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Toning vs. Bulking Up: What's The Difference?

Jeff Thaxton | Stay Updated with NASM!

One of the most fundamental questions about fitness is: what is the difference between bulking and toning up?

The answer has many facets, and to explore it completely, we will look at dieting, exercise programming, and more.

See the OPT model page for great guidelines on how to use the knowledge you learn in the CPT Course for strategic exercise programming. 

What is the difference between toning and building bulk?

Two of the most common terms associated with weight lifting are “toning up” and “bulking up.” Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings and are achieved in different manners. To tone up means to reduce the appearance of body fat by tightening up the muscles and giving them shape. Bulking up means to increase muscle mass and make the muscles bigger.

Exercise Programming for Toning Up

Toning up the muscles is normally achieved by following a weight lifting program that involves light to medium weights and higher repetitions.

A typical program would consist of weight lifting exercises with a weight that can be lifted by a person 12 to 15 times consecutively, usually for one to three sets, depending on the person’s fitness level and total number of exercises. Two to three full body weight lifting sessions of six different exercises is a good way to start.

Dieting for Toning Up

Following a healthy diet slightly below a person’s caloric maintenance level will help to achieve a “toned” look. (This means burning more calories than you consume in a given week.)

You can calculate calories with NASM's free calorie calculator.

In addition, performing multiple bouts of cardio exercise in a person’s target heart zone will help burn more calories and tone the muscles. Sessions of 20 minutes performed at least three times per week is a good initial goal to strive for when attempting to tone up.

How to Bulk Up

Bulking up is accomplished by lifting heavier weights for a lower amount of repetitions per set. “Overload” must be achieved to bulk up. This means working the muscles more than they are accustomed to and increasing the work load (weight, sets or reps) as a person gets stronger.

If increasing muscle mass is the only goal of a person, than a weight should be used that can only be lifted one to six times before failure occurs. Fewer repetitions are performed per set, but more sets of exercise may be performed than if the goal was to tone.

Four to six sets of an exercise or multiple exercises isolating the same muscle group is commonly done to bulk up. Three to six weight lifting sessions per week is often performed by people seeking to bulk up, and split routines are more common. (This means only working certain muscle groups each day, such as back and biceps one day and chest and triceps the next day.)

Dieting to Bulk Up

In addition to lifting heavier weights to bulk up, certain dietary guidelines must be practiced. A higher amount of calories than a person’s caloric maintenance level must be consumed to increase a person’s muscle mass. Also, enough protein (the building blocks of muscle) must be ingested (at least 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight).

See also, Recipes for Gaining Muscle

Pros and Cons of Cardio For Bulking Up

Positive and negative benefits of cardio exist when a person’s main goal is increasing muscle mass. Cardio sessions help a person recover more quickly after a weight workout and rid the body of lactic acid.

Therefore, a person may be able to work out the same muscle groups sooner and harder than he or she could have without performing cardio. The negative to cardio is that it can make it harder to bulk up.

More calories must be consumed to account for the calories burned during the cardio sessions. I believe that the positive benefits of cardio outweigh the negatives, and three sessions of 20 minutes each should be done. This is mainly due to the health benefits of cardio and working out your biggest and most important muscle, the heart.

The Author

Jeff Thaxton


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