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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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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

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.
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About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites, and 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

    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
    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
  • SONYALATRECE: You're just wasting time. It's not going to hurt, but lifting less than you are capable of just takes longer to achieve the same results! You can get faster results using higher weights for lower reps. - 1/11/2013 12:48:56 PM
  • I lift 10 pounds and was considering moving up to 15 for my bicep curls.
    I have just decided to do more reps instead. - 10/8/2012 4:09:58 PM
    Fantastic article!! Thank you so much for posting it! - 6/11/2012 1:17:04 AM
  • Great article! However I've seen other daily spark pieces on "toning x body part" or lengthening muscles, and those just confuse the readership! I've read enough fitness magazines and taken enough nutrition and weightlifting classes to know what is worth learning and what to gloss over, but sticking to one message would serve the general public so much better, as not everyone will take the time to educate themselves too deeply, certainly not early on in their journeys. Just my 2 cents!! - 8/24/2011 3:57:22 PM
  • Thanks for this article. I wrote one last year about this topic. I teach Spinning / Indoor Cycling classes, Boot Camps and Pilates (amongst others) and I tell my female clients all the time that muscle can grow from either many reps of light weights or fewer reps of heavy weight. The size your muscle gets is pre-determined by your DNA (how much fast twitch vs slow twitch fibers you're born with). If you have the type of muscles that grow fast (containing more fast twitch fibers), good for you! Some of us have to work our butts off to make our muscles grow. Here's an example. Two women doing the exact same workout routine - one woman's muscles get noticeably bigger, the other one's doesn't. Why? People with more fast twitch fibers will see faster growth and strength gains. They tend to be faster runners, higher jumpers, more powerful players at most sports, etc. If you're born with more slow twitch muscle fibers, you'll gravitate toward endurance types of activities where you can go for a long time at a slower, steady pace.
    Here's the article I wrote if the topic interests you: http://www.huffin
    ue-lifting-l_b_760488.html - 8/16/2011 3:28:13 PM
  • I have to say I'm glad this article exists. I just yesterday posted a comment on the 'Pass the Pilates, please' article about the "lengthening" muscles concept. I am a huge fan of strength training, I prefer it a thousandfold over cardio. I "strength train like a guy" according to many of my female friends due to the fact I am using 15s, 20s, and 25s for my exercises (Until I can build up the strength to do more) without a fear I'm going to end up looking like the hulk. I also have no notion in my mind that my muscles will somehow get longer through the yoga or pilates I do. - 8/16/2011 12:19:44 PM
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