. I and many others can also recommend that you buy a kettlebell - say 8kg to start with - and do kb swings at home, working up to 100 a day in the first couple of weeks. Do these every day.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:58 PM on July 27, 2016

I learned about this "skinny fat" a couple of months ago, I had no idea I was in this category until I saw this Lifehacker article and it helped me understand the "why" and the "what can I do about it":

posted by alchemist at 11:15 PM on July 27, 2016

Your build sounds just like mine - but I eat like a horse. I don't have the patience for a strict diet, and I've had the best results with regard to toning when I varied my exercise routine to include more strength based activities as opposed to just running. Personally I prefer boot camp/high intensity type exercise classes that combine cardio with strength (planks, squats, burpees, push-ups, jumps) to weight lifting.
posted by emd3737 at 11:33 PM on July 27, 2016

I was running 3 miles five times a week, but now I'm wondering if I should move on to HIIT cardio, and do 30 second intervals of sprinting/resting.

Being "toned" is as others pointed out really a different way of saying you have muscles. The above is not building muscle, it is probably losing it especially with your calorie restriction.

You need to lift weights or do some body weight exercises (both!). You won't get bulky.

And eat if your body needs you to. Don't combine calorie restriction and a starting strength exercise program because you'll be working at cross purposes. Don't go insane and eat 4,000 calories a day, but you can really enjoy yourself eating healthy. (Also ice cream sandwiches, my favorite part of working out consistently is not feeling at all guilty when I do eat something ridiculously unhealthy.)
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 4:15 PM on July 28, 2016

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