Toning up: debunking the myths

Health Adviser at Bupa UK
29 April 2016
People doing press-ups with weights at the gym

Do you want to develop defined, attractive-looking muscles? You don’t need anything fancy to get started: just follow these down-to-earth tips.

My job is to help people meet their health and fitness goals and one of the most common questions I hear is: how can I get toned muscles?

This is a great goal to aim for, but there are a lot of myths about the best way to achieve it. Knowing the facts means your efforts will have the best chance for success.

What ‘toning up’ really means

To be clear, muscle tone is actually something we all have. It’s the natural state of tension within the muscle. What people usually mean by ‘toning up’ is building bigger muscles and reducing body fat, so that the muscles become more shapely and defined.

Myth 1

You get toned by doing lots of repetitions with a low weight

The facts: You build muscles by working them against a resistant force, such as weight. When you get this right, the fibres in your muscles tear a little. When they grow back, the fibres are a bit thicker and stronger than before. Defined muscles are not harder – they are just bigger. If the weight is really easy to lift, it won’t help you much because it won’t cause these changes. The ideal weight is one that you can lift with a bit of effort, for between 8-12 repetitions, until you feel so tired you can’t do one more. Aim for two or three sets with a short break in between each set.

Myth 2

For toned muscles you only need to do resistance training

The facts: Unfortunately, even the largest muscles won’t show through an outer layer of fat. The best way to reduce body fat is with aerobic exercise that gets your heart and lungs working harder. Cycling, swimming, running and brisk walking are some ways to get a good ‘cardio’ workout.

Be smart with your resistance workouts too, by maximising the cardio component. Complete the exercises in a circuit fashion, one after the other, without taking breaks between them.

Myth 3

You need a gym or special equipment

The facts: Your muscles don’t care what kind of weight they are lifting. Your own body weight is often enough, especially if you’re just starting out. Exercises that take advantage of your body weight as a form of resistance also have the advantage of working large muscle groups at one time. Push-ups are an excellent example, and so are squats and lunges. If squats become too easy after a while, you could load a backpack with a few tins from your kitchen cupboard and wear it during this exercise.

Take a balanced approach

Start off slowly if you’re new to this type of exercise, and ask a trainer at your gym if you want advice. Exercise to strengthen your muscles is beneficial at any age, and especially as we grow older. It should be part of a well-rounded exercise programme. National guidelines say adults should do muscle-building exercise twice a week, in addition to cardiovascular exercise. If you can combine your muscle strengthening routine with aerobic training and a healthy, balanced diet, you’ll be onto a real winner that can help you look and feel great.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health. You’ll receive a personalised lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a healthier, happier you. 

Ella Hewton
Health Adviser at Bupa UK

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