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Toning vs. Bulking Up: The Real Facts

5 Myths and Truths about Strength Training

-- By Jennipher Walters, Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Instructor
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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • 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. - 7/21/2014 2:18:31 PM
  • 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 - 7/10/2014 9:10:10 PM
  • good information - Thanks - 6/18/2014 6:27:55 AM
  • 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. - 6/13/2014 11:42:33 AM
  • Very timely as I just posted a blog yesterday that is hinting at a similar idea. - 6/13/2014 6:27:21 AM
  • SCEK500
    I agree with a lot of this article's content and I think it is great that women are into lifting weights. I do, however, disagree on the comment that men are not that much stronger than women. Men on average have 40 to 60 percent more upper body strength and 25 percent more lower body strength. I do not know if the personal trainer is basing this opinion on her clients or everyday observation.
    She may be referring to untrained men and women of nearly the same height and weight. In this case, the man is only 3 to 7 percent stronger. Women will no doubt put me under heavy fire for posting this, but the difference is significant when both sexes strength train. I am an average man who eats what he wants and strength trains. My bench, squat, and deadlift are over 300 pounds. Most men who strength train can reach numbers in the mid to upper 200s. That is 2 to 2.5 times the weight that women do after 5 years of training. Women are closer to men in strength with dumbbells because they target smaller muscles and works on stabilization. Men are stronger when using barbells because more muscle is activated and women have two thirds the muscle mass of men. Men also have a greater range of motion and apply more force to an exercise.
    Most women will ignore me or try to tear me down since this paragraph is written by a man. This should not dissuade women from lifting. I just think our differences are uncanny. - 5/18/2014 10:56:53 PM
  • CLIPPERCLOP
    if you look at the physiques of say Tom Cruise, Robert.D Junior (Sherlock Holmes), Brad Pitt that's an ideal physique to me. Lean, bit of muscle but not bulky....I hate the body builder look. So, how is that achieved? - 4/12/2014 12:17:02 PM
  • CLIPPERCLOP
    but as soon as I start lifting weights I bulk up especially on biceps,chest and shoulders. So how do i get lean without bulking up? - 4/12/2014 12:14:27 PM
  • Thank you so much for this article. I now understand it. :) - 8/15/2013 2:37:45 PM
  • This article needs to be featured pretty much every day on every fitness site aimed at women. Strength training is so incredibly important for good bone health plus other benefits. Also, if you are like me and enjoy doing cardio (in my case, kickboxing and running) then strength training is even more important - cardio can burn just as much fat as muscle, so that muscle needs to be rebuilt.
    I used to be worried / scared of lifting weights. Once I actually started learning about lifting, I realized I LOVE having muscles.
    I have always been a weakling. It gives me great joy to be able to feel my biceps now. They're still buried under arm fat and loose skin, but I can feel them, darnit!
    I'm a big believer in circuit training, so I can make my time more efficient. I don't need to do separate cardio and strength that way, so it cuts my workout time in half.
    Also, do not be ashamed of your 3 lb free weights. That's what I started out with. Once you are not longer fatigued by them, you can go up to the 5 lb, and repeat on and on. - 8/15/2013 9:47:47 AM
  • I totally agree with the article.
    I have been lifting weight (barbell) for a half year now, and I have muscles that were never there (back and abdomen) but I'm the same size - just more muscular.

    But "toning" with small dumbbells is useful too, especially at the start. Using 4-pound dumbbells and doing crunches made a huge difference compared to being inactive.
    Both physically and mentally. - 8/15/2013 4:12:19 AM
  • I was afraid to look like a body builder. Thanks for the Article. - 5/14/2013 10:37:32 AM
  • Lift the heaviest weights you can safely handle, women! Don't waste time at the gym! - 4/6/2013 11:01:57 AM
  • Thank you for a great article! Great description of how to work properly with weights to fatigue muscles; when I look at people who do light weights at the gym I feel like they are wasting their time (unless, of course, it's rehab after an injury). Another great point made is how bodybuilders get bodies they have. It takes huge amount of time and effort, strict diet and often times drugs. For an average person like me bulking up will never happen. Besides, look at coach Nichole - she works out a lot but doesn't look like a body builder. She just looks awesome. This is a great reminder to work our bodies in different ways - both cardio and strength training are important! - 3/13/2013 10:40:00 AM
  • Ton's of great info here!! Thanks so much for sharing and investing your knowledge and time to help us.
    Very well written!! : ) G - 2/17/2013 4:54:32 PM
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