I’m sure everyone has heard someone say they want to “tone up” or get “long, lean muscles.” I’m here to tell you that attaining muscle tone and “long, lean muscles” are both possible, but you are most likely approaching this goal in the wrong way. I’ve found that usually females want to tone. Don’t get me wrong, guys want muscle tone as well, it just seems that muscle tone is usually a goal of females.
Let’s first define muscle tone as the normal level of firmness or slight contraction in a resting muscle.
I think that females usually make muscle tone their main goal, because to them, it means their muscles won’t grow, they’ll just look better. They usually want to get rid of their smoothness and increase their muscle definition. Both men and women believe that training a muscle in an area that is smooth will induce muscle tone. For instance, you see a lot of ladies doing tricep kickbacks and other crappy tricep isolation exercises to train their triceps in an attempt to get rid of the flabbiness on the back of their upper arms. Another example would be an individual performing hundreds of sit-ups so they can have a ripped six-pack.
Let’s go over why this NEVER works by itself. First of all, hypertrophying (growing) a muscle will obviously increase the cross-sectional area of a muscle. So say a female is sitting around 25% body fat, and they hypertrophy their upper arm in an attempt to increase muscle tone. Will they all of a sudden lose the subcutaneous fat surrounding their upper arms and have ripped triceps at the SAME body fat percentage? Nope.
We’ve all seen teenage guys with incredibly small arms, yet they still have muscle tone. More often than not, they haven’t even touched a weight, yet they still have a six pack and have very small but defined muscles. This teen would be sitting around 10% body fat. Now, if that same kid, was to put on 20lbs, he would increase his body weight, lean mass and fat mass. Seeing as how he would probably be new to resistance training, he would be able to put on a lot of lean mass, compared to a more experienced individual. He would hypertrophy his muscles and he would STILL be defined.
Can you tell the difference between the two examples I gave. The lady has body fat levels which are too high to show any muscle tone. The younger kid, who already had tone, yet little amounts of muscle, will be toned when he grows from training. Can you guess what the difference is between these two individuals? If you guessed body fat or body composition then you hit the nail on the head.
Changing your body composition through diet is going to be your number one ally in achieving muscle tone. Now, that is not to say that resistance training has no place in attaining the muscle tone that you are after. It most certainly does. I highly doubt it’s anyones goal to be incredibly skinny and toned. Having muscle on top of a body at low body fat is usually the look people are after.
I have researched on how to increase muscle tone. Christian Thibaudeau talks about this topic a lot. I came upon several different resources that state the same thing. Basically, lifting heavy, somewhere in your 3-5RM (rep max) range for a few sets will increase myogenic (muscle) tone better than light loads. If you look at pictures of people who lift heavy weight, they have a more dense full look to their muscles.
This study compared females lifting for 2 sets of their 8 at 85% of their 8 RM with lifting for 15 repetitions at 45% of their 8 RM. The study concluded that the 8 reps at 85% of the 8 RM (aka heavier weights) will consume the same amount of calories as the lighter version but increase oxygen consumptions, and therefore calories burned after the exercise is performed. It doesn’t say anything about increasing muscle tone, but it goes to show that ladies should not fear lifting heavier. It will positively affect your metabolism (or increase your metabolism).
The main message I want to portray to you here is that lifting weights for sets of 20 WILL NOT increase your muscle tone. As a matter of fact, it won’t do much of anything at all. Although there are circumstances where 20 reps can be used, it should NEVER be the norm.
The real secret to increasing muscle tone is getting rid of the fat surrounding your muscles so you can actually see the hard work you’ve put in. The only way to do this is to be in a caloric deficit. You need to be consuming less calories than you are expending. This should be done by consuming less calories in addition to adding resistance training and maybe a little steady state cardio on the side. That’s what will get you your sought after muscle tone.