Fitness / Strength Training

Toning vs Building Muscle: What’s the Deal?

Is there truly a difference between toning and building muscle? We investigate.

Everyone works out for different reasons. The benefits of fitting in a good amount of walking, at-home workouts, and general fitness motivation are crazy good (think mood boosts and healthier choices throughout the day). Yet, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t also work out in hopes of improving our strength, stamina, and yes, our looks.

In-shape, defined, swole (forgive us)—everyone’s body goal is different. While some go for weightlifting and a variety of machines to achieve their ‘gains’, others lean towards classes like yoga, pilates, and barre. The former is usually cited by those who want to build muscle, while the latter done in the hopes of “toning.”

But, what the hell is the difference?!

To Tone or Not to Tone

It’s clear that certain styles of fitness have championed the term “tone” to mean lengthening, leaning out, and strengthening your muscles. All the while not “bulking.” To that we ask a few things. Is all of that even possible? Can we decide how our muscles grow? Is there really some magical strengthening and lengthening effect these sorts of workouts have on the body? Is it all some marketing ploy?

It’s all quite confusing. So we set out to set the record straight about this current fixation in the fitness world. Here to help us along the way is Jonathan Cane, co-founder of New York’s City Coach Multisport. Along with coaching endurance athletes for the past 25 years (at Nike for a time, might we add), Cane holds a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology, co-wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Weight Training, and has been a featured speaker for Nike, The Hospital for Special Surgery, TRIARQ, and more.

Keep reading to see what he told us about this fitness trend.

Do “toning” exercises lean out and lengthen your muscles?

“Whenever this topic comes up, the snooty exercise physiologist in me comes out, and I start with a few basics,” Cane begins. “First, a muscle has an origin and an insertion. In other words, they attach (via tendons to the bone) at fixed points. All the exercise in the world won’t change that. So, when people talk of “lengthening” muscles, it’s not based in reality.” In other words, all of the ballet-inspired classes in the world won’t make your legs any longer. Honestly, we should’ve all guessed as much. (And likely could’ve, if we weren’t so distracted by the rest of every mesmerizing barre class description).

Pause for a moment: Not entirely on track, but a similar logic goes for stretching to “grow” taller. Another popular tale in fitness mythos, is that stretching enough will lengthen your muscles. To quickly stomp out the fire, this isn’t 100 percent true either. In reality, most adults who don’t stretch much have compressed spines. Because of this, when they begin stretching more often it’s likely that the spine will decompress. Boom, you look taller. Just barely. While at first everything checks out, it’ll only last until your spine squishes back down all over again (which is totally natural). Myth busted.

In that case, do our muscles respond any differently to toning exercises vs lifting weights?

Simply put: No. “If sufficiently stimulated, a muscle fiber does one thing, and one thing only—it grows,” Cane said. “A motor unit consists of a neuron and the muscle fibers it controls. If the motor unit is stimulated, all those muscle fibers fire.”

Basically, this is your muscles getting worked up. Cane explained, “Intensity—not speed of movement, number of reps, or amount of weight used—is what controls whether a motor unit fires. Once it is sufficiently stimulated (or reaches its excitation threshold), it fires. And if that happens enough, the muscle visibly grows.”

In short, when you work out at a certain level of intensity, your muscles respond by breaking down and rebuilding, therefore growing slightly. Regardless of the type of strength workout. That isn’t to say that you’ll be getting major gains after a few days in the gym. While phrases like “gaining” and “building muscle” tend to scare many, their reasons are completely invalid. It takes serious amounts of time, effort, and calculation to make those intense gains.

So really, lifting weights a few times a week can strengthen your muscles to the same effect that a pilates class would. But bear in mind, how much and how quickly your muscles react to working out is completely unique to you. “Of course this gets tricky. The extent of that growth will vary based on a number of factors, so not everyone will respond the same. That’s why two people can do the same routine and not look the same,” said Cane.

If you have body fat, can you still get toned?

The answer to this questions depends on how you define toned. This is where most of our questions regarding this whole thing came to. Whether you ask trainers, physical therapists, or do a quick Google search, chances are you’ll never find one definitive definition.

“Assuming we’re using the lay definition of muscle tone (as opposed to the proper medical definition of tone or tonus), tone or [muscle] definition is largely a function of body composition.” (In case you were wondering, the medical definition of tonus is, “the slight, continuous contraction of a muscle, which in skeletal muscles aids in the maintenance of posture and in the return of blood to the heart.” Which is almost entirely different and, admittedly, a bit more complicated.)

Considering we’re still talking about the popular use of the word tone (à la definition, as Cane mentioned before), body fat is, in fact, a factor. “If the layer of fat (and other tissue) over a muscle is great enough, it will obscure the muscle and there won’t be tone or definition. If that same person, with no change in muscle, were to decrease their body fat, they’d have greater definition.” So if you consider a toned bod to simply be one with defined muscles, maintaining a low level of body fat (likely by way of a healthy diet) is key.

The Bottom Line

All in all, a large part of being “toned” or not is out of our hands. “If you want to increase tone/definition, you need to affect body composition. Muscles aren’t that smart or programmable,” Cane concluded.

While you can change the amount of body fat and muscle you have, there’s no way of changing the amount of bone, tissue, and water. But, hope for firm, defined muscles isn’t all lost. It all comes down to working out and eating right for your body type. That, along with minimizing body fat so your toned muscles can show through, is key.

Fitness Strength Training

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