You Can’t Tone Your Muscles

Time for some Tuesday, trainer tough love. Every once in a while, I have a few topics that come up – either common misconceptions, ideas and exercises people get wrong, whatever they may be. We’re going to tackle these on Tuesdays with bonus articles. They might be what you want to hear. They might be something you don’t want to (but need to) hear. Regardless, let’s get into the second installment of Trainer Tough Love.


I want to lose this last 10 pounds. I just want to tone up.

This is probably the single most common thing I hear as a trainer from my female clients and members.

In my head, I want to scream “YOU CAN’T TONE ANYTHING EXCEPT A POOR DYE JOB. YOU WANT TO BUILD MUSCLE.” But it should be no surprise to anyone that that response would not be well-received. So, I refrain. Toning your muscles isn’t possible. When people say tone, they’re referring to a look. Not too muscular, not skinny, looking like you have just the perfect amount of muscle. Many of us have an immediate picture that comes to mind.

But words such as “hypertrophy” and “building muscle” are still thought of as “for men”. Surely as women, we don’t want to “build” anything. And what even is hypertrophy? It just sounds scary. We don’t want to look “like that”, whatever “that” is; I’ll let you bring to mind your own mental image.

But I’m here to tell you that although you can’t tone your muscles, you are perfectly capable of muscle hypertrophy, or the building of muscle. This is done by placing a load, or stress, on the muscle which it is not accustomed to, such as a heavy weighted exercise. Essentially, this damages the muscle. Then, through the repair process, the muscle is made stronger and larger. Granted, this is the very simplified version of hypertrophy; there is extensive time and hard work that contributes to the process.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute, larger? I don’t want larger muscles!”

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Hold up, before you click out of the article, give me a few more minutes to explain a little science to convince you otherwise.

Overnight, even over a few months or years, you will not go from where you are now to looking like whatever image you have in your head that you want to avoid looking like.

Looking “toned” will result from two things: loss of body fat and muscular hypertrophy. The first is achieved through adherence and attention to your diet. Eating in a caloric deficit, regardless of the specific ‘diet strategy’ you follow, will result in fat loss. Diet strategies include ketogenic, vegetarian, vegan, lower carbohydrate, lower fat, the list goes on and on.

However, the second is achieved through strength training. Specifically, placing loads on your body that is not accustomed to enduring. Let’s use step ups as an example.

Most of us walk up flights of stairs every day; whether you live in a two-story house, park on a higher level of the parking garage downtown for a night out, or work above the ground level of the building, the average person climbs countless flights of stairs without thinking about it. Our legs are used to the weight they carry up each step. Not only our body, but our backpack, maybe a kid, our water bottle and a packed lunch. The average 6th grader’s backpack weighs about 18 lbs.; it’s likely as adults, our briefcases and backpacks exceed this. So, when we perform step ups in the gym, we have to exceed the weight we’re used to carrying. Two, 10 pound dumbbells are only two pounds heavier than you’re used to, assuming the 18-pound weight of the backpack. This isn’t enough!

We need to add some weight and push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. This is where the muscle will break down, repair over the following days, and eventually both become stronger and increase in size. Overnight, your muscles won’t hypertrophy to suddenly look like the Hulk. We’re able to control this through the manipulation of different training variables. Without getting into too much detail, when you like how you look, simply scale down the resistance training to maintain the muscle that you do have. It doesn’t have to be a never-ending process.

Each fitness journey is an n=1 experiment. You never know how your body is going to react until you try something. All of the equations and estimates in the world will not be able to tell you exactly what’s going to happen when you start using the dumbbells from the rack and not the group exercise room. Of course, as humans, we want to see those who are like us and have been there as well. But even if your twin were to follow the same workout program, it’s no guarantee you will both look the same when you’ve finished.

That’s why I’m such an advocate for strength training, especially for women. We need more real-life people, not Instagram fitness coaches or models in magazine. The world needs the soccer mom, the 9-5 executive, the grade-school teacher. We need you, the woman reading this article. I’m talking to you. Next time you’re in the gym, put the barbell on your back or use dumbbells from the rack, not the colored ones for group exercise classes. Don’t shy away from or dismiss phrases such as hypertrophy or muscle building. You won’t look like “that” from lifting heavier weights a couple times per week.

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