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the truth about toning: woman holding dumbbells in gym

How To Train And Eat For Toning Versus Bulking

Toning, which is sometimes referred to in the extreme as getting ripped, is a popular concept in fitness. And while we all have a pretty clear picture of what a toned physique looks like, not everyone understands what it takes to achieve one.

Bulking vs. Toning

Another term you’ll hear people throw around at the gym is bulking. Bodybuilders and powerlifters often use this term to refer to a period in which they’re building as much muscle mass as possible. Often this involves putting on a little body fat, too, which is why many people bulk during the winter months.

Read More: The Hard-Gainer’s Guide To Building Muscle

This process involves hard work in the gym and plenty of food in order to achieve significant muscle growth. In many cases, a bulker’s physique becomes larger and softer—and they’ll focus on shedding any fat gained come springtime.

When people talk about toning, though, they’re usually referring to making their body more defined. Often, this involves building or maintaining muscle mass while lowering body fat. Some people might even describe toning as simply losing fat, but I’d argue that you need to build some muscle to create the defined physique many people desire.

Training To Look Toned

Despite the old adage “heavy weights for bulking, light weights for toning,” lifting heavy and light weights both result in similar levels of muscle growth, as long as you train decently hard. That’s right: Regardless of whether you want to bulk up or look more toned, how you lift doesn’t need to differ much. However, if anything, you might burn more calories when doing more reps, which could certainly help you shed a little extra fat over the long run.

That said, there’s one issue people interested in toning need to confront—and that’s the concern about “getting too bulky.” It’s extremely important to keep in mind that when people worry about this, they make one very incorrect assumption: that it’s easy to build muscle.

If it were easy to build muscle, we’d have a lot more people walking around looking like bodybuilders. But building muscle does not happen by accident; you don’t lift weights one time and then wake up absolutely jacked the next morning. I’ve been trying to do that for over 20-years and it hasn’t worked yet!

In fact, if you want to build serious muscle, you’ll probably have to train hard for several years—not to mention maintain a perfect diet and consistent sleep schedule. So if you’re hesitant to strength train for fear of looking like a mass monster of the bodybuilding stage, don’t be.

Diet and Toning

While your lifting style may not have much influence on whether you achieve a bulkier or more toned look, your diet certainly does. If you want to build any muscle at all, it’s crucial that you consume enough calories.

Where you get those calories from can impact your body composition. Research shows that people who consume a huge excess of calories generally gain both muscle and fat, even if they don’t work out. Obviously, this would lead to the bulkier appearance that many bodybuilders chase during the winter. This shouldn’t be surprising: Eating a ton of food might make you gain some fat. Did you know the sky was blue, too?

Read More: 5 Ways To Lose Weight Without Ever Going On A Diet

Some studies, on the other hand, show that you can overeat on calories and still lose fat– IF your extra calories need to come from protein. You see, our bodies have to burn calories to digest and absorb food, and protein requires more energy to digest and absorb than fat or carbohydrates. Therefore, adding some extra protein in your diet can actually help you shed fat while maintaining, or even gaining, muscle!

So, if the toned, chiseled, or defined look is what you’re going for, I’d recommend ensuring you’re getting plenty of protein in your diet. This can help burn fat while keeping or even increasing your lean muscle levels. One easy way to increase your protein intake is to simply add a protein powder to your routine. Though some people worry that protein supplements cause weight gain, most of them only add an extra 100 to 200 calories to your day. Unless the rest of your diet is centered on gaining weight, adding a protein shake alone won’t make the number on your scale budge much.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, don’t let terms like “bulking” and “toning” distract you too much in the gym. Focus on giving your lifts your best effort and use your diet to support your fat-loss or get-big goals. Once you achieve your goal physique, simply drop your training efforts to more of a maintenance phase and strut with confidence.

References & Further Reading

  1. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women–a follow-up investigation.
  2. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Massive overfeeding and energy balance in men: the Guru Walla model.
  3. Nutrients: The energy content and composition of meals consumed after an overnight fast and their effects on diet induced thermogenesis: a systematic review, meta-analyses and meta-regressions.
  4. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low-vs. high-load resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis.


Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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