Bulking vs. Toning: The Great Bulk Debate

“I just want to tone.” This is a phrase that I would guess 9 out of 10 women say in the gym. If you press a little further about how they intend to achieve this “toned” appearance, they likely will respond with, “I don’t want to bulk, I don’t want to get big, I just want to look fit.”


This brings me to my blog post today: There is a very interesting recurring theme among women in the fitness world that has been oddly engrained. Many women, it seems, have confused an appearance with an action; “to tone” has somehow become an exercise one can perform at the gym and also an appearance to strive for. The problem is, although these two descriptions don’t necessarily match up, the terms are used interchangeably.

I can’t help but wonder when or why people started to think that lifting weights means “bulking” while bodyweight exercises mean “toning.” Why does one equal one outcome, and the other equal an entirely different one? Where did this belief come from, and why has it still not been de-bunked?

Interestingly, the overall outcome most women want to achieve is the one they’ll get doing the exact thing they refuse to do. This is all based on an uneducated belief that lifting weights equals “bulking up” and getting “big.” Perhaps if more Women dropped the word “tone” from their dictionary—and realized it’s an overall appearance from lifting weights rather than an exercise—more of them would get the look they’re going after.

(I want to highlight that I understand that there are many beneficial byproducts of weight training, such as an improvement in insulin sensitivity, reduction of pain due to muscular imbalances, and improvements in mood, energy, and osteoporosis. But for the sake of this post, I’m focusing on the more vain byproduct of exercise: looking good.)


Another interesting observation I’ve made is that women seem to think getting “big and bulky” is a very easy thing to do. They hear men struggle with trying to “make gains,” yet Women seem to unanimously think lifting heavy weights 3-4x a week will get them “big” in zero time at all. If men with Testosterone coursing through their veins—the very hormone needed to grow BIG and BULKY—have a hard time getting to their end goal, then why do Women with a near non-existent amount of testosterone and a massive amount of estrogen think it’s so easy to blow up like the Hulk?
Truth be told, it is extremely difficult to gain that much muscle mass. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to make every minute at the gym count. On top of that, requiring accurate information about nutrition, supplementation, and the mass amount of food it takes to increase muscle mass is a whole other level of commitment. Putting time in the gym is only one side of the equation, to obtain and maintain serious mass, you need to be extremely diligent with what foods you choose to fuel your body with. It can take years of time and effort. This is honestly the same as saying, “I want to be a good runner, but I don’t want to be an Olympic Sprinter,” or “I want to be a business women, but I don’t want to be CEO.” Well, not with that attitude you won’t.


I also wonder why Women are so afraid of obtaining more muscle mass when that is the definition of what a toned appearance looks like. Is it possible that we, as Women, look at specific populations of “bulky” women who have dedicated a lot of their life to weight training and assume that we will automatically obtain the same mass? Again, what we do not realize is that that specific population of bulked up Women have a) had extra hormonal help to defy the odds of their hormonal makeup, b) have put countless hours into the gym and strength training programs to obtain that mass and c) eat extremely clean with sound nutrition and supplementation in order to obtain and maintain this mass.

Bottom line: lifting heavier weights will not make you blow up like a superhero. If anything, it will make you leaner. Lifting weights stimulates muscle breakdown, which stimulates protein synthesis. This increases your metabolism, which ULTIMATELY equates to leaning out and then—guess what—looking TONED. This is what you wanted in the first place, is it not? IF after this explanation you still believe you are the exception to the population and will get “big” and “bulky” extremely quick due to “genetics”, then maybe donate your blood to the International Olympic Committee for further examination because your genetics are pretty much on par with the mystical magic of a Unicorn.

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