Bulking up vs. toning

Very often when approaching a woman with the suggestion of weight training, I hear a typical but highly flawed response: “I don’t want to get ‘big’, I just want to look firm and toned.” This common misconception leads to overdoing cardio and totally neglecting the highly crucial resistance training element of any fitness routine.

Let us begin with exploring the difference between ‘toning’ and ‘bulking up’. Toning refers to an overall leaner appearance, with decreased under-skin fat, and increased muscle definition and resting tone (the state of contraction of a muscle when it is not actively being flexed). This type of look results from a combination of weight-lifting and fat-burning.

‘Bulking up’ on the other hand, is a term more commonly used by bodybuilders, referring to a significant increase in muscle mass and size, not necessarily accompanied by a low body-fat percentage.

There seems to be a myth that weight training will cause the latter, and there are several reasons why this isn’t true. Firstly, a woman is not genetically programmed to accumulate muscle in the same way that the male body does. It (quite unfortunately) prefers to store energy in the form of fat, in order to support child birth and weaning. Secondly, the only anabolic hormone in woman is DHEA, which on its own is insufficient to produce large bulking muscles. Men have a plethora of other so called androgens (eg. testosterone) which stimulate muscle growth to a far higher degree. Thirdly, bodybuilders are on intense very high-protein diets, and often train until muscle failure with extremely heavy weights. Thus, there is little risk of a woman developing hulking muscles unless she is supplementing with artificial androgens (taking steroids), training 4-5 hours a day, lifting incredibly heavy weights, and eating a diet that is mostly impractical and unpalatable for the general population.

That being said, the benefits of weight training cannot be over-stressed. The tone and definition that is so desirable comes from this type of exercise, and not cardio (which predominantly builds muscle endurance). It is also important to note that lifting lighter weights with more reps is NOT an antidote to this dreaded ‘bulking’, but a rather useless affair. Muscle is built when it is exhausted, thus aim for heavier weights, with fewer reps (10-12), and less rest between sets (try super sets, or rest for at most 30-45 seconds). Your body knows how much muscle is necessary, and won’t ‘overdo it’ (like some of us tend to over the festive season). This muscle mass replaces the fat tissue surrounding it, and also requires significantly more energy to be sustained, even under resting conditions. This means that your body is automatically using up more of your fat reserves when you aren’t even doing anything.

All that aside, weight training improves joint mobility, the strength of associated connective tissues, and releases a myriad of beneficial chemicals into the bloodstream.

In conclusion, do NOT skimp on the resistance training. It is the driving force behind transforming your body into a lean, toned, and well-defined machine. Not only does it help you build a good-looking machine, but it also helps you build the strongest possible one, that can tackle the rigors of our stressful lives.

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