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What it Really Takes to Tone & Build Muscle

One of the most common goals that I hear people say is, “I want to look more toned.” A phrase that typically follows, especially in the case of females, with the following statement: “But not bulky.”

Nine times out of 10 a client explains to me how they want lose excess fat and see more muscle definition. However, through the years I have noticed that a large percentage of people believe that strength training will quickly result in an increase of bulky muscle; which causes a lot of females (in particular) to shy away from lifting weights.

The belief that you will pack on a significant amount of muscle and take away from your femininity when you lift weights is a common concern among women. But, in actuality, a misguided one; which I will get into more detail later.

On the flip side there are a lot of claims that particular styles of working out (or exercise practices) will provide you with a “toning” effect, often referred to as achieving long and lean muscle. These training practices often only use body weight training, or very light resistance training, and have you doing high reps of each exercise (sometimes “double time”) to give you that burning feeling often associated with working out.

Before I go any further I need to set the record straight: Training your muscles to be “long and lean” is not a thing. Your muscles don’t work like that. A fact I will dive into in greater detail later in this post.

Other claims will tell you that you can “melt” fat off of certain areas… which, I’m sorry to say, is another common myth. Spot reduction is not possible.

Stating myths as facts and providing unrealistic time frames (to see results) have become almost a given with most trendy fitness programs; which has created a lot of confusion around how a body (male or female) responds to fitness.

Here are some facts…

  • Body weight training (and/or lifting light weights at higher repetitions) can be effective at helping you develop strength and muscle definition.
  • Low reps of heavy resistance training is considered effective at helping you develop strength and muscle definition.

There are two key principles that most fad fitness gyms and programs fail to share with you: the principle of adaptation and the principle of progressive overload.

The principle of adaption refers to the process of the body getting accustomed to a particular exercise or training program through repeated exposure. In other words, as your body adapts to the stress of a new exercise or training program, that program becomes easier to perform… which explains why you are often sore at the start of a new routine. A soreness which typically dissipates, then completely disappears, after a few weeks of performing that exercise at the same intensity.

While the principle of progressive overload basically states that in order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, your body must be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced. In other words, you need to add weight when things start to get easy to avoid plateauing.

In addition, most people don’t understand the physiology of their muscles. In particular, hypertrophy; which is a term that describes when muscles grow in size.

If this all sounds like a foreign language to you, don’t worry. You’re in good company. Most people have never heard of the principle of adaption or progressive overload, or hypertrophy for that matter… which is why most people don’t see continued results with their training, despite going to the gym (or attending a particular fitness class) regularly.

If you have ever hit a plateau when following a program, or have become frustrated by the fact that you have no clear objective way to measure your strength, endurance, performance and body improvements, keep reading.

If you’re interested in toning your muscles and want to learn how to do it in such a way that you lose fat, improve your performance, move better and feel better, keep reading.

Also read on if you believe that lifting heavy weights will make you bulky. [SPOILER ALERT] it doesn’t.

At this point I think that it’s worth mentioning a little bit about me, and how my training has evolved over the years.

In university I was a cardio junky, evolving into a circuit trainee when I first started working in the health and fitness industry back in 2008. With both workout styles I hit a plateau, and stopped seeing results – despite zero changes to my workout schedule. I also found it hard to continue challenging myself (in a productive way) with intense circuit training, especially given the fact that my only measurement of progress was how tired I felt.

Fast-forward to now and I know better. Since 2012 my primary training protocol has been strength training, and my results have been continued. I periodize my training to maximize strength gain, minimize stress on my body, and have blocks where I just do random stuff to keep me entertained. I also program specific weeks to allow for de-load and recovery. The primary mediums I use when training are barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, my body weight, and sled work.

In general my preferred method of training, is lifting heavy things (aka strength training) simply because it works best for me. It has helped me reach, sustain and surpass my fitness goals. As well as continues to challenge me in a productive, and in some cases fun, way.

Diving back into WHY strength training is awesome…

The first thing you to understand is how your muscles work.

There are 430 skeletal muscles in your body, each with its own set of muscle tissue, connective tissue, nerves and blood vessels. Then comes your tendons, which connect your muscle belly to your bone. Contractions of your muscle belly pulls on your tendon and in turn, the bone that it is attached to…. which causes you to move.

If you take a closer look at muscle anatomy you will see that each muscle belly is made up of muscle cells or fibres. Muscle fibres are grouped into bundles (of up to 150 fibres) called fasciculi.

Still with me? Good, let’s get into the good stuff.


How Muscles Become Stronger

When referring to strength, I am referring to the ability to generate an external force as a result of muscular effort. An important concept to understand is that muscle size is only one of the factors that determine a muscle’s strength.

There are a few factors that will influence your ability to build strength:

  • Central factors, specifically your central nervous system (CNS) which includes your brain and spinal cord
  • Peripheral factors, specifically your muscles
  • Other main factors are genetics, nutrition, and hormones

The Central Factors 

During the first four to six weeks of strength training your strength gains can be attributed to neural adaptations; a process that is ongoing and continuous. This includes the strength at which impulses are sent from your brain to your muscles, the number of motor neurons used, and improvements to the coordination of your muscles.

How Motor Neurons Work:

Strength is dependent on the ability to use the maximum amount of muscle fibres at a given moment. The use of these muscle fibres is carried out by the central nervous system.

The brain (specifically the cerebrum) sends a signal to the muscle to contract via the nerves in your spinal cord. Motor neurons then carry that command to the muscle fibres. Each motor neuron controls the contraction of a specific group of fibres, and the more motor neurons that are activated, the greater the quantity of muscle fibres that will contract.

In general, the heavier the weight that you lift, the more motor neurons you will be able to use simultaneously.


Inter-Muscular Coordination:

To produce any movement requires many different muscles to contract and work together. When resistance becomes greater, the muscles of a person new to training have a hard time working together in an efficient manner.

After continued training, the quality of movement improves because muscles (and/or muscle groups) learn how to work together, and as a result, the muscles on the right side of your body will become synched with the muscles on your left side.

This gain in efficiency translates to an increase in strength. It is the same in all areas of fitness when you have to learn a new move. It is the volume of work, and therefore the repetition of a movement or exercise that improves your inter-muscular coordination.

An added benefit of establishing better inter-muscular coordination is that it will allow you to learn new movements more quickly.


Intra-muscular Coordination:

When we strength train we don’t develop more muscle fibres, but in fact gain efficiency and the ability to recruit more of our current muscle fibres in any given area that we’re working.

In an untrained individual, when motor neurons discharge their electrical impulses, they do so in a disorderly fashion. Through training typically this adaptation is most prominent during week’s four to six – at which time these discharges become more synchronized and the fibres begin to contract in a coordinated manner.

Intra-muscular coordination is an adaptation that enables impulses sent from the CNS to be relayed quicker, causing more muscles fibres to be recruited, and leading to better overall coordination of these fibres; which in turn allows your muscles to become more efficient.

This adaptation is best achieved by doing weight-training exercises with a weight that is close to your repetition maximum. In other words, the maximum weight that you can lift in a repetitive sequence.


The Size of Your Muscles:

There is a strict correlation between the size of your muscle fibres and the strength that they are capable of producing. The stronger a section of muscle fibres that is linked to a motor neuron, the more force will be generated by a nerve impulse.

Muscle growth is known as hypertrophy. Hypertrophy and strength are both adaptations that occur via a process called progressive overload; which I outlined earlier in this post.

Progressive overload must continually occur in order to induce the adaptations and changes that result in an increase in strength and/or muscular hypertrophy.

Progressive overload can be achieved through the following methods:

  • Increasing the intensity of exercise or resistance/weight used
  • Increasing the volume by increasing the number of sets and/or reps at a given resistance
  • Manipulating tempo, training velocity, rest periods, etc.

To this point is the basic physiology of muscles, which will occur in anyone, regardless of you sex. In general, gaining the capacity to be able to use your muscles more efficiently is a good thing. Yes they will increase in size when you use them, but the size in which they increase is very dependent on how you train and the amount of testosterone that you have in your body; which is why women typically don’t get “bulky” when they lift weights.

One thing that we need to appreciate about progressive overload is that our body will adapt to a specific stimulus. Therefore, once you have adapted and can easily move a specific resistance (aka weight) you must either increase the load, change the tempo at which you are lifting that load, or increase your reps.

One of the issues with programs that limit the amount of weight lifted is that it only allows for your tempo and/or reps to be manipulated. This is fine, but this method can also be timely and repetitious. Especially when you compare this to the amount of progress you will see when lifting heavy things. ????

At the end of the day results will come thanks to the amount of work that you do, the amount of time you have to commit, and the style of exercise that you choose.

So ladies if strength training is something that interests you, please stop believing that lifting weights will cause your muscles to grow the same way that they do in men. The truth of the matter is that they won’t.

I’m not saying that you won’t build any muscle if you’re a women, you absolutely will. But please understand that it is really hard for women to gain mass. Men and women can (and in my opinion, should) follow similar strength training programs because their bodies will respond differently. It all comes down to physiology.

The amount of testosterone that women produce compared to men is a primary factor. Testosterone is a hormone that increases protein synthesis, which in turn increases muscle mass. According to the Mayo Clinic, the average female produces 15-70 nanograms per decilitre of testosterone. While the average adult male produces 270-1070 nanograms per decilitre. So as you can see, it’s a pretty drastic difference. Since women have 20 to 40 times less of this androgen circulating in their system than their male counterparts, it limits the amount of muscle they can build.

So if you’re a woman, stop worry that you’re going to bulk up if you lift heavy. If anything, you’re just going to see results faster, and feel great.

When it comes to strength training, your coach can alter your programming based on your goals and individual needs. Below are a few very general outlines of three different types of programming to give you a better idea of how what you do affects the results that you see.

Three Strength Training Program Examples

1. Muscular Endurance Style Program:

  • Low to moderate intensity (50-75% of 1 rep max)
  • Moderated volume of 3-6 sets of 10-20 reps


2. Strength focused program:

  • High intensity (70%+ of 1 RM)
  • High volume of 4-12 sets of 1-5 reps


3. Hypertrophy focused program:

  • High intensity (70%+ of 1 RM)
  • High volume 9-12 sets of 8-12 reps, with 90 sec-3 min rest b/w sets
  • Low velocity to maximize time under tension
  • Train to technical failure

With that being said, please take a moment to appreciate how much work it takes to build muscle regardless of your sex.


A Couple of Other Things to Keep In Mind

A lot of people tend to follow a random workout schedule – performing randomized workouts at random times. For people who workout just because they love to move, this style of training can work for them. However, you still need to ensure that what you’re doing is having an effect on your body, especially if you are looking to see some sort of fitness results.

Far too few people spend the time needed to find a groove in their movement patterns and allow for better proficiency of that movement, laying the foundations for adaptions to occur.

What you may be thinking at this point is: “Don’t I have to keep my body guessing to ensure a maximum caloric burn?” And while there is some truth in this question, yes there is a time and a place for chaotic metabolic training and yes it can help to facilitate weight loss, you still need to build the foundational groundwork to ensure that you see change; especially if you want to achieve long-term results.

When I say that “you still need to build the foundational groundwork” I mean that you need to learn how to perform each exercise properly if you want to reap the benefits of the movement. This is especially important because the exercises that will give you the most benefit (from pretty much every training perspectives, athletic, fat loss, strength, etc.) are compound movements, like squats, deadlifts, pull ups, push ups, bench presses, etc. In order to complete these movements at all, let along with technical proficiency, you need to spend time following a structured program and apply the rules of progressive overload. By doing so you will not only ensure that you are productively training without crushing your body, but also give yourself a clean scale for which you can objectively measure your progression.

If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: appreciate that in order to build muscle mass you need to be very specific with how you train. Also understand that you can lift heavy and get stronger without looking like a body builder.

Lastly, if your goal is to look more toned you need to adjust your nutrition. In order to visibly see muscle definition you need to lean out; which will not happen if you don’t fuel your body with the right foods.

On the other hand, if you are working out solely to make up for regular bad eating choices you need to understand that this method does not work. While you may think that you are erasing damage, you are in fact just burning yourself out; which in the end will leave you feeling frustrated by your lack of results and/or injured.

I will leave you with this one last question: is what you are currently doing, working? If your answer to that question is no, then you need to seriously consider trying something new. If you’re ready to try something new that will give you the fitness results that you are after, send me an email at with the subject line: ‘Help me find a program that gives me results!’ and I will get you in for a strategy session and lay out a couple program options that will help give them to you.

You CAN see change. You just need to find the program (and coach) that will help you achieve it.



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About the author

Andrea Lawson has been a practicing Kinesiologist since 2008 and is the founder of Balance in Motion, a training facility created for people to rehabilitate from injuries, improve athletic performance, and crush their health and fitness goals. She is passionate about providing a space where anyone can step foot in and feel both comfortable and productive no matter the injury, age, or stage they may be at in their fitness journey. With this vision, Andrea has witnessed her clients achieve goals they never thought possible, and gain unmatched levels of confidence in themselves, helping them to Go Beyond Better.