Mind & Body

A "Toned" Appearance Has Nothing to Do With Muscle Tone

Walk into any weight room, and you're almost guaranteed to see two things: a man straining to lift the heaviest weight he can, and a woman lifting a weight so light she doesn't break a sweat. This comes from the idea that lifting a heavy weight a handful of times will make your muscles big and bulky (something many men want but many women don't), and lifting a light weight numerous times will make your muscles long, lean, and toned (something many women want but many men don't). Can you really change the shape of your muscles with different styles of exercise? The science, we're afraid, says no.

Tone It Down

The word "tone," when applied to muscles, means something different in the dictionary than it does in everyday parlance. The true definition of tone is the constant, involuntary state of partial contraction your muscles are in during rest. In pop culture, however, a toned muscle is one that's attractively firm and defined, but not overly large or bulging. But how firm and defined your muscles look and feel have nothing to do with your muscles. Muscles only grow or shrink; they strengthen or weaken — they don't get softer or firmer (or longer or leaner, for that matter).

What makes them feel soft and look undefined, then? Body fat. As fitness expert and author Todd Hargrove puts it, "... if you lose enough weight, you will have a six pack regardless of whether you have ever done a crunch in your life. And all the crunches in the world will not reveal even a one pack if your body fat percentage never drops below the required level." That's all over your body, not just at the points you want to lose fat. "Spot reduction," or burning fat at just one spot, is also a myth. Losing body fat means making sure a healthy diet is part of your exercise routine.

The Heavy Truth

Okay, so lifting weights won't make you toned, but lifting too heavy of a weight will certainly make you bulky, right? Wrong. For one thing, the shape, size, and growing power of your muscles are largely determined by genetics. Testosterone also plays a big role in how brawny you can be, and women have a small fraction of the testosterone that men do.

As far as lifting less weight at more repetitions to avoid getting bulky muscles, many studies, including a 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, have found there's no difference in muscle size and strength after lifting heavy weights at fewer reps versus light weights at more reps. It doesn't matter how much weight you use, but how intense your workout is. Intensity is what will burn calories, boost metabolism, and enhance strength.

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For more science-based fitness tips, check out "Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body" or "Thinner Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Female Body" by fitness expert Michael Matthews. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 5, 2016

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