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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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  • Number of pages: 2

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“I want to slim down and tone up. But I don't want to be bulky.” is a phrase I hear often when meeting new clients.

This is one of the most commonly used phrases used during consultation when I meet women for the first time. The problem is I don't just hear it from new customers, I hear it from friends as well!  I even hear phrases like these from men who describe a women's body as overly bulky or disgusting. People even use the phrase "she looks like a man".

Fear marketing is a powerful thing, it's used more than most other forms of marketing in the fitness industry. Companies use this form of marketing to shame people into feeling bad about their bodies to hopefully convert them into buying their products. Even people who are well aware of this concept fall victim to it.

For women, the message being sold is nearly always some permutation of: here's how to get skinny. This is even more apparent on social media as images of slim women regularly grace our screens. If you ever come across images of athletic women, you will see some comments similar to the ones I mentioned above.

The "bulky" vs "skinny" debate has been around for as long as I can remember, and I'm sick and tired of it. Considering all the hatred that is out there for any type of success an individual achieves, surely being fit and healthy is above it all. Here's the truth, becoming "bulky" is almost impossible for most women, and so what, if a woman takes pride in her physical appearance in a way that isn't exactly how the media enforces, so be it!

I happen to think the athletic look that people like Jessica Ennis, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova & Suzie Wolf (who happens to be a customer of Oxfordshire Personal Training) is something to be impressed by and admired.

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“Tone” doesn't mean what you think it means.

To make things clear, being "toned" is not exactly a fitness goal. Gaining muscle and losing body fat, however, is. Now if you are looking for that toned athletic look then it's more than likely you will need to reduce a little body fat whilst retaining or even gaining a little bit of muscle. When a client comes to me with this request, it requires a follow-up question. Are you saying you want to lose weight? Build muscle? Look “firmer”? Do you want visible muscle definition? And finally… are you just saying you want to be skinny?

I ask these questions because toned usually means a variety of things for different people.

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Scientifically speaking, the phrase “muscle tone” refers to the degree of tension maintained in your muscles at all times, even at rest. It pertains to neuromuscular function, not strength or muscle size. Muscle tone helps us stand and sit upright, and increases in response to stretch. Without it, you'd have little control over your body. This, as you might have guessed, is not what most people mean when they asked for a "toned" look. Don't worry, though, I get what you mean.

I think the word toned come from a less aggressive way of describing an athletic look without being associated with bodybuilding.  So maybe at some point, “toned” was a reasonable way for people to express their desire for moderate muscle gain. Sadly "toned" has become the common word for thin and has led to the belief that there are two types of muscle development. Long lean "toned" muscle and big bulky bulging muscle. This is not the case.

You body responds to weight training in the same way regardless of your use of the word "toned. Read more on how resistance training effects women here.

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You can't get super bulky by accident.

Once you fully develop into adulthood the body has grown most of its muscle cells and doesn't grow much more. A common misconception is we grow more muscle cells from lifting weights but the truth is we develop the cells we have already created. Our muscle cells can grow in size and diameter as well as become shorter or longer, but this affects the range of motion and flexibility more than it does the appearance.

Different types of exercise do affect the body differently and that's why it's important to educate yourself on the correct training techniques for your goals; Alternatively, you could hire a personal trainer with years of experience to save you time and mistakes. But the idea that you can tone a muscle without making it bigger is false. What's just as ridiculous is the idea that you can become bodybuilder sized without years of dedication, optimisation and other substances.

There are a few people out there, trying to sell you a wonder pill of some sort that would have you believe that by lifting just 1 dumbbell you will end up looking like the hulk. To this I say… are… you… kidding?

If this was true, imagine how different our Olympic athletes would look considering the majority of them lift weights 5/6 times per week.

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Resistance training will make you looking slimmer.

This is the great paradox of the “women shouldn't lift heavy weights” myth: the very goal so many women are trying to attain, namely a slimmer look, would be better achieved with weight training. Again, I want to emphasise that getting thinner does not have to be your goal when working out. Recent studies actually show that if physical appearing is your biggest motivator for getting in shape then you are less likely to succeed. Instead, focus on improving your workouts, improving your fitness & becoming healthier to be more likely to achieve your goals.

I know it would be foolish of me to think I could alter your mindset when it comes to what motivates the majority of people starting out with a new workout regime.

So here's the scientific reality: if you want your muscle tone to develop, you have to challenge them. The most up to date research state that muscles grow because exercise — resistance training in particular — causes microscopic damage to muscle fibres, & by resting and feeding the body adequate amounts of protein the muscle will develop. Based on "General Adaptation Theory" our body will adjust to the stress placed on it, this is as true for work & parenting as it is for exercise.

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One thing that needs to be noted, you must use adequate amounts of stress, in this example dumbbells, to cause sufficient adaptation. Disappointingly those 3kg dumbells aren't going to make a difference, your food shopping is probably heavier than that. So, ask yourself, when was the last time you witnessed a line of "toned" people carry their shopping out of Sainsbury's.

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One piece of crucial advice I will give you is that to get the biggest return from your weight training, lift heavier weights for the bigger muscle groups. This way you will achieve the biggest amount of metabolic demand and burn the largest amount of calories.

Trying to work the smaller muscle without the big ones makes your workouts inefficient and ineffective. Those big muscles have a greater effect on physical appearance too, but this doesn't mean that working them will make you look “bulky.” Quite the opposite. Muscle tissue is lean and dense. Building muscle will make you look thinner.

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olympic lifting

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It's important to note that if weight loss is your goal you should be incorporating weight training into your program. It's true that cardio is your best bet in terms of total caloric expenditure during the workout, but resistance training burns much more calories overall. It has even been shown to lead to increased EPOC, also known as “afterburn,” a phenomenon in which the body continues to burn extra calories even after your workout has ended. The other benefit is for every 1 pound of muscle you gain your body burns an extra 50 calories per day while at rest.

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When I suggest you should be lifting heavier weights to achieve these benefits, I'm not suggesting putting 100kg of weight on the bar and hurling it overhead. (Although if you want to do that, go for it. I do however recommend that you increment your weight beyond what you body is currently capable of and you should progress the difficulty of your workouts carefully. All I'm suggesting is: reach for the weight that challenges you. Don't automatically assume that a certain weight is going to make you bulky.

The rule of thumb is that you should always be able to complete your set with proper technique, but your last one to three reps should feel very difficult. If they don't, you need heavier weights. For specific recommendations, seek professional advice if it's accessible. If not, challenge yourself but be kind to your body.

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Don't let the patriarchy keep you small.

You deserve to love your body and if you don't think strong muscles will make you happy then do what makes you feel great. The truth is our body image is governed by a wealth of media images and stereotypes. I think it's important for women to not feel ashamed for wanting to be athletic, fit or sexy. I believe as a society we shouldn't be judging people for making an effort in any area of their life.

“Toned' versus “bulky” isn't just about looks. It's about physical ability. Women aren't supposed to be muscular because the patriarchy doesn't want them to be strong, self-sufficient, or potentially threatening to men. Times have changed, women have triumphed in many areas of equality and think fitness is the next step. Take charge and decide for yourself what you would like your body to become. Don't be held back by other people's narrow-minded judgement.

If you would like some assistance with your training, our personal trainers are an incredible resource. You might find that our kettlebell workouts are key to developing the body you want. Book a free 30-minute taster session today.

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Article originally inspired by @garnethenderson on Medium

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