I'm looking to tone my body up and build muscle, but don't want to look like the Hulk or the chicken-legged guys with a huge upper body.

I would like to target:

  • Upper Body
  • Lower Body
  • Mid area (stomach)
  • Core

I'm in the process of losing weight as well (Doing Cardio for this) and Yoga (Hot Vinyasa/Bikram) once a week (But I think I'm going to do this more).

I would like to target each area different days, so day 1 might be core, day 2 might be upper and so on.

Are there any optimal routines/exercises that would be great for defining/toning ones look?

  • 6
    Um, why would you not want to look like the hulk? Mar 21, 2011 at 16:37
  • 8
    I'm guessing that he doesn't like the color green
    – Aardvark
    Mar 21, 2011 at 17:59
  • 4
    @Samuel Why would you. The 'buff' look appeals to other guys more than it does to women. I usually look suspiciously at guys in the gym who approach me and ask "how much do you bench" because it sounds too much like a damn pick-up line. I work out to have a physique slightly more muscular than Brad Pitt does in the movie Snatch (lean/strong/cut). Plus, females love it. Mar 22, 2011 at 0:08
  • @Evan, I've been looking at the USMC physical fitness requirements, and I would want to bulk up as much as possible as well as build up cardiovascular strength for simply the ability of moving as much weight as possible. But, that's just me. Have a happy workout. Mar 22, 2011 at 2:07

5 Answers 5


First of all, don't worry about "becoming a hulk." The average guy who works out 3-4 times a week and eats a reasonable diet will never get past the fit/toned stage you're looking for.

Second, the key to a good beginner program is KISS: keep it simple, stupid. The only thing you need to worry about is 1) consistently stress your muscles by working out regularly, and 2) gradually, but continually increase the stress you apply to your body (i.e. increase the weights you use a tiny bit every single workout.) Getting caught up in the ideal body part split or latest training fad is counter productive for a beginner.

Third, focus on your form first and the weight will come. If you want to improve your overall body composition as quickly as possible and avoid injury you need to make sure you're doing the exercises properly, through a full range of motion with an appropriate load.

If you are a beginner looking to add size and strength and you're willing to concede that there are no shortcuts, I have not found a better program than the one outlined by Mark Rippetoe in his book Starting Strength. The companion website is: http://startingstrength.com/. If you read this book, learn the exercises in it according to his methodology and progression, and follow his beginner program to a tee you will absolutely see major improvements in your body composition and strength within a few months. This is not to say there aren't other programs that will also work for you, but I've never seen another program that distills the essence of a beginner's weight training program so well.

  • 2
    Very good answer. Proper form is especially important in case of some exercises like the deadlift or squat, where improper form might cause serious injuries (esp on the long term). Check out some videos on youtube or bodybuilding.com first to make sure you've got an idea on how to properly perform an exercise, or ask a trainer in the gym.
    – ldx
    Mar 22, 2011 at 14:02
  • Good call mentioning Rippetoe. Buy his book and read it. You'll enjoy it and probably learn a bit too! Mar 28, 2011 at 23:23
  • Well if he followed Rippetoe's advice he is going to get Big, I have no doubts about that. Linear Progression is related to calorie intake. It is another story if he just picks the exercises and decides against progression. Also Starting strength leaves the core/abs parts unchecked something which someone who wants to look lean would want to consider. It is a great program for most people no doubt.
    – Geek
    Feb 26, 2013 at 12:27
  • @Geek, you statement that "if he followed Rippetoe's advice he is going to get Big" is simply not true. Will his muscles hypertrophy as a result of the progressive overload? Of course, but those gains will be relatively limited without significant changes to his diet. If you're eating a balanced diet without a caloric surplus you can't gain significant amounts of muscle.
    – Mike Deck
    Feb 26, 2013 at 16:26
  • 1
    @Geek, yes, I have read SS cover to cover as well as Practical Programming for Strength. And while Rippetoe does advocate the gallon of whole milk a day diet for many trainees, he's also said many times that if your goal is to lose weight, you shouldn't be eating a caloric surplus. Will that limit your strength gains to some degree? Of course, but that doesn't mean that the exercises and programs in Starting Strength aren't still an effective way for a novice trainee to develop good baseline strength while improving his leanness without becoming a hulk.
    – Mike Deck
    Feb 26, 2013 at 22:09

There are a few things that I want to hit on here...

First, as Stefano says, you're not going to turn into the Hulk overnight. Make sure that in addition to any resistance exercises that you're also doing plenty of stretching between exercises and at the end of your workout. Experiment and see what works best for your body. Traditional advice is 12-15 reps per set for tone and 6-8 for size and strength. The actual exercise will change that a bit of course. I've also seen some evidence that goes contrary to the common wisdom, but I would still suggest higher reps and lower weight if you're looking for tone.

You mentioned cardio for losing weight, but I'll tell you what I tell everyone who's trying to lose weight - one of the best things that you can do to lose weight (besides improving your diet) is resistance training. Cardio is great, but only causes an increase in metabolism during the exercise and for a short period afterward. The added muscle from resistance training burns extra calories 24 hours a day. Definitely still keep up with the cardio though, especially if it's something that you enjoy - if exercise is a chore you're much less likely to stick with it.

Finally, if you're just starting out with resistance training then I'd stick to full body workouts for at least the first couple of months. Split routines are best for experienced lifters who are able to push their bodies to the fullest. They can use the targeted workouts to do more exercises/sets/reps for each body part and the extended period of time between workout of any given body part lets them fully recuperate.

If your body isn't used to resistance training then it's going to be counterproductive to spend a lot of time on any one given body part. You're likely to over train that body part which can actually cause muscle loss since it can't heal fully and grow in between workouts.

Start with just a couple of exercises for each body part to begin with and workout every other day (M-W-F with an extended rest on the weekend can work well, but do whatever fits your schedule). After a couple of months, once your muscles have gotten used to the strain then you can switch it up and start splitting your workouts by body parts.

The push/pull that md5sum mentions is one great way to split workouts. One reason that it works is that a lot of the muscles can be "pre-exhausted". Start with the larger muscle groups (say, chest) then when you do the smaller muscle groups (for example, triceps) they're already a little tired from the earlier exercises and you can use lighter weights and fewer exercises while still pushing them to exhaustion. By the time I'm done with flat bench press, incline bench press, and shoulder press it doesn't take much to finish off my triceps.

  • the whole "x reps for size, Y for strength" is not necessarily true. Also note that "toning" does not exist; definition comes from either building muscle or losing fat.
    – Luciano
    Apr 9 at 14:13

There are loads of routines that you could do, and "optimal" is entirely up to how your body responds to the workout. Currently, I do a sort of hybrid upper/lower workout. I work my legs and run every other day, and on in between days I work my upper body.

When I wasn't running, I used to do a "push/pull" workout: work push (chest, triceps, quads, calves, shoulders) muscles on one day, and pull (traps, abs, biceps, hamstrings) muscles on the next.

I wouldn't break your workout down into more than 2-3 day cycles, otherwise you'll likely not gain anything from the workout (See: Importance of Rest Days ).

To the best of my knowledge it is fine to do yoga every day (I've not done extensive research on it, but this article on bodybuilding.com supports it), and cardio is fine (and preferred) every day as well (See: Families.com).


You're not going to turn into the hulk overnight, it takes years of training and discipline to get that kind of mass. Train for strength size will come, when you get to a size you want don't add weight. But there is no workout routine that will make you look like the hulk or not make you look like the hulk.


There is no muscular response to "tone"; muscles can either grow or or they can shrink(or change in number of fibers).

Basically my point with that is, is that there is no special exercise or rep scheme out there to elicit a "toning" response, just approach the weights with intent to gain muscle. I have yet to meet a natural lifter in person who legitimately said they have too much muscle, I would even go so far as to say that it is almost impossible for someone to have too much muscle(unless they have are myostatin deficient). So I am sure you will be fine :)

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