Muscle building vs toning: What's the difference?

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I was recently asked to explain the difference between muscle gain and muscle toning. The short honest answer is, there isn't a definitive one. While muscle gain is a pretty straightforward concept (building muscle mass), muscle toning is an elusive concept that most people can’t give you a proper definition for. All you have to do is google the term “toning” to see the 100s of contradictory definitions and opinions. 

For the sake of this article, let's say the most popular definition amongst most men and women is that muscle gain is the enlargement of the muscle or to increase muscle mass, whereas toning is to increase muscle definition in order to create a leaner looking physique.

While I tend to agree in theory, the two “goals” are actually very similar. The main difference is in the marketing and the audience.

Now, I don't want to overgeneralise but as a personal trainer, in 99% of cases, the very mention of muscle gain to women tends to promote a panicked response, “But I don't want to get bulky!”. Toning muscle, on the other hand, seems to be a very desirable and popular goal among women. Am I right ladies?

To really understand what’s going on with muscle toning, we need to look back a little to see why and when the expression became popular.

Marketing, love it or hate it?

Just a few decades ago, women were a tough but potentially very lucrative market when it came to the fitness industry. Think about it, was your mom hitting the gym in her 20’s or 30’s? Men on the other hand piled into gyms to lift weights but women in gyms were a rarity. This meant that the fitness industry was missing out on half the population and from a strictly business standpoint, potentially doubling its revenue.

One of the main reasons that women didn't go to the gym in the past wasn’t as simple as it is today because they were likely the ones constrained at home minding children, with much less autonomy than what they have today. But also it was because they were and still are (in many cases) terrified of the idea of building too much muscle. They thought that if they did any form of resistance training, they would instantly bulk up losing this “ you can only be slender” definition of femininity in the process. This perception certainly wasn't improved by female bodybuilders either, that, let's be honest, were pumped full of male hormones.

To counter this perception that weights would make women bulky, a marketing campaign rebranding “muscle gain” or “muscle building” to “toning” became a hit with the female audience. They blamed the use of heavy weights for women with masculine physiques and instead insisted that high repetitions with low-weight was the best way for women to train and “tone.” A myth that is still around today. 

The hormonal factor

The truth is, gaining muscle is extremely difficult for most people. Harder still for women due to a lack of testosterone – the key muscle-building hormone. Only a very small percentage of females can build muscle like men, and believe me, that would be very apparent before it came time to stepping foot in a gym.

While I can certainly understand the appeal of a lean and toned physique, the manner in which muscle-building and toning is achieved is quite similar with a few exceptions.

How to get “toned” look

If you're looking to achieve a lean and toned physique, it's important to train in a manner in which you build muscle most effectively for your body type without gaining excess fat, no matter what your gender. As muscle fibres grow, they become thicker and feel tighter. A larger and conditioned muscle will always feel more “toned” than a smaller unconditioned muscle. This means you should regularly do resistance training using a variety of different rep ranges and weights, high-intensity cardio and stick to a calorie-controlled diet.

If you feel that you are gaining too much muscle or getting “bulky”, don't stress. Just slowly reduce the frequency and intensity of your workouts and resist pushing your muscles to failure too frequently (the point at which you can no longer maintain perfect form).

Related: 10 Reasons women should lift weights

How to build muscle (bulk)

As I mentioned above, gaining muscle is extremely difficult for most people. It takes a lot of time, dedication, consistency and hard work. If your main focus is to maximise muscle growth (Bulking), make sure to train in a manner in which you build muscle most effectively. For most people that means lots of resistance training and consistently challenging your muscles to failure. Consume a diet that's rich in protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats and make sure to eat at the very least a 500 calorie per day surplus. Keep cardio to a minimum during periods that bulking is of the utmost importance.

The bottom line 

There’s no real difference between the physiological effect of building muscle and toning muscle. It’s basically just genetics, terminology and marketing to the different sexes. In order to have a strong and toned physique, regardless of your sex, you need to affect body composition and that means building muscle and reducing your overall body fat percentage to allow for better definition. The results of which will depend greatly on your body type, training intensity, and commitment. 


If you have any doubts at all about the best way to train for your goals and body type, feel free to get in touch. You can send me an email or message me on Instagram.

Related: Expectations vs reality - the hard truth about your fitness goals.