Why some of us have sculpted, toned, and visible muscles and some of us carry a little more plane depends on many factors.
Part of this is how and how much you work, explains Todd Schroeder, associate professor of Clinical Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Clinical Exercise Research Center. Resistance training, for example, causes muscles to grow against weight loss and waste. You need to do this to build muscle mass, which makes the muscles look defined.
But these are also things like what you eat, how you rest and where you store your fat, Schroeder adds.
No matter how strong your muscles are, how much fat you store under the skin covering your muscles (visible subcutaneous fat) affects how they look on the outside, Schroeder explains. Things like what you eat and the calories you burn in a day affect how much fat you have. "Everyone has six packs of abs, you just can't see them if you have too much abdominal fat covering those muscles," Schroeder says.
And a big part of the equation is your genetics ̵
All this is to say, beating out countless reps in the gym you probably won't get the results you're looking for if your goal is more defined muscle. What you will achieve is to be smart in your goals, do the right types of workouts, do the right diet and get the rest your body needs. Here's what to do:
1. Set a goal that is realistic for your body type
"Toning" means different things to different people, says Chris Galiardi, a personal trainer certified by the American Exercise Council and based in El Cajon, California. Getting really specific to your goals and what changes you want to see can help you determine the steps you need to take to get there. (Refer to personal trainers, fitness instructors, trainers and your doctors to help them come up with plans to achieve these goals.)
And be realistic about the goals. Think about where you start and how much time you can actually take, adds Gagliardi. If you are currently struggling to find time to workout, starting a workout with workouts twice a day may not be realistic for you. Perhaps aim to fit into a 30-minute workout five times a week to get started. If you are currently overweight and not exercising, start by setting a realistic weight loss goal (lose no more than one to two pounds a week) – and when your overall fitness has improved, set a more specific goal by becoming more – toned or lifting a certain amount of weight. Setting the goals of the mediator process can help, says Galiardi.
2. Do both cardio and strength training
Resistance training helps to grow muscles and determine their shape. But you will also need to do some cardiovascular exercises (those that increase your heart rate) to burn calories to get rid of those extra layers of fat between your muscles and your skin. The right mix depends on your current fitness level and body type, but the general idea here is that in order to see a change (as more definition in your muscles), you will need to add to your workout. Be realistic, says Galiardi. "Start Where You Begin to Build."
Get a better newsletter.
If you do not work at all, work to comply with the US Department of Health and Human Services' general exercise guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise weekly and strength training at least two days a week, he says. If resistance training is new to you, start with a program that works on all major muscle groups two to three days a week, he says. And then start increasing the intensity of your workouts so that they continue to challenge you (more on that below). And if you already do a lot of resistance training, consider adding a little cardio to increase your total calories burned and boost cardio respiratory fitness.
3. Make sure you do the exercises correctly and completely
It may seem quite simple, but you need to do the exercises correctly to get the most out of them, Gagliardi says.
Most strengthening exercises consist of three phases: muscle lengthening, during which elastic energy is stored for the third phase (for example, in biceps curling when you lose weight), the depreciation phase (a fantastic term for pausing after you have lengthened muscle and before doing the third phase), and muscle shortening when stored energy is used (in bicep curling, this is the part where you lift the weight again). Focus on completing each phase, Gagliardi says.
Other types of resistance exercises, such as standing on a board or squatting, do not include these three phases because they are isometric exercises – those during which the muscle contractes all the time. Focus on the form during these exercises.
4. Make sure your workouts are challenging – and keep challenging you.
You don't want to be so sore that you can't go after every workout, but your workouts should feel like work. And a little soreness in the day after training means the muscle is growing, Schröder notes. You want to train hard enough during resistance training that your muscles get tired by the time you finish. How you fatigue your muscles depends on the type of resistance workout you are doing.
If your goal is to train strength to get maximum strength, such as in body building, you will want to focus on more weight and less repetition. ("Repetitions"), according to the American Exercise Council – adding more weight to increase the intensity of the workout. If you are endurance strength training – the kind of long distance resistance training you do for example to protect your knees, ankles and other joints – you want to focus on lighter weight and more reps.
If you want to train for hypertrophy (to increase muscle size), increase your intensity by adding reps and weight. Start with six reps and add reps until you get to 12, says Gagliardi. After this set becomes less challenging, add weight and reduce the number of repetitions back to 6. The idea is to stay in that target repetition range, but adjust the number and weight accordingly so that after each set you feel like you couldn't to do another one.
5. Be Consistent and Patient
Don't be discouraged, says Schroeder. It takes time for our bodies to change. At the cellular level, you will be able to see (with a microscope) changes in protein synthesis in muscle only six hours after exercise, Schroeder says. But it can take weeks or months to see the changes that are seen in your bedroom or dressing room mirror, he adds. "So don't be discouraged if you don't feel like something is happening in the first few weeks when you start a new program."
6. Don't skip weekends
Rest days are just as important to training as the days you train; they are when your muscles actually grow. During your workout, you cause small muscle tears that your body repairs after the fact – on your weekends – and during this process of muscle recovery, the muscles actually strengthen. But a rest day doesn't mean you have to lie on your couch all day.
When training for resistance to major muscle groups (such as leg muscles, major muscles, and upper and upper body muscles), rest 48 to 72 hours before training again for the same muscle group, says Gagliardi (and according to American Recommendations College of Sports Medicine). That means you could train for strength for up to four or six days a week, as long as you alternate muscle groups, he says. You can also do cardio on opposite days when you exercise. Or you could get into your cardio before or after strength training.
It's good to be active most days or even every day, says Gagliardi. "But the intensity and type of exercise should vary." (On "weekends" from a given workout, try foam rolling, stretching, or light aerobic activity, such as an easy walk or hike to help restore muscle.)
And don't overdo it, he adds. Some common signs include: increased resting heart rate, impaired physical work, decreased enthusiasm for training, increased injuries and illnesses, altered appetite, impaired sleep and irritability.
7. Healthy Eating
Remember the saying "abs are made in the kitchen"? That's true, because what you eat is one of the biggest determinants of how much fat you carry (along with how many calories you burn and your body type) throughout your body. What particular combination of fats, carbohydrates and proteins is ideal for your body depends on your genetics, the workout program you follow, and some other factors, Schroeder says. "But most importantly, you need to reduce the subcutaneous fat covering the muscle to have muscle definition."
Clayton tells his clients to focus on improving nutrition as a whole, starting with make sure you get a lot of protein (essential for muscle building) and fiber – and cutting out added sugars (soda, candy and granola). To help muscle growth and reduce excess weight, many people have success with a higher protein content, a higher fiber content, he adds. But his advice is to make small changes gradually to get to a healthier meal instead of making drastic changes at once. "One problem that people do too often is over exercise and trying to reduce calories, leaving people to starve," he says.
8. Consider a lifestyle change
One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to trying to build muscle is to focus too closely on one part of the body (such as doing a lot of arm exercises) to try to lose fat there). "It doesn't work," Galiardi says. You need to make changes throughout your body.
And remember the part about patience, says Schroeder. It may take months to see the changes you may want to make to a program. (So choose a diet and workout plan that you can maintain, he says.)
Try These Routine Routines
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter lifestyles. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.