Share Your Experience: How Toni Got Into Phenomenal Shape | Not Your Average Fitness Tips

Share Your Experience: How Toni Got Into Phenomenal Shape

As a new feature of my blog, I’m encouraging readers to share their fitness experiences and lessons learned along the way to getting into great shape.  Up first is Toni, a 40 year old mother who has been a long time reader of my blog.  If I go so far as to think of myself as a teacher, I’d consider Toni one of my finest students.  I think her story will resonate well with women, especially those who suffer with misinformation and too much broscience as Toni has.  There are also useful lessons for anyone who has struggled with being skinny fat (look fine in clothes but have excess fat at a low scale weight).

Then vs. Now

In the Beginning…

For most of her life, Toni was chasing after scale weight.  In other words, she honed in on a number on the scale and tried to get to that number through excessive cardio (running, biking) and a highly restrictive diet.  This approach helped her achieve her target weight, but she didn’t look anything like celebrities or others with comparable heights and weights.  What had gone wrong?  She was skinny fat…weighing around 110lbs with 30% body fat.

Like many women (and men), one of Toni’s goals was to get a nice set of six pack abs.  However the caloric deficit combined with excessive cardio resulted in a frail, weak body.  She had extremely low energy levels, got dizzy at times, and was downright miserable.  Her strength was non-existent, and she couldn’t even lift a 5lb dumbbell.  What was the point of pursuing six pack abs if it felt so bad?  There had to be a better way…

The Truth Is Out There

It took a lot of research, but Toni accepted that she had to perform strength training to help transform her body.  Some women worry about gaining excess muscle mass, but Toni’s concern was that she was too old and too inexperienced to start lifting weights.  That’s when she found New Rules of Lifting for Women.  The first few months were discouraging because she was so weak, but Toni pushed forward.

In conjunction with starting a strength training program, Toni minimized cardio.  This was a battle as Toni was hesitant to stop something that could be considered so healthy, and I remember having numerous conversations with her.  Unfortunately, the best way to fight the skinny fat look is to perform strength training, minimize cardio, and eat a good diet right around maintenance calories.

The Transformation

While at a very low starting weight, Toni still had too much cellulite and struggled with the same trouble spots as most women: waist, hips, and thighs.  After 8 months of strength training, Toni completely transformed her body, adding (yes, adding!) 15lbs while reducing her body fat to 18%.  One of her big takeaways was that with increased strength came an improved appearance.  Rather than focusing on aesthetics, she focused on gaining functional strength and eating healthy, and her body took care of itself.  Despite the higher number on the scale, Toni’s clothes fit a lot better, and she now has tight and toned muscles, especially her hamstrings and glutes.

Toni started with no equipment and is now on the verge of outgrowing her adjustable dumbbell set.  She also uses a kettlebell and has gone from 7lbs to 25lbs and is probably ready for a 35lb one.  Beyond a better looking body, strength can be empowering and helps her perform some simple tasks that were previously left to her husband.  Additionally, she’s always felt like she’s been competing with people her entire life.  Now she’s moved past that and doesn’t worry about looking like a celebrity any more.

That’s not to say she didn’t hit some bumps along the way.  First of all, it was unnatural for Toni to gain weight after trying to minimize it her entire life.  Additionally, it was challenging for her to eat the right amount of food to gain muscle.  Like most people, she hit some plateaus along the way and had to switch routines and adjust the quality of calories she was consuming.  With an Italian upbringing, she craves carbs like most of us but she was able to successfully change her diet to include 125g of protein, none of which comes from supplements.  Combined with strength training, that really helped Toni develop a tight and toned upper body.

Kettlebell Routine

After completing New Rules of Lifting for Women, Toni asked me to construct a kettlebell routine for her as more of a maintenance approach.  While she loved the routine, she actually found herself leaning out a bit too much.  If your goal is losing fat, increasing endurance, and getting lean in 20-30 minutes, consider giving these workouts a try (3 days per week with 1 day rest between each workout):

Workout 1: Circuit Training

Perform as many reps of each exercise as you can in 30 seconds. Immediately proceed to the next exercise.

Floor Press (each arm for 15 seconds)
Rest 30 seconds

Snatch Pull & Push Press
Figure 8
Rest 30 seconds

Shoulder Press (each arm for 15 seconds)
One Arm Row (each arm for 15 seconds)

Rest 2 minutes and repeat the entire circuit twice (total of 3 circuits)

Abs Blueprint

Workout 2: Tabata Intervals

4 supersets using the Tabata protocol. Perform the first exercise in the superset for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, perform the second exercise for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, and repeat 4 times. Rest 1 minute before moving to the next superset.

Shoulder Press (switch arms each set)

One Arm Row (switch arms each set)

Floor Press (switch arms each set)

Figure 8

Abs Blueprint

Current Approach

More recently, Toni has gone to a split routine involving 2 days of upper body strength training and 2 days of lower body strength training with a few other exercises thrown in.  This has really helped her tighten up her shoulders, biceps, hamstrings, and calves.

Monday / Thursday: upper body strength training, kettlebell swings
Tuesday / Friday: lower body strength training, Abs Blueprint, walking
Wednesday: 15 minutes circuit training
Weekends: off

This approach, combined with a mostly clean diet (wine and nights out are allowed) in the 1,800 calorie range should help her maintain her body fat in the 17-20% range.  She’s also hoping to perform a full handstand pushup in the near future (currently doing one-half handstand pushups).

Key Takeaways

First of all, everyone’s body is different so what worked for Toni might not work for you.  That aside, here are a few reasons Toni has been successful (in my opinion):

  1. She stopped focusing on the scale and starting focusing on her body fat, strength and overall appearance.
    My advice: stop stressing about your weight and start worrying more about how your clothes fit, how lean and toned you look, and your overall energy level.
  2. She stopped combining long runs with a severely restrictive diet and shifted to strength training with a clean, healthy diet.
    My advice: start tracking your calories (Toni and I both use MyFitnessPal) so you can not only see how much you eat, but what you eat as well.  Don’t stay in a huge deficit for too long!
  3. She got really strong using New Rules of Lifting for Women.
    My advice: it might be tough for women, but start lifting heavy weights in the 5 rep range while avoiding fatigue (guys, you too!).
  4. She recognized that she needed to change her routine to fight the skinny fat look.
    My advice: if you have a low body weight but high body fat percentage, start strength training, eating around maintenance level of calories, and avoiding too much cardio.
  5. She committed herself to succeeding.
    My advice: if you’re self-motivated, make time, dedicate yourself, and push yourself.  If you need help, find a fitness partner to share challenges and successes with.  Ask questions to people you trust along the way (Toni has left over 300 comments across my blog).

I’d encourage you to ask Toni any questions or let her know what you think of her transformation in the comment section below.

23 Responses to “Share Your Experience: How Toni Got Into Phenomenal Shape”

  • Dave,

    It may seem counter intuitive that the best way to tone up your physique is to do more strength training and a lower volume of cardio but I’ve found this to be true also. Too much running and not enough calories is not a good combination, both for your physique and your mental health! But that’s the first thing a lot of people attempt to do.

    Functional strength training combined with low intensity cardio works well for increasing definition. I started using MyFitnessPal also. In fact, I’ve got an upcoming blog post about it soon. Great job, Toni!


  • Kendra:

    Toni is a huge inspiration to me. I’m also at a lower body weight w/ a high body fat. I’ve started to do weight lifting w/ minimal cardio & it seems to be working. I hope I end up lokking as good as her! I really enjoyed this story, because she deserves this so much!


    Thanks for this great story. I am a similar age to Toni and like her i started out as a cardio bunny to try and decrease my body fat. I’ve always used weights and thought i was strong – then I was introduced to “” – I am now lifting double + what i was in January, i’ve halved my cardio and i am feeling and seeing a huge change. Toni has done an amazing job – all by herself at home with no supplements!! AMAZING!! Every woman should read this story :)

  • Lindsy:

    Toni!!! You are so fabulous! I love this story so much.

    You seem to have dropped off my radar, though… please make contact…

  • Arthur:

    Toni, you look amazing, I see this is the reason why. I’ve always thought that more cardio was the way to go, but looking at Toni I’m beginning to doubt that. You can’t argue with success. I’m very proud of Toni, your a great example. I have no doubt that you’ll be doing multiple handstand push-ups in no time. Keep going strong, my friend.

  • Awesome story Toni. You are a warrior and you have done an amazing job. Keep you the good work and stay in touch.

  • Toni:

    Alykhan: Thank you for your kind words.

    Kendra: It is hard to imagine that reducing cardio and focusing on weight training should be what you do to improve body composition, particularly as a female…but it truly works. I’m glad I can inspire you to reach your goal too.

    Terrianne: So nice to see another woman in my age range happily embrace weight training and making excellent progress as well!

    Lindsy: Thanks for your endless support and you know I also think you’re fabulous.

    Arthur: Now you’re making ME blush, my dear sweet friend, lol. I’m really no different than any other mom out there who longs to be in better shape but doesn’t have a clue as to where to start. I’m not giving up on my goal of performing a handstand pushup and I’ll keep you posted.

    Mark: A warrior? Perhaps I am, lol. It does feel good to arrive at a place where I’m pretty happy with me after so many years of unhappiness with my physical appearance. And you know I will forever be floating on air since you told me I look 28 not 40.


  • Toni:

    I really do think you have been a teacher/online trainer to me throughout this entire year-long process. Without you or your blog, I would STILL be sifting through the dearth of misinformation that seems to be so prevalent on the internet about fitness, particularly when it involves females and weight training. Thanks again for asking me to do this…it’s been both a privilege and a pleasure to share my journey to a healthier lifestyle. Continued success with the blog too!

  • John:


    That just goes to show that age its just a number. All you need is hard work, dedication and sound nutrition. I’m proud of what you accomplished. Keep up the good work!


  • Toni:

    Thank you, that’s sweet of you to say. I guess 40 REALLY is the new 20, right? Good luck with the competition in a few weeks, I know you’ll do awesome!

  • Shanda:

    Great Job Toni! Congrats on your success. Your a great Inspiration to all of us..especially in the 40 range.. :)

  • Toni:

    Thank you! I almost had Dave omit my age from the post, but he convinced me that it is indeed a part of the equation as it’s infinitely harder to get back into shape when older due to responsibilities, children, lack of time, etc. My 40s have been good so far…

  • Shanda:

    I totally understand why you wouldn’t want to put your age. Sometimes its nice to not be in a category with your age..just to be “in great shape” no matter the age. But I do see why Dave says its important. Not only because of the added responsibilities but also to show other woman that no matter the age you can look great. You don’t have to give up or settle with what you have..Your life’s not over at 40 and you can still achieve a healthy , strong, beautiful body DESpite being 40..or 42 in my case..and I just had a my life is getting real busy..and its GREAT! Im right with ya, my 40’s have been pretty good so far..Keep it up girl!!

  • Toni:

    Exactly…some people seem to think that once you hit 40 that you automatically have a head full of gray hair, a face full of wrinkles and can’t be in good shape. And I have had plenty of people zero in on the fact that I’ve transformed myself at this particular age, but I guess that’s to be expected to a certain degree. Turning 40 hit me pretty hard yet I’m starting to see that age really is just a number as you can achieve a better body at anytime, provided that you do the work. Congrats on the new baby! Mine aren’t babies anymore but I can relate with being busy. Thanks again for your kind words.

  • Glad more people are finally realising that some kind of resistance training is an important part of looking and feeling good. well done Toni.

  • Toni:

    Random keywords: It did take me a decade (or two!) to get that particular message but better late than never. Thanks for your kind comment.

  • Toni,
    Thanks for sharing your story. You are a perfect example of why woman should train with weights. You pics are a testiment to your hard work. Inspiring stuff, keep it up.

  • Toni:

    Thanks for your kind words. It did take a bit of convincing on Dave’s part that cardio wasn’t really necessarily the way to a better body but time and some effort on my part proved him to be right. I’m glad you liked my story.

  • Congrats Toni for all the progress. It is great that you started a lifting routine, women look better if the lift weights. Good luck with handstand push ups. I do them all the time and they have really helped me increase my shoulder strength.

  • Toni:

    @Fitness Wayne: Thanks, I appreciate your kind words. Yes, I also believe that women look infinitely better when they incorporate strength training into their routine. I’m still trying to conquer the handstand pushup…

  • Amy:

    Too much cardio, not enough calories, and no strength training are the reasons I dropped weight without losing the middle…and now I’m back at my pre-training weight. Kettle bell consult asap!

  • Toni:

    Yeah, your body definitely rebels when you’re overtrained and underfed. Definitely give the kettlebell routine that Dave constructed for me (I switched on and off between the two to prevent boredom/plateauing) a try! You will shed fat and gain strength.

  • Amy,
    Let’s chat sometime. I’ll get you started on kettlebells, weights, or whatever else you’d like to do. Plenty of sample routines to review.

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