You’ve probably heard people, particularly women, say they want muscles that looked “toned” but not bulky. You may have also read about workouts that supposedly work on toning muscles rather than build bulk. Understandably, you’re a bit confused about what the concept of “toning” a muscle means. What most women refer to when they say they want toned muscles is a body composition that looks firm and defined without obvious bulk. What they AREN’T interested in getting the muscles of a serious bodybuilder. Is it possible to do this?
What Does “Toning Muscles” Mean?
Toning muscles and building muscle tone are terms that are widely used and frequently used incorrectly. Medically, muscle tone refers to how much a muscle is contracted at rest and has little to do with how a muscle looks. Somewhere along the way, fitness gurus have adopted this term and used it to describe muscles that are defined but aren’t bulky.
What makes a muscle “toned” in the fitness sense? It comes down to the size of the muscle versus how much fat is covering that muscle. A muscle hypertrophied through weight training will look larger and even a bit bulky if there’s not much fat covering the muscle. With little body fat, the shape of the muscle is easier to see. On the other hand, a thicker layer of body fat on top of the muscle softens the look. So, how toned a muscle looks has to do with the ratio of muscle to body fat. Getting a “toned” look means building the muscle a bit through resistance training and reducing body fat percentage without losing so much body fat that the lines of the muscle is obvious. To get bulky takes a lot of serious training and, for most women, bodybuilding supplements.
When you see female body builders that look bulky, it’s because they’ve hypertrophied their muscles as much as possible AND reduced their body fat percentage so that their enhanced muscles are visible. When they “pose” you can see the outline of the muscles and their separations. Of course, you might like this look, but it takes a lot of hard work for a female to get it due to hormonal differences between males and females.
In general, it’s hard for a female to get bulky, but females who have a high testosterone level, have an easier time building muscle size. Women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), for example, have higher levels of testosterone. Studies show women with PCOS also have greater muscle strength. This is mostly due to the higher testosterone their body produces. Yet, it’s important that women with polycystic ovarian syndrome exercise as their body is in a state of insulin resistance and exercise improves insulin sensitivity. These ladies also tend to carry more fat around their middle. Strength training combined with aerobic exercise helps mobilize some of that fat for a healthier body composition.
How to Get Toned
If you want the toned look, in the way the fitness community defines it, how do you get it? You might think the best approach is to train with light weights. Working with weights you can lift 15 plus times without fatiguing won’t bulk you up, but it also won’t build significant strength as this approach doesn’t challenge your muscles like higher resistance training does. You can develop some muscle size with lighter weights, if you if you take your sets to failure. However, training to failure takes lots of time when you’re lifting light weights. Yet, this is the approach many women take to get toned muscles. They think by lifting light they won’t bulk up. Yet, you probably won’t change your body composition at all, especially if you don’t use progressive overload. Remember, if you’re over the age of 30, you’re already losing muscle and must fight to keep the muscle you already have. Lifting weight heavy enough to be challenging is what helps you retain muscle and avoid sarcopenia.
Lifting light to get “toned” mainly builds muscle endurance and won’t necessarily change your body composition. If you use this approach consistently, especially if you’re using very light weights, you may not see a substantial change and that toned look will elude you. Lifting light is not the key to getting toned muscles that still look feminine. You either build muscle by lifting heavier, using a weight you can complete 8 to 12 times, or you don’t build muscle. There no such thing as “shaping” muscles and making them slightly more defined by lifting light. On the other hand, unless you have a high testosterone level due to a condition like polycystic ovarian syndrome, you’re not going to get bulky either.
What if you ARE lifting heavy and still don’t have muscle tone or definition? It could be that you’re carrying TOO much body fat. As mentioned, the more body fat that covers a muscle, the less defined it will be. To get your muscles to show, you may need to focus more on losing body fat through aerobic exercise and a closer focus on nutrition. Exercise is only part of the equation.
What about Spot Toning Muscles?
Spot toning muscles is the idea that we can reduce body fat in a particular area selectively by working that body part. Some people still mistakenly believe that you can selectively lose tummy fat by blasting your abs with sit-ups, crunches, and other ab exercises. It won’t happen because you can’t selectively lose body fat. However, you can strengthen a particular muscle by targeting that muscle specifically. So, fat loss is non-specific – you lose it everywhere, while you CAN build or strengthen a particular muscle selectively with focused strength training.
You might point out when you lose weight, you always seem to lose it in a particular area, like your thighs or tummy. You’re still non-specifically losing body fat but your hormonal makeup determines how that fat loss is distributed. Usually, younger women store fat more easily on the hips and thighs due to higher levels of female sex hormones, like estrogen and progesterone. But, after menopause, fat storage shifts more toward the middle due to a loss of estrogen and a higher ratio of testosterone to estrogen.
The Bottom Line
The idea of toning muscles in the fitness sense is a myth. You either build muscle or don’t build it. How toned and defined a muscle looks depends on how much muscle there is and how much fat you have covering it. To get the look you want depends on the ratio of muscle to fat and that is related to the type of exercise you do and your nutritional approach. You’ll typically get the best results if you use a challenging resistance and worry less about bulking up.
Gynecol Endocrinol. 2015 Mar;31(3):237-42. doi: 10.3109/09513590.2014.982083.
Sports Medicine 44, no. 9 (2014): 1197-207.