“I want to slim down and tone up. But I don’t want to be bulky.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase as a personal trainer, I’d be able to retire right now. And I don’t just hear it from prospective clients. I hear it from the men who say, “That chick looks like a man, dude,” (a shitty thing to say for numerous reasons, do I really need to explain?) or the women who look at other women and say, “Ugh, her quads are huge. Gross.” (Pro tip: if you’ve ever called another person’s body gross, you’re an asshole and it’s time to reevaluate your life.)
Most fitness marketing is designed to shame and make you hate yourself, then pay for products and services that promise to fix you. Even people who are well aware of this fall victim to it again and again. For women, the message being sold is nearly always some permutation of: here’s how to get skinny. This is especially true in the age of social media #fitspo, a closer cousin to #thinspo than many users would like to admit. The Insta-celebs tell you you’re supposed to work out. But if you are to remain a non-threatening, sexually desirable, thin woman, you also don’t want to “bulk up.”
The “toned” versus “bulky” dichotomy isn’t new — it’s a pervasive fitness myth that has been around at least since the rise of the aerobics craze in the 1980s, and has roots much farther back. After all, even in eras when the preferred female body type was bigger than it is now, women were supposed to be “soft.” Here’s the truth: the fear of “bulk” is misogynistic and misplaced, and the popular concept of muscle “tone” is meaningless anyway.
“Tone” doesn’t mean what you think it means.
For starters, setting out with a fitness goal of “getting toned” is going to get you nowhere. It’s nonspecific and subjective, and lack of specificity is the ultimate goal killer. When a client comes to me with this request, it requires follow up questions. Are you saying you want to lose weight? Build muscle? Look “firmer”? Do you want visible muscle definition? And finally… are you just saying you want to be skinny? Because that’s usually what people mean when they say “toned”: skinny and taut, but god forbid you see the bulge of an actual muscle.
Scientifically speaking, the phrase “muscle tone” refers to the degree of tension maintained in your muscles at all times, even at rest. It pertains to neuromuscular function, not strength or muscle size. Muscle tone helps us stand and sit upright, and increases in response to stretch. Without it, you’d have little control over your body. This, as you might have guessed, has nothing to do with the colloquial use of the word “toned.”
But hey, I get it. The modern fitness industry grew largely out of bodybuilding, but bodybuilding is extreme. Not everyone wants to work out that way. So maybe at some point, “toned” was a reasonable way for people to express their desire for moderate muscle gain. But “toned” has now become synonymous with “thin.” Further, it has led to the misconception that there are two types of muscles you can build: long, lean ones and short, bulky ones. Quite simply, this is not true. It’s scientifically unfounded.
You can’t get ripped by accident.
Every muscle cell in each of your skeletal muscles spans the entire length of that muscle. Once we reach adulthood, we usually can’t grow new muscle cells. But the ones we have can grow bigger and larger in diameter. They can also get shorter or longer, but this affects range of motion and flexibility more than it does appearance.
Different training techniques can absolutely lead to different amounts of muscle gain. But the idea that you can tone a muscle without making it bigger is bullshit. Equally ridiculous is the idea that you can accidentally get bodybuilder ripped. Bodybuilders follow intense, highly specialized training regimens and strict diets. You can’t stumble into that kind of muscle gain, even if you start lifting significantly heavier weights than you’re used to.
There are those out there — cough cough TRACY ANDERSON cough — who would have women believe that simply looking at a weight heavier than five pounds, hell, heavier than three pounds, will turn them into the Hulk. To this I say… are… you… kidding? Just think of how damn easy it would be to get strong and fit if that were true. (Here, if you’re curious, is an excellent explanation of why Tracy Anderson in full of shit.)
Resistance training will make you look slimmer.
This is the great paradox of the “women shouldn’t lift heavy weights” myth: the very goal so many women are trying to attain, namely a slimmer look, would be better achieved with heavier weights. Again, I want to emphasize that getting thinner does not have to be your goal when working out. In fact, if physical appearance is your primary motivation to exercise, research indicates you are less likely to stick with it. But I know it would be naive to pretend I can dissuade the world from exercising without any aesthetic considerations in mind.
So here’s the scientific reality: if you want your muscles to get stronger, you have to challenge them. The most popular theory is that muscles grow because exercise — resistance training in particular — causes microscopic damage to muscle fibers, and the work done to repair that damage leads the muscles to grow bigger and stronger. What we know for sure is that the body responds to the demands placed upon it. And I hate to break it to you, but two, three pounds? These small weights may be appropriate for a some exercises, but for many of our major muscles — glutes, quads, deltoids, pecs, lats, etc. — tiny weights aren’t going to do a damn thing. Think about it: your grocery bags are probably heavier than that.
Tracy Anderson (I promise this is the last time I’ll mention her) and others sell a bizarre “don’t work the big muscles” approach to fitness. But you need those big muscles. They’re powerful for a reason. Besides, our muscles work together in groups. Trying to work the little ones without the big ones makes your workouts inefficient and ineffective. Those big muscles have a greater effect on physical appearance, anyway. But this doesn’t mean that working them will make you look “bulky.” Quite the opposite. Muscle tissue is lean and dense. Building muscle will make you look thinner.
Resistance training is also a vital component of any weight loss-focused exercise routine. It’s true that cardio is your best bet in terms of total caloric expenditure, but resistance training burns calories, too. It has even been shown to lead to EPOC, also known as “afterburn,” a phenomenon in which the body continues to burn extra calories even after your workout has ended. And the more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body burns at all times, not just when you’re working out.
When I say you have to lift heavier to achieve these benefits, I don’t mean that you have to start doing the kind of Olympic-style lifts recently re-popularized by CrossFit and its imitators. (Although if you want to do that, go for it. While I don’t have a lot of love for CrossFit in general, I do absolutely appreciate its celebration of women who are strong as hell.) And of course, you should progress the difficulty of your workouts carefully. All I’m saying is: reach for the weight that challenges you. Don’t think there is some imaginary threshold above which you’ll “bulk up.” There’s a big, happy middle ground here.
The rule of thumb is that you should always be able to complete your set with proper technique, but your last one to three reps should feel very difficult. If they don’t, you need heavier weights. For specific recommendations, seek professional advice if it’s accessible. If not, challenge yourself but be kind to your body.
Don’t let the patriarchy keep you small.
I mean that literally and figuratively. You might think: it’s just a preference. I don’t want to look muscular. You know what? Fine. You deserve to love your body and if you don’t think strong muscles will make you happy then do what makes you feel great. But the truth is, our physical preferences are not formed in a vacuum. They are influenced by millennia of images largely designed by and created for men. So all I ask is that you think critically about why you want to look a certain way.
“Toned’ versus “bulky” isn’t just about looks. It’s about physical ability. Women aren’t supposed to be muscular because the patriarchy doesn’t want us to be strong, self-sufficient, or potentially threatening to men. Fuck that. I like being able to lift my own damn suitcase into the overhead bin. I like knowing that being strong in my twenties makes me less likely to fall and break a hip in my seventies. I like knowing that I can run fast, hit hard, and hold my own. Anyone who is intimidated by your physical fortitude is not worth your time.
This post also appeared on Medium.