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  • Writer's pictureRachel Cantore

Want to get leaner, more toned? Fitter and stronger?

What most people think, what I hear many people who walk into the gym say when asked what their goals are is “I want to tone up” and their belief about ‘toning up’ is that they need to burn calories, do cardio, and diet to lose weight.  This is actually WRONG.

First off understand the differences:

Lean = to be leaner translates to having less body fat, a lower body composition

Toned = to be toned refers to seeing or the appearance of muscle definition that comes along with having lean muscle mass and a low body composition

Both are doable and have their place in your goals and training approach. But they also encompass and entail somewhat different approaches. Only working on one forever is unrealistic and actually hindering. Without a proper understanding of being Lean versus being Toned you may end up limiting or even sabotaging your efforts, thinking you are working in one direction while you’re actually achieving the other, leaving you stuck, stagnant, plateaued and frustrated.

So let’s clear things up…

A few key terms:

  • Strength - the capacity to withstand great force or pressure - how much max force, power, weight you can move

  • Fitness - a condition that helps us look, feel or do/perform our best

  • Endurance - physical ability to withstand the demands put on it for a length period of time

  • Aerobic base - specific training meant to improve your ability to perform steady-state work for a long period of time (aerobic threshold)

Toggle between these training and eating phases:

ELEL - eat less, exercise less


ELEL a nice off-season, base phase approach to training and eating. ELEL is also very sustainable, meaning you can use this for maintenance for the longer term.

You can ELEL to Lean out without the repercussions of dieting or drastically cutting calories and stressing the body. Leaning out comes down to being in a fat loss state/phase or what I call ‘fat loss mode.’ Calories in/out are equal (in maintenance) or in just a slight deficit, just enough that your body and metabolism doesn’t fight back, cortisol isn’t going haywire, and you are not seeing any negative impacts to hunger, energy, or cravings.

What NOT to do:

It’s not about burning as many calories doing as much as you can and as hard as you can. You also don’t want to drastically cut calories from your diet to create a large deficit. Lots of cardio actually stresses the body and will backfire. Drastically cutting calories will also trigger the body to compensate by holding onto what you want to lose.

What to do/focus on:

RATHER IT IS about doing just enough, not too much or too little.  Think of Goldilocks. Think Stimulate not annihilate.

Exercise enough to create changes in the body, while eating enough to meet your needs.  Balance calories in/out, with maybe a slight deficit. Lift and strength/train just enough to stimulate your body in order to not lose muscle (muscle is important as it keeps the metabolism up so you always want to do what you can to maintain it and stimulating it does the trick).

Eat enough quality food. Focus on the 3Ps.

In ELEL, fasting may be ok and reasonable; eating less often; and/or consuming smaller portions. You won’t need to worry about feeling overly hungry because you’re not doing loads of training to create compensation.

What else:

Incorporate plenty of movement. This includes light intensity, leisure exercise.  This can also be a good time to work on your aerobic base.  Limit lengthy, high volume moderate to high intensity exercise sessions. Instead, if you want to push your limits keep it short and to the point with a few brief but intense sprint or interval sessions (ie 5-15 min 1-2x/week).

ELEL is also considered a recovery phase.  During ELEL, incorporating lots of stress relieving or easy, flowing movements and exercise like yoga, stretching and mobility programs, and other therapeutic means will serve to support the body and stress/cortisol.  Plenty of sleep is essential to to managing stress and cortisol which in turn supports fat loss and a healthy body composition.

EMEM - eat more, exercise more


EMEM is great for when you’re focusing on building muscle, and maximizing your fitness and athletic goals. It has utility during pre-season and in-season phases if you’re athletic when you’re picking up the volume and/or intensity and you need to meet/match that with your eating to support your hard work and avoid detrimental impacts such as injury, low energy, poor performance, or strength and muscle loss (with some brief ELEL worked in along the way).

What NOT to do: Over eating (eating too much for your needs) and over training (increased training without proper fueling and recovery) will backfire for your goals.

Yes you will eat more in EMEM, but enough to match the increased training.  Overeating can lead to fat gain and poor performance just as under eating can.  Point being here, just because you are training more, harder, more intensely, does not necessarily translate into consuming significantly more calories.  It’s very easy to get in a few hundred additional calories in a single meal or few servings.

What to do/focus on: You need to support your training and athletic goals while still maintaining a balance.  Matching your eating to your increased training needs, you can incorporate an additional meal or two (useful if you had been practicing fasting protocols and only eating 1-2 times a day). You can also incorporate an additional serving of protein and/or starchy carbs to support muscle repair and recovery.

Continue to prioritize your recovery - between sleep, mobility and stretching, and movement - lots of training and intensity/volume is a stress to the body, and even if you are eating appropriately your body will compensate to protect itself it you’re pushing without also easing up regularly too.  The harder your push, the harder you need to recover.

Why toggling has utility:

Besides keeping you fresh mentally, emotionally and physically, and preventing boredom, taking time in both phases prevents the body’s metabolism from adaptation and plateaus.

Even if you don’t want to put on loads of muscle, or you aren’t an athlete going into a competitive season, EMEM will serve you even if just for a few short weeks or a month here and there.

Some individuals will toggle or cycle between EMEM and ELEL based on the calendar year and seasons.  Focusing on ELEL as fall approaches into winter when their training and exercise less and spending more time indoors then shifting to a more EMEM approach as spring and summer approaches. This is just one example of how you can work this into your own lifestyle.

Avoid these -


At least for long periods of time. Think of the ‘dieter’ (eat less, exercise more/ELEM) and the ‘couch potato’ (eat more, exercise less/EMEL). Both of these other scenarios when done for more than very brief periods will yield undesired results.  Not only do they push your metabolism out to balance and into compensation, they will leave you struggling and further frustrated when what originally worked no longer does.  This is because the body’s metabolism wants to protect itself from feast and famine, so when eating and exercise is out of balance, too much/too little, it will adjust accordingly by either holding onto fat and slowing down calorie burning, even if that’s not your personal goal.

It’s easy to go to extremes, but extremes aren’t easy on our bodies for the long haul.  Moderation and balance, on the other hand, though requiring practice and intentional effort especially while establishing new behaviors, are sustainable, easy and enjoyable in the bigger picture.

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