Muscle Building Muscle Toning

If you’ve spent much time around the gym, you’ve probably heard people talking about muscle building and muscle toning. However, the differences can be subtle and the workouts nuanced.

Generally, muscle building is associated with muscle size and strength, while muscle tone is associated with muscle shape and endurance. The general mantra is “high weight low reps” for muscle building and “low weight high rep” for muscle toning.

That may be all that you need to navigate conversations at the gym but if you really want to develop your workout routine, keep reading.

Muscle Building

Muscle building is something that must be taken seriously. The best case scenario of not doing your research is getting low results over a long time. The worst case scenario is hurting yourself or doing long-term damage.

What it Means

Muscle building involves increasing the physical size of your muscles through hard work and the right diet.

How It’s Achieved

We mentioned the “high weight low rep” mantra. Some experts have described it as “Shock and Awe for your body” (Cecil, p. 480).

But, what exactly does high-weight low rep mean?

Your one-rep max is the maximum amount of weight that you can lift once with proper form (Warner, p. 6). The idea, however, isn’t “high weight one rep.” Even competitive lifting gives three reps. 

So, the idea becomes to figure out your one-rep max, and then lift a high percentage of that weight – say 80% – and repeat the lift a small number of times, say, five or six.

Different people recommend different percentages and reps, so do some trial and error, do some research, and find what works for you for each exercise and each muscle group.

Bulk Muscle Building

Why It’s Important

Muscle building is important because the physical size of your muscles determines how much those muscles are capable of moving. If you’re concerned about appearance, muscle building is what makes you look big.

How it Can Go Wrong

Muscle building might sound all good but if you don’t do it right it can go wrong.

Muscles work by pulling on your bones, If you work out some muscles but not other ones, it can pull your bones out of alignment making injuries and chiropractic problems more likely. 

From an aesthetic perspective, have you ever seen someone who was big but also … gross? Muscle toning exercises shape muscles and do more to burn fat, so focusing on building and neglecting to tone might make you look big but it won’t make you look impressive.

Finally, if you focus on building but don’t pay attention to toning, balance, flexibility, and lung and heart health you might look like a beast but your health won’t thank you in the long run.

Muscle Toning

Muscle building means size, it’s usually the thing that lifters focus on too aggressively. Unfortunately, this often means that toning goes by the wayside.

What it Means

“Toning” is a word that some people in the space are dead against. Some suggest that it be replaced with the word “maintaining” (Warner, p.32). Others treat toning almost derisively as the activity of self-conscious teenage girls (Schuler & Cosgrove, p. 15).

Whether you want to call it “maintaining,” “toning,” or anything else, this activity puts less emphasis on building the muscle and more on burning fat and increasing the muscle’s resilience.

Muscle Toning

How It’s Achieved

To return to our mantra, toning is achieved through “low weight, high reps.” Just like high weight and low reps didn’t mean a single grunting benchpress, low weight and high reps doesn’t mean a thousand curls with a two-pound dumb bell.

Return to your one-rep max and divide it again, to perhaps 60% and try for more than ten reps. Like the numbers above, these can take some trial and error to pin down for you and for the muscles that your working with your preferred exercise.

Why It’s Important

Toning muscle is important because it increases your muscles’ endurance. It’s good to be able to lift something heavy once, but most practical activities involve lighter activities repeated for a longer time.

From a health perspective, the exercises that build muscle are good for building muscle but not for much else. Meanwhile, the exercises that tone muscle are much better at burning fat. They also get your heart working in a way that may be less noticeable but it is also more productive from a health standpoint.

How it Can Go Wrong

One of the greatest sins when it comes to building is trying to lift too much and hurting yourself. Because toning involves deliberately lifting smaller weights, the opposite is the fear: lifting too little. Lifting too little won’t hurt you, it just won’t do any good.

Similarly, just like building can get in the way of toning, toning can get in the way of building. If you just focus on toning, you’ll get lean but you probably won’t get the muscles that you’re probably looking for.

Muscle Building vs Muscle Toning

Finding Balance

One of the hardest parts of anything is finding balance between two extremes. So, where’s the middle ground between muscle building and muscle toning?

The good news is, you don’t have to find any exact middle – we’ve dealt with fractions and percentages enough today. 

If muscle building is more important to you, focus on building muscle. If toning muscle is more important to you, focus on toning muscle. Just remember that both are important and both can go wrong if you don’t do your research and some healthy experimentation.

If you want a single takeaway from this article, it might be to figure out your one-rep max. When it comes to muscle building and muscle toning, it’s just about the most important metric you can have.

And, once you have it, keep testing it. Ideally, as you work out, your one-rep max will go up as well. That means, you’ll have to keep playing with your weights and reps to keep getting the best workouts.

Further Reading

Cecil, Craig. “Supermen: Building Maximum Muscle for a Lifetime.” N.P. 2011.

Schuler, Lou & Cosgrove, Alwyn. “The All New Rules of Lifting for Life.” Avery. New York, New York. 2012.
Warner, Joe. “7 Rules of Building Muscle.” Dennis Publishing. 2011.