It's not uncommon to overhear the occasional person engaged in resistance training state that their goal is to develop muscle tone, rather than muscle size or muscle strength. And, more often than not, it is a woman striving to achieve muscle tone rather than a man, given our conventions of what is considered to be a desirable body type for women. For the most part, women "don't want to get big," they "just want to get toned." But what is muscle tone? Can you achieve muscle tone without getting big muscles? Keep reading to learn the honest truth about muscle tone.
What is Muscle Tone?
There are really two definitions for muscle tone. There is the actual true, physiological definition, and the popular, conventional definition.
The Actual Definition of Muscle Tone
Muscle tone, also known as muscle tonus or residual muscle tension, is an unconscious low level contraction of your muscles while they are at rest. Essentially, muscle tone is what makes your muscles still feel somewhat firm while you are resting and not intentionally tensing them. You know how your muscles feel much firmer when you intentionally tense them? And how you feel a decrease in firmness the less you tense (i.e. contract) them? Well, that small remaining amount of firmness that you feel in your muscles when they are completely relaxed, with no intentional tensing, is your muscle tone.
The Popular Definition of Muscle Tone
In its more conventional use, the term "muscle tone" refers to muscles that are visually clearly defined and have a firm appearance. It's what we mean when we say that someone is "toned." In this usage muscle tone is desirable simply because it looks good.
What is the Purpose of Muscle Tone?
The primary purpose of muscle tone (as per its real definition) is to keep your muscles primed and ready for action. The always activated state of partial contraction maintains balance and posture, and it also functions as a safety mechanism that allows for a quick, unconscious muscle reflex reaction to any sudden muscle fiber stretch. Think about how your head automatically jerks up straight when you are falling asleep in a sitting position. That is an unconscious reflex reaction that is made possible by the presence of muscle tone. Muscle tone also generates heat and keeps your muscles healthy. If the nerve to a particular muscle is damaged, it may no longer be able to stimulate the muscle contractions necessary to maintain muscle tone and the muscle will become flaccid and eventually it will deteriorate.
How to Get Toned
Here we'll assume here that, by "get toned," you mean that you would like to achieve the popular, conventional definition of muscle tone, rather than the actual definition. To be more specific, you would like your muscles to be clearly defined and to have a firm appearance. And, if you are female, you also probably want to ensure that your muscles "don't get too big."
There are two things that can and should be done to acquire muscle tone. They are as follows:
The first thing that you must to do acquire the popular definition of muscle tone, and this is an absolute requirement, is reduce your overall body fat. Reducing body fat thins out the subcutaneous fat layer under your skin, bringing it closer to, and pulling it tight around the contours of your muscles.
After completing just this one fat reduction step, some people will find that they've achieved the muscle tone that they desire, because they already have a well developed musculature hiding beneath their fat. The vast majority of people, however, will find that they aren't entirely happy with the appearance of their muscles once they have reduced their body fat, and so step number 2 below becomes necessary.
The second thing that can be done to develop muscle tone is strength training. For a lucky few people this step might not be required, from a purely aesthetic perspective, because they already have well proportioned muscles under the fat layer removed in step 1 above. But for most people a strength training program, in addition to body fat reduction, is necessary to develop muscle tone. The optimal training program for developing muscle tone must focus on improving muscle strength, as opposed to muscle size or muscle endurance. This type of training requires that you lift heavier weights for fewer repetitions. You can review the specific recommended lifting guidelines for building muscle strength here.
For Women - Getting Muscle Tone Without Getting Big
Unfortunately, most women incorrectly believe that the best way to "get muscle tone without getting too big" is to lift light weights for a high number of repetitions. This is not the right approach. Your fears of getting too big are unfounded and without substance. Lifting light weights for a high number of repetitions builds muscle endurance, not strength, and very limited improvement in muscle tone, if any at all, can be achieved through muscular endurance training. You must increase muscle strength to develop muscle tone.
The solution is to lift heavier weights for fewer repetitions and don't worry about getting too big. It simply won't happen because women are not physiologically disposed toward putting on muscle mass. Blood testosterone levels for women are typically between 15 to 70 nanograms per deciliter. Compare this to men, who have, on average, 300 to 1,000 ng/dL of testosterone in their blood (reference for blood testosterone levels). Testosterone is the key steroid hormone responsible for muscle growth, and women have very little of it. Increasing muscle strength does increase muscle size, there's no doubt about it, but even with a massive testosterone advantage it takes most men enormous amounts of time and dedication to acquire the noticeable levels of muscle mass that so many women are afraid of. For a woman, it's true that lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions will increase your muscle size, but the increase will happen very slowly, and the gains in size will be very small. In fact, the low testosterone levels of women create ideal circumstances for developing the muscle tone that you are looking for. It allows you to gradually put on small amounts of muscle until you have the toned appearance, without too much size, that you desire, at which point you can modify your strength training program to simply maintain the small amount of muscle mass that you have gained. There is absolutely no need to fear that you will "get too big," because the size increases happen so slowly that you will be able to halt progress at any size you are happy with, without going too far.
If you are a woman and your are still not convinced, just try it anyways. Look at yourself in the mirror every day to monitor your muscle tone and size. The worst thing that can happen is that your fears come true, and you are the one woman on the planet that gets huge muscles after a couple of strength building workouts. If we suppose that this does come to pass (it won't), then all you'll need to do is stop lifting weights. You will lose all of your size gains in a very short period of time and your muscles will return to their original size (unless, of course, you also happen to be the only person on the planet that does not experience loss of training adaptations after cessation of training). Anyway, you get the point, just try it, you'll be happy with the results.