“I just want to get toned. I don’t want my muscles to get all big and bulky.”

I used to hear this all the time as a new trainer, especially from my female clients. There’s this misconception that lifting heavy weights will make someone bulk up, while lifting lighter weights a whole bunch of times will make you look leaner. Let’s dispel that myth now.

First, the idea of “toned” doesn’t really exist. What we think of as toned arms, for example, is just developed muscles sheathed in a thin layer of fat. The soft spot in my belly that I’m poking where muscles should be? It’s fat. I’m imperfect, too (don’t tell my clients, though).

Although lots of reps with light weights can’t make your muscles look defined, you do have two options for this gun show extravaganza. If you want to look leaner and more muscular without getting bulky, either build bigger muscles or burn more fat. While I’ve covered how to do the latter before (Eating, Cardio), let’s tackle the former and get some answers.

Striving for Failure

My lifestyle motto reads, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” Muscles work the same way: make them work, and they’ll change. Now, I had a whole section written here about one rep max and weight percentages. I figured, “Nah, simpler is better.” So here’s the simple answer about building better, leaner muscles:

Muscle growth comes from failure–reaching that point where you can’t finish one more rep. Let’s say you’re doing 4 sets of 8 on bicep curls–real beast mode stuff. If you’re approaching failure, then the last 2-3 reps of that 4th set should feel impossible. You’ve given it all you got! There’s nothing left to work with in your arms. That’s failure.

This is how weightlifters, crossfit athletes, and fitness models create those lean, toned bodies–they keep pushing their muscles to failure. Of course, it takes more than lifting heavy weights to get that lean body; you’ve got to tweak your diet and cardio habits, too. Put these pieces together and add time, though? With all of that challenging, your body can’t help but change, too.

Baby Steps

Reaching muscle failure comes through trial and error. If your current weight training routine feels a little easy, bump your weights up by 5 lbs on each set. Keep raising your weight limit until you reach that “almost made it” spot on your last set. That’s failure.

As always, practice proper form above all else. Arching your back to reach those last bicep curls? Lower your weight or decrease your reps. Not sure if you’re doing this right? Ask your personal trainer to help you. If you don’t have a trainer, give me a call. Now put those light weights down and get down to muscle building business.

For more tips on transforming your body one “baby step” at a time, be sure to Follow me on Facebook or Twitter, check out my blog archive, or send me a message.

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