Why Lifting Light Weights Isn’t Best for Building Muscle Tone

Why lifting light weights isn't best for building muscle tone.Ask some women and they’ll tell you they want muscles that are “toned,” rather than bulky. The true definition of muscle tone has nothing to do with the appearance of a muscle. What they mean is they want muscles that are more defined. To achieve that goal, some women assume they need to lift lighter weights to avoid building “bulk.” Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to get the results they’re looking for using lighter weights. Here’s why.

Why Muscle Toning is a Myth

To get more muscle definition, you need to slightly increase the size of the muscle and burn off the fat that covers it so the muscle is more visible. Lifting light weights and doing multiple repetitions is not very effective for doing this. You can build muscle endurance doing this type of workout, but you won’t see a significant change in the shape or size of the muscle. Plus, this type of lower intensity training doesn’t activate hormones you need to burn fat to the same degree. Most women that do this type of workout don’t see much of a change in their body composition. The best you can hope for doing this type of workout is to increase the number of times you lift that lighter weight before fatiguing.

The Myth of Getting Bulky

Despite the concerns some women have about getting big muscles, it’s difficult for females to build bulky muscles even when they lift heavy weights to near failure due to their different hormonal makeup. Men have almost twenty times the testosterone as women, and testosterone is an anabolic hormone that drives muscle development. Even men have to lift hard and consume more protein to get significant muscle growth so you can imagine how difficult it would be for the average woman who isn’t taking growth-enhancing substances. Instead, what you CAN get is the “tone” and definition you’re looking for by lifting heavy weights. It’s this tone and definition that makes your arms looked sleek and defined in a tank top, not bulky.

Two Requirements for Building Muscle Tone

Lifting heavy weights helps to shape the muscle without adding significant bulk but you also need to make the muscle more visible by shedding body fat. When you work out with heavy weights, it activates key fat-burning hormones like growth hormone catecholamines that increase fat breakdown. This “metabolic response” is important for losing body fat so your muscles will look more prominent.

Even though lifting heavy weights helps with fat loss, the combination of lifting heavy weights and high-intensity aerobic exercise is even more effective for burning the fat. Alternate strength training workouts with high-intensity interval training and you’ll get muscle definition faster because you’ll burn more fat.

Increasing Lean Body Mass Has another Benefit

Lifting heavy weights and increasing lean body mass has another benefit. It gives your metabolism a boost so you burn greater amounts of fat even when you’re not actively lifting. Have you ever envied men who seem to be able to eat what they want? One reason is they have more metabolically-active lean body mass. That comes in handy for controlling your weight.

Focus on Nutrition Too

Even if you lift heavy, you won’t get more defined muscles unless you watch your nutrition. You need enough calories and protein to get muscle definition. So don’t restrict calories to the point that you send your body into an anabolic state where you can’t put on ANY lean body mass and instead break it down. Get enough calories and use high-intensity exercise, like you’ll find in my XTrain workouts, to send your body into fat-burning mode. It really helps to write down everything you eat so you can look back and make sure you’re meeting your calorie and protein needs.

The Bottom Line?

You won’t get toned, defined muscles lifting weights that aren’t challenging. Focus on pushing yourself when you lift and through high-intensity training and you’ll get the rewards you’re looking for.



Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(1), 57-64. (1997)

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14(2), pp. 220-227.


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Weight Training: Is It Better to Do More Sets?

For More Effective Workouts, Science Says You Need Exercise Variety


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