Weightlifting & Women: Bulking vs. Toning

“I don’t want to bulk up, I want to tone up!”  As a trainer and studio owner I hear it all the time.  We all have an idea of what this statement means, but really what is difference between the two and how do you control for it when working out?

Bulking vs. toning a muscle

In order to “tone” a muscle you must isolate it, fatigue it with moderate resistance, and let it recover.  Afterwards, it will increase slightly in size, but mostly become more firm.  This creates the foundation for tone.  Do this on a regular basis and the muscle holds the tone and firmness longer.  The muscle will typically not bulk until you start  using heavier resistance.  Tone is most apparent when you have separation between muscle groups, this is referred to as definition.

“Bulk” is created when you repeat this process many times over with increasing  intensity and resistance.  Eventually, and if you have the right genetics, (see more below) the small growth spurts add up resulting in a noticeable change in size.  When an area bulks up you often lose muscle separation and definition.

Secondary bulk: the secret size changer 

“Secondary bulk” is the extra bulk that you create when your strong muscle groups constantly take over for your smaller weaker ones.  They become even stronger, more dominant and add extra girth to your frame, often where you don’t want it.  It can imbalance your body leaving you susceptible to injury and a fashion crisis!  It most commonly happens in the upper back, neck, and upper thigh area.

For example:

You may feel like your butt is a little too soft.  Well that means it’s also probably weak.  So you go into the gym and do a bunch of weighted power leg exercises.  Sure your butt may work some, BUT I guarantee you that your thighs (which can be prone to bulking and are much stronger) did most of the work!  So you get mediocre results on your behind and stronger bigger upper thighs that continue the muscle imbalance!  Oh and yes tighter jeans where you don’t want it.

Why do some people bulk and others don’t?

Big increases in bulk generally happen if you are:

1. Genetically prone to having “power” muscle tissue vs. “endurance” muscle tissue.  Only power muscle tissue can increase significantly in size.

2. You have the aid of testosterone (the muscle building hormone prevalent in males).

3. You effectively activate the muscles to grow.  Typically this means using heavier weight that you can only lift 5 to 10 times using all your effort to the point of total muscular failure.

The Differences Between Men and Women

Men generally have an advantage in the ability to bulk because they have more “power” muscle tissue and the aid of testosterone.  Most women cannot grow muscles like guys, but some can.  They were born with higher levels of power muscle and/or testosterone.  Some take steroid supplements to get leaner, harder, and bigger muscle tissue.  This can also masculinize other parts of their bodies.  You see a lot of these of images in popular fitness media and it often scares women away from lifting weights at all!

Many women, however, do have an advantage over men when it comes to building muscle in the lower body!  For most women holding 5 to 15 pound weights in your hands while doing leg exercises will not cause you to bulk up.  However, if done correctly and in combination with other exercises you can get the advanced toning results you are looking for!

The Best Approach

Some people know that they bulk up easy in some places, but others have no idea until they try.  If you find yourself getting too bulky and don’t like it then:

1.) Switch to lighter weights and…

2.) Learn how to lift with better technique!  Isolate muscles better, fatigue them with a lighter resistance, and avoid secondary bulk.

3.) Change your angle of attack with new exercises! Keep your body guessing by working small and large muscle groups in varying combinations.

4.) Consult with an INLINE trainer or class instructor if you need help!  Part of sculpting is learning how to undo mistakes and create muscular balance.  We specialize in this type of training!

If you are a beginner it will take some experimentation to figure out.  Some short term heavier lifting may even be ok and necessary for you.  Sometimes you must have a foundation of strength before you can get good tone.

If you find yourself getting a little too bulky, then stop, switch to higher repetitions, lighter weight, and the effect will go away.  However, if you keep going month after month in a program that is designed to create a football player type physique it may never go back exactly.  The extra primary and secondary muscle you gain on your limbs, upper back, and thighs, could quite possibly change you forever in your girth, shape, diminished height, and posture.  Using lengthening and postural exercise such as Pilates, Yoga, and INLINE Resistance Training is your best hope to counteract these effects!


About the Author:

Josh Kirk

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