Smart Training Strategies for Muscle Definition

For most of us, getting ripped is about having noticeable muscle definition and a lean, athletic physique, not looking like a bodybuilder. I call this body sculpting and I’ve been working on it for years. While weight training can definitely get you there, clean eating is also a must.

Maybe you’re already lean and just don’t have a lot of muscle yet. Or you have muscle but it’s under a bit of fat. Regardless, let’s assume having a lean physique with standout muscle definition is where you want to be.  In this post I’ll talk about smart training strategies for killer muscle definition, also known as “muscle tone” (wink).

Question blanket statements

Blanket statements about any strength training technique are usually not wise. That’s because we’re all so incredibly unique in our body type, history, and goals. Plus, there are many ways to go about reaching a goal. For example, lifting near your one-rep max, or even your five-rep max, can cause major wear and tear and isn’t needed every session or for every goal.

For example, here’s a seemingly innocuous tweet by Dr. Layne Norton, a well-known strength expert and bodybuilder:

Should everyone do squats for muscle definition?

As you can see, this comment was retweeted by at least 321 people. At first glance, you might agree that squats are king and you should always go heavy and deep. I do agree that step-ups with baby weights is a complete waste of time and that squats are effective for glute-building. However, going deep and going heavy isn’t needed and not even smart for everyone.

Many folks don’t have the proper physiology or mechanics to squat deep, and you don’t necessarily need to squat heavy to ultra build muscle. Plus, if you gain muscle easily and think your legs look bulky, you can use other exercises to build your glutes.

Always question popular opinion. Get the facts from a pro who knows you.

Train like a minimalist

Training volume is important and you need to hit each muscle sufficiently to build strength and muscle. But more is not always better. In other words, you should do the very least amount of work needed.

This may sound counterintuitive to popular advice saying to “go hard or go home.” However, training hard every session and staying at the gym more than an hour usually result in nagging injuries, fatigue, and plateaus.

Focus on a few big, compound movements like deadlifts, squats, lunges, bench presses, pull ups, and overhead presses. Supplement with isolation work wherever you want to hone your muscle definition. You don’t need to do 10 sets of every exercise, nor do you need to train every day. Take the minimal dose needed and leave.

Use supersets wisely

Supersets are smart – you can save time, burn more calories, and even activate more muscle fibers in some cases. Supersets are appropriate for many people’s goals. But when doing supersets, you should be sure you have enough gas left in the tank to bring it hard every set.

For example, if you want to build your lats but you’re supersetting back exercises with legs, you won’t be able push as hard for either muscle group. Theoretically, your back muscles are “resting” while you’re working legs. But you’ll still be more worn out before you start your next back set.

If you want to build pure strength and muscle, use straight sets with appropriate rest in between sets. I do this at the beginning of my workout and integrate supersets for accessory work. For example, to build upper body strength and muscle, I’ll do heavy sets of bench presses and/or bent-over rows followed by lighter supersets of chest flyes and face pulls.

Save circuits for fat loss

Muscle definition is only evident with a lower body fat, so circuit training is a good way to get leaner. But if you do not have fat to lose, why are you still doing circuits or stringing more than two exercises in a row? Even if you do have some fat to lose, save circuits or high-intensity interval training for once or twice a week while also focusing on conventional weightlifting.

Circuit training burns calories but isn’t good for building muscle. By the time you’re done with multiple exercises in a row, the muscles used in the first exercise have had too much rest. Sure, circuits can be arranged to hit your whole body or even a select number of muscles, but again, you can’t push as hard because you’re worn out.

As you may have noticed, pushing hard is a common theme here. You need to lift weights that are challenging in different repetition ranges to build strength and muscle.

Do integrate heavy training

I mentioned earlier that you don’t always need to go heavy to build muscle definition. But to get stronger – and build more muscle – you do need to go heavy on a regular basis with sets of only 3-6 reps. But that can be with only the first exercise of each workout instead of every exercise.

Women may fear bulking up and resist lifting heavy, but we just don’t have the testosterone needed to get huge. Most people have to work very hard at building muscle, so don’t expect to have a bodybuilder physique just by going heavy.

Eat enough (but not too much)

Building muscle requires extra calories – that’s why, if you have body fat to lose, it’s best to do that first. Once you’re happy with your body fat, it’s time to increase the intensity of your strength-training program and also increase your calories, depending on your size, gender, exercise schedule, and a host of other factors. (Start slowly, with 100 calories a day, and go up to perhaps 250 if you’re female.) If you’re training hard, getting enough calories will come naturally because you’ll be hungrier. Just don’t go overboard and start gaining fat.

You don’t have to have a body fat in the single digits to have muscle definition. Gals can have 20+ percent body fat and look defined. Guys can have even higher. You don’t have to be at starvation levels and it’s detrimental to your goals if you are.

You also need to get enough protein. Aim for 1 gram protein per pound of body weight (if you weigh 120 pounds, that’s 120 grams of protein per day). Aim for 25-30 g lean protein at every meal. Check out my list of lean protein sources and ideas.

Do the right exercises

The best exercises for building muscle and strength are the “big” ones – squats, deadlifts, lunges, bench presses, overhead presses, pull ups, and rows. These movements can be broken down more logically into patterns, like this:

  • Horizontal Push (flat presses)
  • Horizontal Pull (rows)
  • Vertical Push (overhead presses and shoulder raises)
  • Vertical Pull (pull-ups, lat pull-downs)
  • Quad Dominant (squats, lunges)
  • Hip/Hamstring Dominant (deadlifts, hyperextensions)

Other exercises are accessory (isolation) movements – think bicep curls, tricep extensions, and calf raises. These are great for carving out muscle definition and to pump the muscles full of blood. But to build significant muscle and strength, you need compound, multi-joint movements like the ones I mentioned. Save accessory movements for the end of your workout after you’ve finished the big movements.

Plyometrics are fantastic for burning calories and building power. Power will help you build strength and muscle. But overdoing plyometrics is akin to overdoing circuits, with the added risk of overuse injuries. Use them with moderation.

Check out these posts for more about building muscle definition!

This article originally appeared on

13 thoughts on “Smart Training Strategies for Muscle Definition

  1. First of all, can i have your autograph since you are officially my muscle role model? I want to have arms like yours when I grow up…but wait, since I’m already 46, perhaps I shouldn’t wait much longer. My trainer has changed my focus to heavier weights and less of them (per your advice above) to help me push for better muscle tone, so I hear you loud and clear!


  2. Finally over at your blog since Fitbloggin! Good tips~ I’ve learned that while marathon training I can’t dedicate as much time as I’d like to muscle definition, but it’s on after these 5am 10 mile run wake ups 😉


    • Holla Kat! Thanks for stopping by! It was cool meeting you at Fitbloggin. Once you start lifting the heavy stuff again I’m sure you’re going to rock the muscles! And good luck on your marathon!


  3. This is very informative. I’m just a newbie in what you call body sculpting. I learned a lot from this post. I totally agree with you that clean eating is a must. Thanks so much for sharing! 😀


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s