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September 17, 2020

The difference between building muscle and toning

Fitness Muscle

Content sponsored by IBC - Native (195x33)

Lifting weights off the ground Victor Freitas/

The difference between building muscle and toning is a subtle one because both goals start out with the same basics: lift weights and eat protein. The true difference comes after a baseline of muscle is built, depending on your goals. Some people who are looking to build as much strength as possible will continue as they did before, but those looking to tone will take a slightly different path that focuses on continuing to lift heavy weights (though at a slower progression) while eating a lower-calorie diet.

How muscle is built

Whether you’re trying to build muscle or just tone up, you’ll need to focus on two things: lifting progressively heavier weights and eating at a slight caloric surplus with an emphasis on protein.

By lifting heavier weights, you’re forcing your muscles to break down and rebuild stronger than they were before. Over time, you can increase how much weight you're lifting, and thus, increase your muscle mass.

In a deficit, your body prioritizes function over muscle mass and it becomes significantly harder to build up muscle. Eating at a caloric surplus can be difficult, especially when your end goal is to look better. But in order to optimally build muscle, your body needs extra calories. However, this isn’t an excuse to go hog wild – these calories should come from nutrient-rich, whole foods with an increase in protein to encourage muscle growth.

How to transition from muscle building to toning

Once you have a solid base of muscle, it’s then time to transition to the toning phase. This phase focuses on two things: continuing to lift heavy weights, and eating at a caloric deficit.

It can seem counterintuitive to lift weights while in a caloric deficit because you won’t build muscle. In the toning phase, however, the goal is to retain the muscle that’s already there, not continue to build it. Continuing to lift weights during a caloric deficit ensures that the precious muscle you built up during the last phase stays, because you’re telling your body, “hey, I still need that stuff even though there’s not enough food around.” This helps your body burn fat, rather than muscle.

The caloric deficit is what you ultimately need for weight loss. During this phase of training, you will still need to eat increased protein to ensure your muscles have the nutrients they need to stay strong.

A lot of people have had trouble losing weight focusing on only a caloric deficit, but find success after building a base of muscle first. This is because for every pound of muscle you put on, you increase your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), making your caloric deficit much easier to achieve.

Differences in timing and individual plans

Depending on your goals and starting point, this process might have a much shorter muscle build phase, or vice versa (rugby players probably wouldn’t need much more muscle). It’s also very possible that your trainer or doctor may suggest a plan that cycles through the muscle-building phase and the weight loss phase several times over the course of months or years, for medical reasons or personal preferences.

Many better-body plans will follow some combination of the above (and if they don’t, be skeptical!). The workouts, food choices, and time frames can vary, but as long as you are first building up muscle, and second, toning down, you are following a widely accepted method for achieving a lean, toned look.

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.

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