Carolinas HealthCare System
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Toning Versus Bulking: Separating Fact from Fiction

By Kathryn Randall, BS, MS

One of the biggest misconceptions about exercise and weight loss is that strength training causes weight gain. People often say they would rather “tone up” than “bulk up.” So what’s the difference between the two?

When most people say they want to tone up, they want to become leaner. They want to lose fat and add muscle definition. On the other hand, when someone wants to bulk up or add muscle mass, they want to develop larger muscles like a body builder.

So what do you really know about toning up and bulking up? Here are some common myths – and their truths:

Myth #1

Lifting light weights will tone the body, and lifting heavy weights will bulk you up.

While there is some truth that lifting lighter weights for more repetitions increases muscle endurance, lighter weights will not help you tone better than heavy weights. Heavier weights build strength in your muscles and help increase your metabolism. Lifting heavier weights with fewer repetitions (8 to 12 on average) and working until you are fatigued is more effective in helping you reach your toning goals than lifting light weights.

Myth #2

Building muscle and bulking up are the same thing.

Not quite. When you lift weights that are challenging, you actually create small tears in the muscle fibers. The tears are then repaired by the body, which allows the muscle to become stronger and a little bit bigger. To really bulk up, you have to work with that goal in mind. Bodybuilders spend hours in the gym lifting extremely heavy weights, along with eating a very strict diet that pro¬motes muscle gain.

Myth #3

Women and men should lift weights differently.

Gender differences exist, but if you really want to lose weight and get lean, both men and women should have a strength training plan in place. Every major muscle in the body should be worked using a weight that is heavy enough that the last few reps are challenging (8 to 12 reps).

Myth #4

Certain forms of exercise build long, lean muscles.

No form of exercise makes muscles “longer.” Muscles are a certain length because they attach to your bones. A wide variety of movements and exercises can help strengthen your muscles without necessarily making them bigger. Exercises such as yoga, Pilates, and barre classes can help increase your flexibility and your posture which can give you the illusion of feeling and looking longer or taller. But lengthening is not possible.