Fitness Articles

Toning vs. Bulking Up: The Real Facts

5 Myths and Truths about Strength Training

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Everyone has an idea in their head when it comes to looking their fittest and healthiest. For some, it's fitting perfectly into a certain outfit, or walking on the beach in a bikini with total confidence. For others, it may mean seeing a defined midsection reflected in the mirror, or having strong, toned shoulders or legs. We all have our own goals for how we want to look and feel. Although your specific goals may be different from those of others, almost everyone wants to look and feel toned and fit.

But what does "toned" really mean? And is it different from "bulking" up? This article sets out to define just that—and to dispel some myths about toning, strengthening and bulking up.

What Is Toning?
When most people say that they want to "tone up," what they usually mean is that they want to become leaner. Basically, they want to lose fat, and add a little muscle definition—but not so much muscle mass that they look like a bodybuilder (much more on that later).

In the fitness world, there is no real definition for toning that is greatly recognized. Rather, toning is a term used to describe the end goal, which usually results from a combination of basic weight-lifting and fat-burning.

What about Bulking Up?
Typically, men want to "bulk up" and women usually wish to avoid building big, bulky muscles. Although there is no strict definition, "bulking up" means adding a lot of muscle mass to the body and possibly (although not always) reducing one's body fat, too. Bulking up harkens images of bodybuilders and big football players—usually male and usually beefy!

Toning, on the other hand, typically refers to aerobics instructors and Hollywood starlets who have lower amounts of body fat and some visible muscle, but not huge muscles.

So now that we have our definitions straight, let's move on to facts and the fallacies about toning up and bulking up.

The 5 Most Common Myths about Toning and Bulking Up


Myth #1: Lifting light weights will tone your body and lifting heavy weights will bulk you up.
The Truth: I'm not sure who first pioneered this idea that heavy weights will bulk you up, but it has stuck over the years and erroneously makes many people—both men and women—afraid of lifting heavy weights. While there is some truth to the idea that lifting lighter weights for more reps does a better job of increasing the muscular endurance, lighter weights will not help you "tone" better than heavy weights. In fact, because heavier weights build the strength of your muscles (and the size to a small degree—no Hulk action here), thereby helping to increase your metabolism and burn fat, lifting heavier weights with fewer reps (8 to 12 on average) and working until you're fatigued is more effective at helping you reach your toning goals than lifting lighter weights. Not to mention that it's more time efficient, too!
Myth #2: Building muscle and bulking up are one in the same.
The Truth: If you've been avoiding weights because you think that building muscle means that you'll bulk up, think again. When you lift weights that are challenging, you actually create micro-tears in the muscle fibers. These tears are then repaired by the body (this is where soreness comes from!) and in that process the muscle becomes stronger and a little bit bigger. However, because muscle tissue is more dense than fat, adding a little bit more muscle to your body and decreasing your fat actually makes you look leaner—not bigger. To really bulk up, you have to really work with that goal in mind. Bodybuilders spend hours and hours in the gym lifting extremely heavy weights, along with eating a very strict diet that promotes muscle gain. The average person's workout and diet—especially a calorie-controlled diet—doesn’t' result in the same effects.
Myth #3: Lifting light weights won't help you get stronger.
The Truth: When it comes to lifting weights, the secret to really getting stronger isn't about how much weight you're lifting. Instead, it's all about working your muscle to fatigue where you literally cannot lift the weight for another repetition. The August 2010 study from McMaster University that proved this found that even when subjects lifted lighter weights, they added as much muscle as those lifting heavy weights. However, the time it takes to reach fatigue with light weights is much longer than the time it takes to reach fatigue with heavier weights. So, if you're like most people and extra time is a luxury, it makes more sense to go heavy and then go home!
Myth #4: Women and men should lift weights differently.
The Truth: I see this one all the time at the gym. It's pretty common to see women lift 3- to 5-pound dumbbells to do biceps curls while men pick up the 20-pounders to do the same exercise. Although men are genetically stronger than women, they aren't that much stronger. Second, most women tend to stick to the weight machines or basic leg-work that target the rear end and abs (women's "vanity" muscles), while the guys at the gym are more likely to be seen working out with free weights or using barbells and—most often—focusing on their vanity muscles: the biceps and chest.

Obviously gender differences exist and everyone has different goals (like we discussed in the beginning). But if you really want to lose weight and get lean—no matter if you call that toning or bulking—people of both genders should have a strength-training plan in place that works every major muscle in the body at least 8 to 12 times, using a weight that is heavy enough that the last two repetitions are darn hard to lift. Only then is the body challenged enough to change, grow and adapt, making you stronger and leaner no matter if you're male or female. Lifting this way is also a great way to lose weight.
Myth #5: Certain forms of exercise build long, lean muscles.
The Truth: Many forms of exercise claim to lengthen the muscles or develop "lean" muscles, not bulky ones. But here's a truth that may be shocking to some: To put it another way, no form of exercise makes muscles "longer" because your muscles do not—and will not—respond to exercise by getting longer. It's just not how they work. Muscles are a certain length because they attach to your bones. A wide variety of movements and exercises can help you strengthen your muscles without necessarily making them bigger. In fact, you can develop a lot of muscular strength without your muscles ever increasing in size (girth).

That said, exercises such as yoga, Pilates, dance and barre classes can help to increase your flexibility (improving your range of motion at certain joints) and your posture, which can give you the illusion of feeling and looking longer or taller. But lengthening? Not possible. Claims like these are just trying to appeal to people who fear bulking up.


If you're ready to get strong, be sure to check out some of SparkPeople's amazing free resources and workout plans that will help you do just that!

Everything You Need to Know about Strength Training
How to Fall in Love with Strength Training
A Get-Lean Strength Workout Plan
Get More Results in Less Time with High-Intensity Strength Training
The Perfect Strength Workout for Beginners
The Muscle Building Quiz

Sources
PLoS ONE. Burd NA, West DWD, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, et al. "Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men," Accessed August 2011. www.plosone.com.

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Member Comments

  • I really wanted to check out the link The Perfect Strength Workout for Beginners, but it took me to a blank page--disappointi
    ng.
  • WASMISSLEAD
    I wish people would stop saying it's not possible for women to build muscle like men unless they have a testosterone imbalance. I was a petite dancer and a gymnast with a "lean" and "toned" physic who never had to diet until I started lifting heavy. Huge mistake.

    Some women do build a lot of muscle. When women tend to have a higher percentage body fat than men, bulking DOES happen to quite a number of us. Women like me have to go on a deprivation diet when lifting heavy if we don't want to bulk up. It's no way to live. And it sucks to be told what is happening to our bodies is "impossible".
  • @clipperclop, as a woman, this happens to me as I tend to notice new muscle definition before I start losing the fat. Once my body fat begins dropping, the bulkiness goes away, and I'm defined and not bulky. I've seen men bulk up from spending their gym time lifting weights but they aren't doing anything to lose the fat. The husband of a friend of mine has been doing daily exercise including weights, plyometric, cardio, etc., and I noticed he went from being what I would consider a bulky muscular man to a lean muscular man.
  • SHAHAI16
    Will lifting too much weight keep me from losing weight? I heard you can't lose weight and gain muscle at the same time, and I don't lift excessively, but I do enjoy strength training. When I go to the gym, I usually do 30+ minutes of cardio and then 30+ minutes of strength training. I mostly do bodyweight/dumbel
    l routines, but if too many people are by the free weights I do the machine. My boyfriend sometimes gives me a hard time that I can lift more than him, but I also weigh more than him so I think that's why. I can only bench about 150, but I can squat 250 somewhat easy (in the 8-12 reps range). Should I back off on the strength training and focus more on cardio? Also, when I do any kind of ab work, my tummy puffs up (but gets very hard). Is there a way to avoid this?
  • Since I've been working out I'm a 1/2 inch taller based on visits to the Dr....before working out I had a vitamin D deficiency problem which also has resided so there is so truth in lengthening your body through strengthening & stretching
  • PERSILDENEIGE
    I had the concern of bulking up when I work out, but the content of the article is pretty spot on. Last summer I was 30 pounds overweight and now I am in the best shape of my life (I'm 51). I owe a lot of it the weight training that I get in various classes like boot camp, and through individual weights and the machines. I am getting compliments galore, I have never experienced this before. In the gym, the ladies are asking me how I did it and I see them doing strength training now. Another thing I do is eat really well - I particularly make sure I eat protein after a workout. I am not skimping on either food or rest. One piece of advice for weight training: do the movement properly - don't practice mistakes. The instructors should be telling you how to lift properly, if you are unsure, ask. Control the movement and you'll get results. Trust me, if I can do this, anyone can - just under a year ago I was in bed with a bag of chocolate almonds crying my eyes out because my father passed away. After a while I decided he would not have been very happy with my state and got moving. My best to everyone.
  • MAXWELLSMITH
    I am using a herbal formula testosterone booster containing ashwagandha, mucuna pruriens, gokshura, Chlorophytum borivilianum. I find fascinating the idea of herbs working together in synergy, my mood is better and I have great stamina and energy to get my work done
  • I have been doing strength training now 8 months, and have NOT bulked up, but I am so much stronger, and KNOW IT! At 70, I now have muscle to spare. Thank you Eric and Mel at Quality Strength in Tucson , Arizona! We live STRONG!!!
  • very good article..I do want to bulk up. I am training to build serious muscles.
  • FREENINJA
    The key point, for me personally, is 'with a calorie-controlle
    d diet' it is good to lift heavy weights. When I do not restrict calories and lift heavy (even eating 'clean', as recommended), I get huge for a woman (and yes, I have been jokingly referred to as the Incredible Hulk). I am a short mesomorph, so any additional weight is noticeable, and especially muscle weight. I love lifting heavy weights, and am extremely competitive (also prior military), but I honestly find that a restricted calorie diet combined with HIIT, body-weight exercises and pilates/yoga is the best for achieving the type of body I want (lean, strong, but considered 'thin' and no longer 'huge'). I think this article has some good points, but tends to be confusing to the ones like me.
  • This was a wonderful article, thank you. I've been reading about muscle building a lot lately; although this isn't exactly what I was looking for, it was at least the most clear & concise information I've seen on the subject so far.
  • RMTROLLINGER
    I was hoping someone could help me out...I have a LOT of muscle and I want to be lean. I used to be 5'4" at 107 lbs. Now I'm at 112, and there's way to much vascularity all over my body. I used to run and do yoga and weights a few days a week. And then my IT band started throbbing. So I joined a gym. I was using the elliptical and the recumbent bike and the rowing machine, and I started lifting often (heavy weights) and the veins started coming to the surface, legs and arms. I put on around 5 lbs. with "good" fats, avocados, full-fat yogurt , almonds, olive oil, etc. and the veins are still there. I think it was all muscle. I've cut my workouts in half and I don't do any more weights. I just don't know how to decrease the muscle. I want a lean body, not an athletes body.
    Thanks,
    R
  • good information - Thanks
  • Thank you very much! The usage of ALL Of these terms makes me batty! Lift a weight that is challenging. If you don't have a lot of time, lift more weight for fewer reps. If you have more time, lift a little lighter for more reps. You will benefit, regardless.
  • Very timely as I just posted a blog yesterday that is hinting at a similar idea.

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

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