What Muscle Tone Is and Isn’t: a Simple Explanation

So you want Michelle Obama arms?

Let's Move! ...over to the weight room to work on them gunzz

Or maybe you'd prefer Heidi Klum's legs.

Whatever example you use, you just want an overall 'toned' body.

While their hard work is inspiring and admirable, you're not really looking for the kind of 'bulk' like female bodybuilders have.

The amazing Alex "Delts" O'Hanlon. Can you see where she got the nickname? (Delts = Shoulder muscles)

So it stands to reason that you need to work out differently, right?  Bodybuilders lift weights to get their physique, so you probably need to do something else.  What are the kinds of workouts that offer you the toned look you want?

It could be Pure Barre, whose entire business model is hinged on promising you the "long, lean look."

Or maybe you head over to the Health & Fitness board on Pinterest until you find a workout that claims to tighten, tone or firm the body part you find lacking. (You won't have to scroll for very long!)

Or hey, why not all three at once?!

Or hey, why not all three at once?!

In the end, what do you get?  Usually some assortment of 4-8 light bodyweight exercises that target a particular area for 15-25 reps each.  Maybe you'll do the circuit 3-5 times.

So, would workouts like these actually work?  To figure that out, we need to know exactly what muscle tone is.

Muscle tone is * comprised of two parts:

*(in the traditional sense, though the way we use it is actually a misuse of the physiological definition of the term.  No need to worry about that here, though)

What Muscle Tone IS

1) Having muscle!

Yes, most 'toning' workouts miss this point, but 'muscle tone' actually requires that you have some muscle.  If you barely have any, it's not going to really show through even a small amount of body fat.  I collected a few pictures for you to see what I mean:

MuscleTone1

All three of these girls are pretty lean and we go from one end of the spectrum (very little muscle) to the other (a lot of muscle).

So, if you're already fairly thin but still don't have the kind of muscle tone you'd like, (often referred to as being "skinny fat") then you need to build some muscle.

If image #2 is around the kind of look you have in mind, you're in luck.  It's going to be much easier for you to put on the bit of muscle it takes to get there than it would be to get to picture #3.

If you want some poppin' guns like the lovely lady in picture #3, you've got a lot of work ahead of you!

2) Having low enough body fat to see said muscles

If you're on the larger side and want to increase your muscle tone, you could certainly do that by building more muscle.  But if you're cool with the amount of muscle you have now and just want to, as they say, "tone up," then you'll need to lose some body fat.

Let's take a look at this through another visual, this time from  yours truly:

MuscleTone2

I didn't gain any muscle between those two pictures.  (In fact I would say I probably lost a fair amount.)  But I did lose about 20 pounds.  As you can see, it made a difference.  My muscles look more defined and a bit firmer just because I lost a bit of the fat that cushions them.

What Muscle Tone Is NOT

1) Building 'long and lean' muscle as opposed to 'bulky' muscle

Having 'toned' muscles doesn't mean building long & lean muscle, as opposed to bulky muscle.

Muscle is muscle.  It all looks the same.  Some reasons you might feel like you have 'bulky' muscle:

  • You have body fat that you may be confusing for muscle
  • You've got short, stocky limbs.  Draw of the cards, I'm afraid!
  • You have some muscle but also very low body fat, making said muscle appear more vascular and 'ripped' than you'd like. (see below for an example)
The same Alex O'Hanlon from above.  The only difference between picture #1 and #2 is 9 weeks and a bit of body fat.  What a difference!

The same Alex O'Hanlon from above. The only difference between picture #1 and #2 is 9 weeks and a bit of body fat. What a difference!

2) Something you can achieve with a couple of 'toning' workouts per week for a month

Losing fat and/or gaining muscle is a slow process.  The kinds of workouts in most DVDs or in magazines are not going to build very much muscle, especially if you're not a beginner.

The best they'll do is help you burn a few calories so you can lose some fat and help you preserve some muscle.  (Note: I am NOT trying to dissuade you from doing these kinds of workouts if you enjoy them. They definitely serve a purpose. By themselves, however, they may not get you the kind of results you're looking for) 

In any case, it's going to take more than a month of dedication, or a 60-day challenge, or whatever short-term results advertised.  As they say, it's a lifestyle change.

Your best bet is to train with actually challenging weights, doing total-body movements such as squats, push-ups, deadlifts, etc.

Moral:

So, in sum, the kind of workouts you'd do for increasing muscle tone involve what you'd generally think of for building muscle.  

Whether that's challenging bodyweight exercises like chin-ups, push-ups or dips; or adding some actual weight to a bench press or squat, you need something that is going to stimulate and challenge said muscles.  25 donkey kicks or a 30-day squat challenge won't cut it.

Muscle is good.  Even if you didn't lose a pound of fat, adding some muscle can help you appear more 'toned' if that's what you're going for.

But even if you already have a ton of muscle like the unbelievably strong Holly Mangold, if there is too much body fat surrounding it you won't see it.  (Though if you could clean & jerk over 300 pounds I doubt you'd care too much)

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