Can You Train For Bulking Versus Toning?

You’ve decided it’s time to get back in shape, to pursue your fitness goals with more vigor. And you are committed. But this time you want to train smarter, not just harder.  In other words, despite your commitment, you wonder if the exercise routine you are embarking on is the right one for you. There’s no sense putting a lot of time and effort into a training program that doesn’t get you where you want to be. One thing is for sure: Resistance training is the most effective way to change the composition and shape of your body. Whether that be with selectorized machines, barbells, dumbbells, or resistance bands, muscular tension applied during a range of motion will cause muscles to change or adapt. Getting your body to adapt in a particular way is the name of the game. But that adaptive response is directly related to the type of training stimulus you use. Maybe you want to add some muscle mass. Or perhaps you want to be more “toned,” or lean out a bit. The efficacy of your program – how well it works to get you where you want to be – is dependent on three G’s: Goals, Grade, and Gender.

Bulking vs. Toning

You’ve decided it’s time to get back in shape, and to pursue your fitness goals with more vigor. And you are committed. But this time you want to train smarter, not just harder.

In other words despite your commitment, you wonder if the exercise routine you are embarking on is the right fit for you––there’s no sense in putting a lot of effort into a training program that doesn’t get you where you want to be.

Maybe you want to add some muscle mass, or perhaps you want to be more “toned”, or lean out a bit. The efficacy of your program – how well it works to get you where you want to be – is dependent on The Three G’s: Goals, Grade, and Gender.

Goals

The effectiveness of any training regimen is dependent on your goals. The reason for this being that each training stimulus brings about specific, different adaptations.

And what we know from research is this:

• The adaptation that occurs with rep ranges between 12 and 20 tends to build muscular endurance
• The adaptation that occurs when you train with reps in the 8-12 range is hypertrophic in nature – or will result in an increase in muscle cell size
• The adaptation that occurs when you train with reps in the 4-7 range tends to be an increase in maximum muscle strength
• The adaptation that occurs with reps in the 1-3 range is strength and power, especially the latter when movements are performed with speed.

Now keep in mind that this is only a guide––those wanting to increase muscle endurance will occasionally perform sets of 5 reps, but this is generally considered uncommon. Likewise, those wanting to improve strength will, on occasion, perform sets of 12 reps. But by and large, the rep ranges you normally train in should reflect your personal fitness goals.

Grade

Yet no matter how relevant your rep ranges are to your goals, you will have difficulty reaching those goals if there is little effort involved in your training. Here is an anecdote illustrating what I mean by that, and it comes from over 40 years of training experience.

In general, if I ask a male to choose a weight in an exercise in which he can perform 8 reps, he will choose a weight where he can get 5 reps and I will have to help him with 3. In general, if I ask a female to choose a weight in which they can perform 8 reps, they will choose a weight they can successfully do 20 times and stop at 8.

The point is not just that men tend to overestimate their strength and women don’t; the point is that neither these particular men or women are making the best use of what we know about rep ranges because they are missing the actual adaptation that comes from those rep ranges. By not choosing the appropriate loads, they are in effect training for a undesired, different adaptation.

Another aspect of grade is effort itself. If two twins start out with the same muscle size and strength, and each has the same training routine, but one employs high-effort sets – such as forced reps, drop-sets, etc. – they will have significantly different adaptations.

Finally, grade speaks to the issue of “tone” versus “bulk”. Firstly, you cannot tone a muscle like you tune a guitar string. The muscle either adapts to the training methodology, or simply doesn’t. That which brings about a feeling of being “toned” is nothing more than an increase in muscle strength, which depending on the methodology employed, typically comes with an increase in muscle size. The muscle has essentially adapted to a training stress, and now feels “toned.”

However, this is not a completely different adaptation than experienced by the one who trains for muscle size––it’s simply just a different grade of it.

Gender

That being said, there is another factor of significance that drives your adaptation and achievement of goals – hormones. Hormones, particularly testosterone, mediate the adaptation response, whether that response be muscular endurance or strength. (Women have testosterone too, secreted by the adrenal cortex, just not nearly as much as in men.)

I often hear women say, “I want to tone up and be fit, but I don’t want to get bulky”. Not going to happen! If you were the 1 in a billion women with hormone levels near a male’s, you would undoubtedly know it by now, and would most likely be an Olympic athlete for some Eastern European country.

So, if a woman trains in the 8-12 rep ranges and trains hard, they won’t get bulky? Nope, they won’t––unless they are over-eating, which will result in a bulk that won’t be muscle-based. In fact, a woman training in the 8-12 rep range will likely have a more aesthetic female appearance, not a more masculine one. Consider that the shoulders, back, chest, thighs, and calves are all muscles that add to the curves of a female, while simultaneously minimizing waist circumference.

If you understand your goals, grade or level of training effort, and the implications of your gender, you are positioned to not only program your routine according to your goals, but also to attain them. In the end, identify your goals, program your routine accordingly, work hard, and enjoy your new physique!

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About the Author: Bob LeFavi

Bob LeFavi, PhD, is a professor of sports medicine and Dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. He has been department head of health sciences and sports medicine at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA. Bob won the bantamweight class at the IFBB NorthAmerican Bodybuilding Championship and was runner-up at both the USA and National Championships. He also competed in the CrossFit Games as a Master’s athlete and has written over 750 articles in the popular press on training, diet, and fitness.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.