Fitness column: Learn the differences between building, shaping and toning muscle

Exercises should take muscle to exhaustion. In other words, you can’t perform another push-up because you simply can’t, not because it’s time to switch stations. File photo

Woman doing yoga

There’s often a lot of confusion surrounding building, toning and shaping muscle.

If you’re looking to carve a shapely summer figure out of the one staring back at you in the mirror, you may want to start by correcting a few common misconceptions. Let’s begin by addressing a few reader questions.

Q: What’s the difference between building, shaping and toning?

A: Generally, guys want to ‘build’ muscle and ladies want to ‘shape and tone.’

In the end, it’s all hypertrophy — muscle growth. The only difference are the words being used to describe preferred outcomes. Light weights won’t ‘lengthen and carve’ and heavy weights don’t ‘bulk.’

Muscle development demands a very specific formula, and messing with that formula simply waters down results. (Generally eight to 12 repetitions to failure with good form is the accepted practice.)

Beyond exercise, what fills your tank top depends on testosterone, hard work, genetics and eating habits.

Q: Does swimming lengths act as a good substitute for weight training?

A: Swimming is a great exercise but it will not typically promote hypertrophy or strength in the long run — not even lengths performed at high intensity.

To build and strengthen muscle, your workout formula must include progressive overload (ever-changing variables that confuse and challenge muscle). In the pool, intensity may change but resistance stays relatively constant.

Swimmers develop great muscle endurance but not pure strength.

Q: Why do competitive swimmers look so good?

Man swimming

A: Most modern athletes maintain a low body fat percentage and lift weights to complement their training. (If you stood around in a bathing suit all day, you’d keep trim as well.) Thus, the streamlined-yet-muscular look in the pool.

Keep in mind, things like age and genetics play a big role in determining both appearance and performance. Unfortunately, ergogenic aids (performance enhancers) also tend to influence outcomes in competitive athletics, often setting very unrealistic expectations for us normal folk.

Q: Can you build strength and shape muscle in boot camp classes?

A: Yes, depending on the formula being used in the class.

Exercises should take muscle to exhaustion due to the weight being lifted. This should happen within approximately 60 seconds per exercise. In other words, you can’t perform another push-up because you simply can’t, not because it’s time to switch stations.

It’s important to eat healthy to stay fit

Don’t confuse being out of breath with muscular fatigue. In fact, accumulated cardiovascular fatigue could compromise muscle gains. For this reason, many work muscle endurance in boot camp and muscle shaping in the weight room — two very different outcomes with different formulas.

Q: How do I get ‘Michelle Obama’ arms?

A: Michelle and I aren’t tight but here’s my guess: She keeps her diet in check and she performs some form of resistance training (reducing fat and building muscle).

Q: Will walking with weights tone and strengthen your arms?

A: No. “But I feel it,” you might say. Sorry, no.

Q: I lift very light weights due to my advanced age. Is that okay?

A: Ability, knowledge, experience, general health and conditioning should define how much weight you lift, not age.

If you can lift 50 pounds (with good form) but instead opt for 30 pounds (at any age) you’re simply going through the motions. There is no reason for muscle to change when confronted by a light weight or an exercise that’s been performed repeatedly over a long period of time.

Q: How much weight should I purchase for my home?

A: If you’re contemplating the pink, two-pound dumbbell set keep walking. There are only a few exercises outside of rehab that demand a two-pound dumbbell (a venti cappuccino with a cruller weighs about as much).

A variety of body weight exercises coupled with a few exercise bands may be the better way to progress. Don’t get me wrong, dumbbells are an awesome tool, provided you have the space and budget to acquire a wide variety of weights.

When constructing your summer figure, lift weights to shape muscle and eat a healthy diet to reveal it.

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