“I want to look toned, but I don’t want to get bulky.” This is probably the most common request I get from clients when assessing their health related goals. Guess what? Those people you have in your head when you think of the beautiful “toned” look place a HIGH priority on building muscle. You won’t ever look toned without lots of lean muscle tissue. On top of aesthetics, muscle is the key to longevity and independence as we age. After the age of 30 years old, something called sarcopenia takes place. This is progressive muscle loss from baseline as we age. On average people will lose up to 3%-8% of their existing lean muscle tissue per decade after the age of 30. There is good news though! This can be mitigated and even reversed with a few practical strategies.

1. Start out with consuming 0.7 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight PER Day

Protein is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of muscle! As a result, it is crucial to ensure you are eating enough protein to support muscle growth and repair. Everyone is different in terms of their specific protein needs; however, I recommend that individuals ensure they are at a minimum, eating 70% of their ideal body weight in grams of protein per day. Based on your goals, you can increase from here! Start with your meals. Focus on getting around 30 grams of lean protein at each meal (or more) and fill in the remaining grams with your snacks after that!

2. Resistance Train 3x per week w/ Progressive Overload  

The most effective way to build muscle mass is through resistance training utilizing progressive overload. What is progressive overload? Progressive overload refers to an increase in time, weight, or intensity every consecutive week of training. What is resistance training? In simple terms, this style of training stresses the muscles using load or force. This can be from free weights, bands, machines, and many other tools. The primary focus is on building muscle mass; just think strength training exercises. The most important aspect of strength training is pushing yourself each week to lift one more rep, or add a few more pounds, or even add a set. This process requires organization and planning, so my best advice is to find a trainer or coach you trust who can help do the planning for you!

3. Sleep 7- 8 hours per night

Sleep is a critical part of building muscle. Individuals who do not get quality sleep or are chronically sleep deprived are at a much higher risk of muscle loss compared to those who do get lots of quality sleep! Many of the important hormones needed to repair and build muscle are secreted during sleep, so the more quality sleep you get the better!! Sleep deprivation impacts our workout quality, our mood, and even what nutritional choices we make! At a minimum, we recommend shooting for 7 hours per night.

4. Take Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine is one of the safest, most researched supplements on the market. It has been shown to have a significant impact on building lean muscle mass.

We synthesize creatine from the foods we eat. So, yes, we do get it through our diet if you are eating animal protein (chicken, beef, fish, etc). The problem is that most people don't eat enough of these items each day to get the full benefits of creatine. So, if you are serious about building lean tissue, we recommend taking a creatine monohydrate supplement each day. As always, consult your health care provider before adding anything new to your routine.

5. Stop Overdoing Cardio!

If you want the "toned" look we referenced earlier, then stop focusing on excessive cardio in an attempt to burn fat. Your best shot at fat loss actually comes from strength training. Cardio might appear to burn more calories if you only look at your fitness watch. However, this doesn't tell an accurate story. With strength training, you actually burn more calories for longer...even AFTER the workout ends! Muscle is metabolically expensive. It takes a lot of energy to build and sustain. So, stop focusing on cardio for fat loss and focus on strength training for fat loss and muscle gain!

Ellie Hiller is a competitive Crossfitter, and has reached some of the highest levels in the sport. She is a registered nurse with a background in Emergency Medicine, and owns her own business, Vulcan Nutrition where she helps clients find sustainable approaches to nutrition and health.