Building Muscle Vs. Toning… What’s The Difference?

What is the difference between building muscle and toning?  The short and long answer is… absolutely NOTHING.

There is literally zero difference between the physiological effect of building muscle and that of toning muscle.  So why is the term “toning” used when referring to someone who simply gets tighter more firm feeling muscles?  The answer is it was a marketing ploy to get women to buy gym memberships.

You see, years ago women were a very tough but potentially lucrative market to crack when it came to the fitness industry.  Gyms had no problem selling memberships to men but women weren’t exactly signing up in droves.  This meant the fitness industry was missing out on a very large share of the market.

It was found that women were not going to the gym because they were afraid of “building too much muscle” (and many still are).  They thought that if they did any form of resistance training they would look like a professional bodybuilder.  This perception wasn’t helped by female bodybuilders, pumped full of male hormones, who did, in fact, have massive striated muscles.  These women look very masculine and that strengthened the myth that lifting weights would create a masculine looking body. To counter this perception the fitness industry came up with a genius strategy.  They would rename “muscle building” to “toning” or “sculpting” so that women would buy gym memberships. They blamed big muscles on heavy weights and they sold women on light weights and high reps, a stupid myth that still persists today.

The industry responded by making machines specifically designed for women to be placed in the “women’s only” section of the gym. These machines were identical to the machines the men were using except they had pink or purple padding and the weight stacks were not as heavy. They also had pictures of women demonstrating the particular movement the machine was designed to do. In fact, the first gym I ever worked at 15 years ago had such a women’s only section.  Hilarious!

Even now, I routinely get new clients who tell me they “don’t want to get too big” or that they “just want to tone and not build” muscle.  Unbelievable. I wish it were that easy to build muscle.  It’s as if a person can lift heavy weights and wake up the next day with huge muscles…”Sal WTF man…I told you I didn’t want to build too much…now look at me!!”  HA HA!!  This will not happen.  There is a VERY small percentage of the female population that can build muscle like a man and believe me it is very obvious before they ever step into a gym.  A woman can train and eat like a professional bodybuilder and over time she will simply look very tight, “toned” and lean.

Toning, quite simply,  is building muscle.  They are the same.  As muscle fibers grow and become thicker they feel tighter.  A larger and conditioned muscle will always feel more “toned” than a smaller unconditioned muscle (barring muscle tightness imbalances).  Body fat also plays a role…get leaner and suddenly feel tighter.

The bottom line is this: if you want to have a tight, lean physique, then train in a fashion that builds muscle most effectively.  Use heavy weights and do barbell and dumbbell movements.  If you happen to be part of the .05% of the population that builds muscle quickly, then slow down when you achieve your desired goal.  Don’t waste your time on programs designed to “tone and sculpt but not build” because it will take you much longer to get to your goals.