First off, the term bulky means different things to different people.
Earlier in my coaching career, when new clients would say they were afraid of getting bulky, I used to sort of shrug it off and explain how lifting weights wouldn’t turn them into Arnie overnight.
Ignoring the fact that I clearly wasn’t listening to my clients concerns as I well as I ought to… ok, can’t really ignore that even though it makes me look bad…
Point is, I can’t tell you if lifting weight will make you bulky or not because I don’t know what that term means to you.
What I can tell you though, is how muscle grows -- how it gets bigger and how it doesn’t. And I can tell you why knowing how to grow muscle is important even if you just want a little more definition in your legs, or to live a longer healthier life.
This post is for those looking to get more toned, but avoid lifting weights because they’re afraid of getting too big or muscular. I want you to know what it takes to build muscle so you can decide what would be best for the level of tone and muscularity you’re looking for. This is also useful if there’s a certain body part you do want to make more strong and muscular, whether it’s your buns or your guns :P
Misconceptions about getting toned and getting bigger
“Toned”, like “bulky”, means different things to different people. For this post, when I say tone it means being able to see the lines of definition of a muscle more clearly.
The more muscle you have, and the less fat you have, the more defined your muscles will appear, the more tone you’ll have. This is why you can see seemingly every muscle fibre on a pro bodybuilder’s body — a shit ton of muscle and extremely low level of fat.
You can get muscle tone by building muscle, by losing fat, or some combination of the two.
People who are often described as “toned” actually have a pretty good amount of muscle. This is important because if you ignore this you’ll spin your wheels and your body will look the same even though you workout all the time. I know this from my own personal experience as well as that of countless clients who struggled to change their body.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to look toned and fit, but didn’t want to look too muscular. I didn’t want to get too big. I wanted to stay lanky, I just wanted to see those really clear lines of definition. Oh, and I thought my thighs were too big for my body so I was afraid to do any sort of leg exercise. I basically wanted to look fit, but didn’t want to look like I was intentionally trying to build muscle. I.e. I clearly had some pretty conflicting goes back then.
After going the high rep + low weight route for years and having nothing to show for it, I eventually decided to pursue a different goal, strength. Ironically, it was only after then started to see the muscular definition I had been struggling with for years.
Now, how we see our bodies is extremely complicated. It’s constantly changing because perspectives are constantly changing.
This means many people don’t realize the “toned” woman on the treadmill ad actually has a decent amount of muscle, and can probably squat at least 150 lbs.
Speaking of treadmills…
The typical prescription of cardio and light weights isn’t the key to muscle tone.
It can work of course with proper nutrition, exercise and weight selection. Lots of things can work. But it’s not the only way, and it’s certainly not the most effective way.
This notion that heavy weights produce big bulky muscles and light weights produce long lean muscles is simply not true. This myth comes mainly from slick marketing and the sexist notion that women shouldn’t be strong.
Ironically, mega heavy weights aren’t as effective at building muscle as moderate weights. More on that later.
Both heavy, moderate, and light weights can build muscle (although even the “light” weights still need to get progressively heavier over time for the body to change.) In other words, if you’ve been doing the same workout with the same weights and the same reps for years, you now know why nothing is changing.
Whether a muscle looks “long and lean” or “big and bulky” simply depends on how much muscle you have, in addition to your genetics.
There is only muscle and not muscle.
There isn’t toned muscle and bulky muscle, only muscle and fat. It’s the relationship between muscle and fat that determines how toned or defined a muscle looks
Your training doesn’t dictate how muscle grows, whether it looks “bulky” or “toned”, only whether it grows or not.
Genetics actually play a huge role in how your muscle appears. I’ll dive into that in detail in a later blog post, because knowing this can help you avoid some common pitfalls, (pitfalls I wish I could have avoided) when it comes to choosing a workout that best suits your goals.
If you want to know when that post gets published email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Keep me posted!” and I’ll let you know as soon as that goes live :)
There is no bulkiness without calories
Your scale weight is determined by calories. How your body looks in the mirror after eating those calories depends on your workouts, as well as food quality.
Eat too much and the weight on the will scale go up. How you train determines what happens to those calories, whether the extra calories are converted into muscle or fat.
Muscle is weight. This means to build muscle, the body needs enough calories to gain weight.
Now, what happens if you train to build muscle, but you don’t give your body enough calories to build new muscle?
What builds muscle keeps muscle. So the body will keep the muscle you have while burning up fat. The result is a higher muscle to fat ratio. If you have the same amount of muscle but less fat, your muscles will look more defined.
Tada! Muscle tone.
Weight training is fat loss training. Not because of how many calories it burns, but because it preserves muscle so you predominantly burn fat, not muscle, as you dial in your nutrition.
Say you reduce your scale weight by diet and cardio alone (cardio totes optional by the way). You’ll burn fat, but also muscle, so you won’t see as much definition compared to if you added a few days of weight training to the mix. Even if you just want to lose weight for health reasons and don’t care about muscle tone, holding on to your muscle is going to make you age more gracefully and stay young for longer. Loss of muscle mass is a huge contributor to decreased physical ability in elderly populations.
Lifting weights might make the difference between using a walker or not when you’re 90.
In other words, muscle and strength are important far beyond physical appearance.
But what kind of training is best for fueling muscle? What causes a muscle to grow?
Without going too much into the nerdy stuff, here’s how to build optimally build muscle whether you want to get bigger muscles, more muscle tone, or to have a higher quality of life as you get older.
Key Principles of Muscle Building
Utilize the principle of progressive overload
Consistently challenge, or overload, the muscles -- making an exercise progressively harder over time. There are many ways to do this, but here are the go to’s: Add weight, add reps, use less rest time in between sets, do the eccentric phase more slowly, or squeeze the target muscle harder.
Basically, if a muscle is going to grow it needs to be consistently challenged in some way that forces it to adapt to said challenge by getting bigger, denser, and/or stronger.
This is called the principle of progressive overload and it’s absolutely essential for any style of training to be effective.
Runners don’t get faster by running the same distance for the same time everyday for years. They consistently challenge themselves to beat their old times. The body adapts to the challenges it’s faced with so long as the challenges aren’t unrealistically difficult.
You could have a completely terribly written workout program, but if you used progressive overload, you’d still make progress. It’s that important.
Some exercises allow you to lift more weight for more reps. You can row a heavier weight, and for more reps, than you can curl. Compound exercises, as they’re called, are better for burning fat, but also for building muscle. Because you can challenge the body more and can get more work in.
A compound exercise is an exercise that targets multiple muscle groups and involves movement at multiple joints — as opposed to an isolation exercise which seeks to isolate a single muscle group at a single joint.
Compound, multi-joint lifts are going to build muscle and burn fat significantly better than isolation exercises. Think squats instead of leg extensions, or dumbbell presses instead of chest flies.
Below is a list of your “money” exercises. There are more of course. These are just some of my go-to’s for my online clients’ programs:
- Squat: Goblet Squat, Split Squat,Back Squat Front Squat, Zercher Squat
- Push: Dumbbell Chest Press, Half Kneeling Landmine Press, Push-Up, Military Press
- Pull: Dumbbell Row, Pull-Up, Batwing
- Hinge: Romanian Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Kettlebell Swing, Hip Thrust
- Carry: Farmer Walk, Suitcase Carry, Goblet Carry
Volume. Lots of volume.
Volume is the total amount of work you do. Volume equals approximately (reps) x (weight used). It can get a bit more complicated than that as you get stronger, but this is good enough for now. For a more nuanced discussion about how volume works check out this great piece from Eric Cressey.
So if you squat 100 lbs for 3 sets of 10, the total volume of that workout would be 3,000.
Muscle needs lots of volume to grow. Like, lots of volume. Like, more volume than a shampoo commercial.
Essentially, to build muscle you need to spend more time under the bar and get more reps in.
If there isn’t enough volume, muscle won’t grow. For example, it’s going to be pretty hard to build muscle if you only lift twice a week. Now, two days a week can work if you’re brand new to training, or those two sessions are freaking brutal. However, 3 or 4 days is more effective if you’re really trying to make progress.
Weight lifted and volume are two sides of the same coin. If the intensity/weight goes up on a given exercise on a given day, volume is going to go down for that day and vice versa. This makes sense. You can jog farther than you can sprint. It’s the same principle.
For example, you can get more total reps doing sets of 10 than sets of 3 because sets of 3 will be really heavy which. This limit the amount of sets you do. 3 sets of 10 is pretty standard, and for good reason. 10 sets of 3 is not standard, also for good reason.
Now, you could potentially do 10 sets of 3, but it would crush you like the weight of existential dread. Your total volume for the week would suffer because you’d feel so wrecked. Consequently, you don’t see 10 sets of 3 in many workouts.
This is why the 8-12 rep range lends itself well to muscle building. Because it allows you to lift relatively heavy weights while still getting lots of total reps in. It allows you to strike a balance between intensity and total reps completed, yielding the highest total volume.
Use a variety of rep ranges
The 8-12 rep range is typically called the “muscle building range” for the reasons described above. While much of your work should be done around here, for optimal results use a variety of rep ranges, including some pure strength work (1-5 reps per set), and pump work (15-25 reps per set).
Use full range of motion
Taking an exercise through a greater range of motion (ROM) will produce a greater muscle building stimulus.
Full squats will be better than quarter squats, despite quarter squats allowing you to use more weight.
Now, full ROM means different things to different individuals.
Let’s look at the squat. The standard definition for full ROM in a squat is when your thighs are parallel to the floor.
This is a pretty good baseline, however not everybody can reach that depth without aberrations in technique. If going that low means your back rounds or your heels come off the floor, it’s better to shorten the range of motion until you’ve built up enough flexibility and coordination to reach that depth without your form suffering.
I’ve had dozens of clients who couldn’t squat to standard depth right away. So we found what ROM they did have and defined that as “full range” for them. As their strength, flexibility, and coordination increased, we were able to increase their individual definition of “full range” for squats. The same principle should be used with any exercise, but particularly with deadlifts.
This meant these clients were able to actually train hard and get results instead of spending the entire session doing stretches and corrective exercises that wouldn’t help them lose fat.
Takeaway, leave your ego at the door and do as full of a range of motion as your flexibility will allow, even if that means using lighter weights.
Get enough sleep and rest so your body can repair itself from all of that hard training.
This is crucial regardless of your health or fitness goals. The body needs sleep.
Eat a lot.
Again, muscle needs calories to grow. You could have the most bestest muscle building workout program in the world, but if you don’t eat a lot, you won’t build muscle. You can’t get bigger if you’re not eating enough calories to make the scale go up.
Use proper technique and make a good mind muscle connection so your exercises work the desired muscle group(s).
Place a premium on movement quality for every single rep. This allows you lift more weight more safely. If you’re injured you can’t lift. Plus, using proper form will help you work the muscles you want to work, making each rep more effective.
Another tip to really capitalise on your workouts is to focus on actively flexing the target muscle during an exercise. This is aptly named the “mind muscle connection”.
So if you want to make your butt rounder, center your attention on feeling your glutes work on every lower body exercise, really feeling that muscle stretch on the way down, and squeezing your butt cheeks hard on the way up.
That’s it. If you want to build muscle do all that stuff. If you want to lose fat, get skinnier, and have more muscle definition, do all that stuff but replace “eat a lot” with “find sustainable ways to healthily eat in a caloric deficit.”
To give your body some muscle tone, build as much muscle as you need to see as much muscle tone as you want. After you hit that point, simply do enough lifting to maintain that level of muscle, to not lose your gains.
The body has lots of in between points between no muscle and so much muscle you can’t scratch your own shoulder.
The process of building muscle happens so slowly, it’s easy to gauge when you’ve hit your goal. It’s not like you’re going to build muscle so fast you’ll miss your stop if you’re not careful.
Now you have the knowledge, it’s time for the important part, implementation.
Get really specific about your goals and why.
What’s the real important stuff for you? How does size relate to how you want to look? What if you looked thinner and more athletic but the scale was higher? What if you had to go up a pant size? Would that matter?
What if you were bigger and weighed more, but your proportions were how you wanted them to look? So you were bigger in the places you wanted to be bigger and relatively smaller in the places you wanted to look smaller?
Building muscle is hard, like really hard. And it takes a while. And as your body changes you’ll most likely develop a more clear idea of what you want your body to look like as well as how it responds to various exercise protocols.
This is normal and all part of the process. So there’s nothing wrong with shifting gears/goals when you get a clearer idea of what is going to make you the most happy in your life and comfortable in your body.
If you’ve avoided strength training, and have struggled for a while to get results, it’s probably because you’ve avoided strength training. The things we avoid are often exactly what we need to move forward.
This is often what happens with my clients, within the first week of lifting they have this realisation that feeling strong feels amazing.
They start to carry themselves differently, more confidently. Plus, within 10 minutes of their first session they find out you can definitely work up a sweat and get your heart rate up by lifting weights. They see such quick results because they’ve always avoided this kind of exercise so their bodies respond really well to it.
I’ve seen how empowering getting physically stronger can be. This is one of the most powerful side of effects of strength training and can really change someone’s narrative and relationship with fitness and their body. This is a big reason why I push lifting weights so hard, because I think everyone deserves to feel strong, empowered, and resilient in the face of life’s obstacles.
Not just that, science just keeps advancing our understanding of how lifting weights and having muscle is good for you. There are so many health reasons for lifting weights that will pay dividends later in your life. From increased bone density to joint health to being less susceptible to injury.
Getting older doesn’t need to mean you can’t still hike through beautiful mountains or put your luggage in the overhead compartment without help.
That said, ultimately the best workout is the one you stick to, so if you can’t stand lifting weights then it’s probably not the best option for you right now.
However, I strongly recommend biting the bullet and adding at least 1 or 2 days into your workout routine because that will complement whatever style of exercise you fancy and enhance your results.
If you want to get started lifting, but aren’t sure what to do, check out this piece I wrote just for you.
I wrote this because I know how it feels to walk into a crowded gym and feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. I wanted to give you a battle plan to avoid those feelings of uncertainty and anxiety as you grab a set of dumbbells.
Own your workouts even if you’re brand new to weight training. “Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Start Lifting” a read and go hit the gym with confidence and certainty :)