Toning Muscles Versus Bigger Muscles

Bodybuilder working out
Weight lifting won't add big bulk without a significant calorie boost. (Image: Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images)

Fitness goals can include losing weight, improving cardiovascular function, increasing athletic competitiveness and boosting self-confidence. When it comes to muscle-related goals, some people might want to bulk up, and others might want to achieve a smoother, sleeker muscle tone. Some women steer clear of heavier weights, mistakenly thinking that using them will result in big, bulky muscles. However, it’s possible to achieve toned muscles using heavier weights.

Anatomy of a Muscle

Humans have three different types of muscle fibers, according to ACE Fitness. Proportions depend on genetics, but you have some of each kind. Slow-twitch muscles facilitate aerobic activities and contract slowly, promoting endurance and resisting fatigue. Fast-twitch muscles contract more quickly, facilitating strength, speed and power. They also fatigue more quickly. Fast-twitch muscles fall into two categories: fast-twitch A and fast-twitch B. Fast-twitch A muscles offer strength and power, a sort of midpoint between slow-twitch and fast-twitch B muscles; they are used for carrying heavy objects and sprinting. Fast-twitch B muscles operate during short, intense activities such as weight lifting. Working out your fast-twitch B muscles will influence whether your muscles become bigger or more toned.

Building Bigger Muscles

Heavier weights certainly contributes to bigger muscles; you’ll want to strength train at least twice a week to start building bulk. Columbia University recommends three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each weight-training activity. Weights should be heavy enough that you can’t lift a 13th time. After working out, give your muscles 24 to 48 hours to recover. Combining cardio activity can help your body burn calories and fat, showcasing your larger muscles. Although some weight trainers add protein shakes to their diets, maintain a diverse, healthy diet to make sure you’re receiving all the right nutrients. Consuming protein for repairing postworkout muscle tears and carbs for refueling can help your body steadily add muscle, according to Fit Sugar.

Targeting Toned Muscles

Heavier weights don’t necessarily translate to bigger muscles; you would need to significantly increase your calorie intake to create the massive, muscle-bound bodies featured on weight-lifting magazine covers. Fewer reps and more challenging weights can help you achieve muscle tone without adding bulk. In fact, “tone” is something of a misnomer because it refers to the actual tone of your underlying muscle, which isn’t visible to the human eye. When people talk about toned muscles versus bigger muscles, they’re referring to a long, lean musculature that looks strong but not bulky. Complete repetitions quickly, with fewer rests in between, and focus on reps until you’re too fatigued to proceed, according to Philly.com. Take shorter breaks during light lifting.

Additional Considerations

If you’re focusing on adding significant muscle bulk, consider adding stretches or yoga to your routine so that your body doesn’t become overly rigid. Women who are working toward creating much bigger muscles will need to work harder than men, since hormones in the male body enable larger muscle construction. The absence of those same hormones, however, will prevent women who want taut, toned muscles from accidentally adding big bulk.

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