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Toning vs. Bulking Up: The Real Facts

5 Myths and Truths about Strength Training

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

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 know that when I'm seriously lifting weights that I get defined more than bulk up.????
  • Energy and persistence conquer all things.
    - Benjamin Franklin
    Thank you for your time.
  • When I was young, my gym teacher put an emphasis on girls not bulking up from weight lifting--it seemed relevant then (60s) but now so much as changed, even just visiting places like pintrest, youtube, or private blogs--most gals want to bulk up a bit--this idea that gals want to tone but not bulk up is a bit outdated for some gals.
  • Thanks for writing this article. Very helpful.
  • Thank You for the great information.
  • good info, thanks
  • Working with a heavy weight won't turn most people into the incredible hulk. I've worked with many females who have used resistance training (with a weight that was difficult enough that they can only do about 10 reps) and getting huge like a body builder is not the outcome. Instead, their bodies would get firmer over time, they would develop some (but not tons of) muscle, and also would gain confidence and the strength to do things they had not before. Don't underestimate that last point because it is a great feeling to be able to lift your kid with ease or carry an extra bag or two of groceries into the house and find that these every day activities don't cause you the same trouble they used to.

    The bulky look that people talk about is typical when someone has added muscle but they still have a layer (or two) of body fat over that new muscle and it exaggerates their appearance.

    Finally, when attempting a challenging resistance exercise, initially we may not be mentally prepared to push ourselves to that level necessary to achieve results we're looking for. Really giving it your all and using all your might is something that some people will find a difficult thing to do. In that case we have to learn how to take it to that other gear where we are really giving our 100% effort. When adopting resistance training as part of your workout, if you're not working safely and correctly with a weight that is challenging you are wasting your time.

    I encourage you to find out just truly how strong you are and, with the guidance of someone who can direct you how to perform the exercises if you don't know how, get to moving some challenging weight and getting stronger! I promise you you'll be happy with the result.
  • The question that should be asked is, "So what if you get bigger if you get bigger if you lift heavy weights." Women have been told for centuries that they have to conform to a certain shape. The beauty box we all have to fit into never gets any bigger. It's time we all say FTS and just get in shape and stop listening to the people who say we have to be as small as possible. All of us will respond to training differently. We try to resist our shapes by trying to find that miracle workout, but our bodies, even when seriously fit, will be what they will be. If that means your thicker, so what? Are you healthy, living your best life, in the best shape? Great. Stop letting society dictate what you look like and telling you it's wrong to get big. Get fit. Get strong. Let your body be what it's going to be and thumb your nose at anyone who dares to tell you that you are taking up too much space. Own your space, women!
  • I really wanted to check out the link The Perfect Strength Workout for Beginners, but it took me to a blank page--disappointi
    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".

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.