The Difference Between Toning Muscle & Building Muscle: Woman’s Guide To Strength Training

Let’s play a quick game a Family Feud!

Here’s the topic… A survey asked women why they workout. What were the top answers?


Of course #1 would be “Weight Loss”. And #3 would be to “Be In Better Shape” (whether that means to have more endurance or to be stronger, I suppose it’s up to the lady).

But it’s #2 that we’re going to discuss today…

“Be More Toned”

Women don’t want to increase muscle, they just want to tone up. Right? But what that heck does that mean and is it really just another way to say add muscle? We’re going to talk about that today!


What does it mean to be toned?

Women very rarely want to add muscle, they simply want to tone and tighten. Well okay then. Let’s talk about that for a second.

According to the very reliable source, Wikipedia, muscle tone is defined as:

In physiology, medicine and anatomy, muscle tone (residual muscle tension or tonus) is the continuous and passive partial contraction of the muscles, or the muscle’s resistance to passive stretch during resting state.

In normal talk, it’s the ability of your muscles to look and feel tight when they are in their normal, unflexed (uncontracted) state.

Aside from making you look in shape, muscle tone actually has a purpose…

To maintain posture and to keep your muscles primed for action should you have a sudden reflex (such as falling asleep and your body jerking your head up). It also helps generate body heat to keep the muscle active and healthy.

Interesting stuff. Who knew it more than just looking good.

Now, let’s talk about the second topic of the day… muscle building.

What does it mean to build muscle?


First off, can I just say how much this picture cracks me up. I <3 my kettlebells!

The literal definition goes something like:

The act of building muscle through tension based exercise.

Okay then…

Let’s break that down a bit more. Building muscle occurs when you challenge your muscle. You try to pick up something heavy, it’s hard for your body and the muscle react by ripping and getting small tears (sounds terrible but it’s necessary).

From there, those tears heal but instead of scar tissue like a cut on your body, they heal up with new muscle fibers… more muscle is created so that the next time you go to lift that object again, it’s easier. The body has adapted to the external elements.

Pretty amazing.


Of course there are a lot of things that influence your ability to build muscle like:

  • Hormones (testosterone makes it a hell of a lot easier)
  • Caloric intake (you need about 300 extra calories/day to build a significant amour of muscle)
  • Workout program (workouts must continuously challenge you by increasing weight and changing exercises
  • Avoiding catabolic activities (muscle breakdown can occur through increased steady state cardio)

But for the most part, if you lift heavy and push yourself past the “this is easy” point, you will see some muscle building.


Is muscle building the same as muscle toning?

That’s the real question, right?


Muscle toning is muscle building, but muscle building isn’t necessarily toning. Just like a square is a rectangle but a rectangle isn’t a square.


Anytime you increase muscle tone, you’re going to increase your muscle size. That’s just the laws of physics. BUT… if you build more muscle that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be more toned.

The part about toning that I neglected above is that you have to be able to see the muscle. Muscle is often covered up my body fat. So if you between to see your muscles are getting more defined, you’re burning body fat.

Most fit women have 6-packs, but for most it’s covered under a layer of fat. To see the defition, you have to lose the fat.

Toning muscle does that… it is a workout that not only builds muscle/strength but also sheds the fat.


Look at a linebacker on a football team, they’re HUGE.

They’re strong as oxes yet very large and in charge. These guys build muscle all the time but also make sure to keep their bulk. Toned? Not really. Strong? As hell.

If toning is your #1 goal, then exercise alone won’t accomplish it. You know the saying “abs are made in kitchen”? All toning takes place in the kitchen. A clean diet is one that will have your body looking tight and fabulous! <– That’s a talk for another day, yes?

Can you tone without building muscle?

In one word… NO.

While the common belief for women is they need to just lift a little weight for a whole lot of reps to tone, this is wrong. This builds muscular endurance but not strength or definition.

The good news: women don’t have the ability to bulk like a man and the fears of getting muscular are unwarranted. Go with it, lift heavy… and see the results you want.

Challenge yourself with new weights, new exercises, and you will see toning results!

Stronger more defined muscles increase your metabolism so the body fat will demolish leaving sleek, sexy muscles in it’s wake.

Good? Yes.

Go for it! How do you do that?

Exercises to change your muscular definition

Here are a few of my favorite muscle challenging exercises.

Some are weighted, others body weight. That’s the thing, just because an exercise is body weight, doesn’t mean it can’t challenge your muscles to get stronger and more defined.

The key is to do them until they are a challenge. If 8 reps leaves you feeling like you can do 2 more, then do 2 more (though go for 3).

There are plenty of moves that I am working on to be able to complete just 1 rep!

Handstand push-ups being one of them!

Handstand Push-Up

Weighted Squats

Push-Ups! (So many variations!)

Weighted Rows

Tricep Extensions

Split Squats

What is your favorite weighted exercise?


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