The idea of “toning your muscles” is one of the biggest lies to become firmly cemented in conventional wisdom. There is no such thing as “toning your muscles.” Sorry, it doesn’t exist. The concept that conventional wisdom calls “toning” is a combination of two very real things: gaining muscle mass and reducing excess body fat. But if the problem stopped there it would just be a matter of phrasing. What we call “potato chips” the British call “crisps,” but it doesn’t really matter because we’re referencing the same products produced in the exact same way. Unfortunately, when it comes to “muscle tone” that isn’t the case.
Conventional wisdom about “muscle tone” doesn’t reflect the reality of achieving it. Here’s the conventional wisdom: “If you use light weight at high reps then you will tone your muscles. This results in a trim, lean body that’s not too bulky and has good muscle definition.” Please keep in mind that the preceding quote was a load of crap. Bringing myself to type it was exceedingly difficult, so I hope you appreciate it. You’re welcome.
Here’s the first half of the truth: Muscles are fixed at all ends by tendons and bone. They do not magically assume different shapes. Sets of 2-3 reps do not produce the shape of a teapot while 10-12 reps produce the shape of a lampshade. Muscles just don’t have that much artistic license. However, muscles do change shape: they grow in response to exercise. That’s the first half of the equation in achieving what most people want when they refer to muscle tone: larger muscles. That doesn’t have to mean “Conan the Barbarian large,” but if you’ll honestly analyze what you’re thinking about when the fallacy of muscle tone comes to mind, you’ll find that growing your muscles to some degree is certainly a part of it. The good news is that conventional wisdom on toning has a tiny element of truth to it: High rep schemes with low weight do stimulate muscle growth. However, low rep schemes with heavier weight stimulate it much more. I’m not advocating one rep scheme at the expense of the other. My advice is a balanced program like CrossFit. But if you want larger muscles (part of the elusive muscle tone) then you can’t be hesitant to lift heavy. Conventional wisdom says lifting heavy is not part of “toning.” That’s probably because lifting heavy is tough and requires some motivation and determination. People like to find reasons not to do things that are difficult.
The second half of the truth: body fat is all that really determines how well your muscles can be seen. Grab a competitive bodybuilder, an elite CrossFitter, and an Abercrombie and Fitch model. They have vastly different exercise routines and physical capabilities, but chances are they’re all ripped. They all have low body fat percentages. While some form of physical exercise will undoubtedly make you leaner, the unfortunate truth is that diet is the dominant factor controlling your body fat. Abs are made in the kitchen—not on an Abmat, a GHD machine, and certainly not on some contraption with cables. Yeah, that kind of sucks, but it’s true.
So how do you achieve the traditional notion of “muscle tone?” Simple: strength training and proper nutrition. I recommend a fitness program like CrossFit that will include a mix of heavy lifting and lighter, high-rep exercises in functional movements. That translates to larger muscles. For proper nutrition I recommend some flavor of low-carb eating coupled with high-quality foods that are minimally processed. Using the proportions of the Zone Diet with an emphasis on food quality from the Paleo Diet is an excellent place to start.
The things we learn from blowhards in the gym and Saturday afternoon infomercials are often incorrect. Such is the case with muscle tone. But the idea that most people are visualizing when they think “muscle tone” isn’t elusive at all. However, unlike conventional wisdom would indicate, hard work and dedication are required to achieve it. If you really want muscle tone then toss conventional wisdom aside, put down the cupcakes in the office break room, and pick up a barbell.