Every day I receive pitches and reviews for new workout methods that create “long and lean muscles.” I hear ladies say they don’t lift because they’re looking to get “toned,” not “bulky.” We even use it in the magazine as a way of describing the overall aesthetic many of our readers are trying to achieve.
But here’s some news that might disappoint a lot of women—and even more trainers who play into the female fear of looking like the Hulk: Muscles, by definition, are lean, and their length is set once your body is mature. No workout can make them leaner, and, outside of surgery, there is not much that can permanently alter their length. In fact, there are only two ways that muscle can change its appearance: It can get bigger or get smaller.
This battle of toning versus bulking actually has nothing to do with the muscles themselves—it comes down to your overall body fat. This idea of looking toned is often an attempt to describe a body with a low enough body fat percentage to reveal muscle definition. When you build muscle but don’t attack the body fat that lies on top of it, you may feel bigger or heavier. Conversely, methods like Pilates and yoga typically don’t use the same level of resistance, which may mean you’re not building as much muscle; so even if your body fat percentage remains the same, you at least don’t feel like you’re getting denser. At the same time, many of these routines help improve posture, which can give the appearance that you are, in fact, “longer and leaner.”
These light-resistance methods can actually sabotage your goals in the long run, though. Research shows that between the ages of 30 and 50, you’ll likely lose 10 percent of your body’s total muscle. Worse yet, it’s likely to be replaced by fat over time, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Even participants who maintained their body weight for up to 38 years lost 3 pounds of muscle and added 3 pounds of fat every decade.
Why does that matter? Because even if their body weight remained the same, their pants size likely didn’t. Not only does lean muscle mass help stoke your internal calorie burner, but it also actually takes up 18 percent less space than 1 pound of fat. So to recap: Building lean muscle mass through strength training is the real secret to revealing a leaner, more toned body.