One of the most common topics of discussion on any women's fitness forum is that of "bulking" versus "toning". Those who take the time to question the oft-perpetuated myths may whip themselves into a frenzy trying to pin down exactly what will make the bulk and what will make them tone up. Should they do light weights or heavy? Many reps or few? Free weights or machines? How can I look slim and firm without looking like a Ms. Olympia competitor??
Just why is it so difficult to figure out what causes bulk and what causes toning? The answer to that is simple: there is no such thing as either one of them! Bulking and toning are not real physiological terms. They do not describe any anatomical process. It is a completely subjective matter.
Here's the straight dope: There are no masculine and feminine patterns of muscle growth. There are no exercises that specifically encourage definition. You can build muscle mass, and you can lose fat. That's it.
Since very few women seem deathly afraid of losing fat, let's touch on building muscle. I once read an article by figure competitor Jen Heath where she detailed a sample conversation between herself and a client:
Wouldn't it be nice if all conversations went this smoothly? However, she misses a key factor here: many, many women don't want to go from a 9 inch arm to a 12 inch arm. They don't want their arms to get -- quel horreur! -- BIGGER! They want smaller arms! They just want them *toned*, right?
Most women I talk to would like more muscle in their arms yet don't necessarily want behemoth guns. Whenever a woman tells me she just wants to "tone" her body with light weights, I usually end up having a conversation similar to this:
Jen: "Okay, so if I understand you right, your arms now measure 9 inches, but you wouldn't mind getting them up to a firm and solid 12 inches. At the same time, you don't want to get 16 inch monster arms, right?"
Client: "Yes, that's exactly right!"
Jen: "Well, let me ask you this: Would you rather take a month or two to build that 12-inch arm or would you rather it take you forever?"
Client: "I want it now!"
Jen: "The reason I ask is because the same thing that builds the 16 inch arm the fastest will also build the 12 inch arm the fastest — lifting intensely with progressively heavier weights. Once you achieve the amount of muscle you desire you can always reduce the volume to maintain."
Client: "Ah, I see!"
So, while the idea of a toned body is completely fabricated and subjective, I am going to provide what I perceive to be a rough definition. It seems that that "toned" or "toning" is something that occurs once a woman has lost absolutely all the body fat that she wants to lose. Only then can she build just enough muscle to have visible deltoids, triceps, and so on. If you have any fat to lose whatsoever, gains in muscle mass (and therefore gains in size) are considered "bulking". Low body fat can also be "bulk" if muscle seperation is visible and/or the overall frame size is larger than desireable.
Do I have it??
So, ladies who want to tone up are left with two options. The first possibility is to focus solely on fat loss and not do ANY weights. Thus, you end up with the same general frame and figure, just a smaller version. Also known as, skinnyfat. The other option is to lift heavy and build muscle underneath any existing fat.
Yep, you read that right. I said lift HEAVY. This brings me to what is probably the most highly perpetuated and clung-to myth in fitness. You know the one: high reps + light weights = toning. This simply is not the case. As we now know, your only options are to lose fat or gain muscle. Flapping around with light weights will not magically make petite, dainty muscles rise up and cover existing fat. You are simply training muscle endurance -- useful for functional reasons, but it will not affect your physique. Visible musculature occurs from something called hypertrophy, and hypertrophy is achieved through heavy weights. (Google it if you want to learn more).
Before you leave this page in a fit of tears, allow me to mention some nice benefits of option #2:
- Women do not get that big unless they are on steroids. The likelihood is, you will make very little size gains. This is where you need to decide for yourself what bulking means to YOU: is it 1/4"? 1/2"? 3 inches? If you are okay with gaining a tiny bit of mass, trust me -- you have nothing to worry about.
- It is extremely difficult to build muscle if you're not in a caloric surplus. Muscle doesn't appear out of thin air, you need excess calories, especially protein, in order for your body to have the building blocks it needs to form new tissue. So if you're dieting, you're in luck!
- While you won't have much visible musculature when resting, you will have some sleekness and definition, particularly when muscles are contracted, and anecdotally, it'll help anchor some of the fat in place.
- Got cellulite? Weight training may help. There is no reliable way to get rid of it. However, building muscle may reduce the appearance. Cellulite is fat stored underneath the skin. Stretch the skin over a bigger muscle and you will look a lot less dimply. Personally, building up my hamstrings did wonders for diminishing the cellulite on the backs of my thighs.
The message that I am trying to convey here is that big, huge muscles do not occur by accident. You don't get them from the elliptical or yogalates or even big, heavy, manly squats. For the most part, you just get them from steroids. However, some women have such a profound phobia of gaining any size, be it jiggly fat or firm muscle that they lump ANY increase under the general umbrella of "bulking". So don't necessarily believe nic0lerichie4eva on the Mollycoddle Women's Fitness Forum when she says that jogging made her thighs bulk up. And if you tend toward paranoia or power of suggestion, scrounge 50 cents out of the couch cushions and get yourself a tape measure. You may be surprised at just how toned you're getting!