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Updated: Jan 28, 2021

If you’re still talking about getting toned at the gym, your vocab needs a refresh. Here’s what the fitness pros say matters most when it comes to building muscle.

When Kait Eggers, 32, was a college volleyball player, she and her teammates did their best to dodge the thrice-weekly strength training sessions they were supposed to attend. They feared “getting bulky” and even skipped out on the protein shakes their coaches wanted them to drink. Instead of packing on muscle, says Eggers, she and her friends were after a slim, “toned” look, something they thought they could achieve by lifting “feminine-size” lighter weights.

Flash forward more than a decade and today, Eggers, a communications professional, looks forward to slipping on a tank and sneakers and flexing her muscles at the gym. “I’ve grown to love weightlifting because of how it supports my body,” she says. “I’ve come to think of ‘toning’ as a fluffy word, always pushed on women.”

The problem, say experts, is that the word “toned” has become twisted to mean the opposite of muscular (which it’s not). It sends the wrong message that building strong muscles is a negative—rather than an awesome way to improve your fitness. “You need to lift weights that are heavy enough to elicit change,” says Meaghan Wieser, DPT, a strength and conditioning coach at Recharge Health and Fitness in Ellicott City, MD. If you grew up in an era when toning was queen, here’s what you should know about the new way to work out.


For Eggers, prioritizing a strong body over a toned one came after training for two marathons and spending much of those training cycles injured. “I went to physical therapy for my injuries and noticed that much of the treatment was strength-based,” she says. “I decided to start doing a strength-training program and noticed it was helping me. Having a strong core and glutes fit together well with my running mileage.” Along the way, Eggers realized that her concern with bulking up was unnecessary. “You have to try really, really hard to bulk up as a woman,” she says. (Hormones are the big limiter here, agrees Wieser.)

In addition, “bulking up requires eating a ton of calories and a lot of training with very heavy weights,” Wieser explains. “That’s not something most people have time for or care to do.” Still, a strong body takes more than curtsy lunges and calisthenics, she notes. Using moderately heavy weights can give you the definition you’re looking for. To build stronger muscles, aim to lift weights two to three times each week, she says, and consider consulting with a trainer or coach to develop a customized plan.

Be sure to continuously progress your strength training routine, too, or you’ll eventually hit a plateau. Wendy Rivard, 58, a nurse practitioner and runner from the Chicago area, started by swapping her running shoes for bodyweight workouts and resistance bands a few times a week, but has since become more serious about strength training. “I joined a gym in my 40s due to injuries,” she says, “and it has really paid off.”

As her ability to lift heavier weights has grown, Rivard says she not only looks stronger, but sees results she never expected. “I’m returning to race times I haven’t seen since my 30s,” she says. “I can climb hills, get up on one water ski and keep up with my two kids, both in their 20s.”

Rivard works with a trainer and says it’s one of her best investments. “I surprised my coach by telling her I wanted to work on my upper body, too,” she says. “My goal is a strict pull up. I’m not there yet, but I’ve never been this strong before.”


Along with misconceptions about muscle building and bulking up, there’s also a good deal of misinformation on the calories you need for strength training. “You’re placing demands on your body and you need to eat enough to support that,” says Wieser. “Your muscles won’t grow without enough fuel.”

It can take a little time to break out of the move-more-eat-less mindset that is promoted heavily in most diet plans and dig into healthy, hearty meals instead every day. Remember, you’re not trying to get skinny—you’re trying to get fit. “You have to challenge your muscles and then give them enough calories to adapt and change,” Wieser says. Ironically, it’s these bigger weights and additional calories that ultimately lead to the fit look many people are after.

As for Eggers, when her social media feed targets her with ads for “toning challenges,” she’s quick to hit block. “I’ve been strength training for five years now,” she says. “I remember being worried that I’d bulk up and that my clothes would no longer fit. None of that has happened—and more than just liking how I look now, I like how the strength sustains me.”

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