Lies, Damned Lies, and Muscle Tone

no bullshitThe 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.

13 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies, and Muscle Tone

  1. Great article Jeff. It’s ironic, but those who train for looks generally don’t get there. Train for functional fitness, and the looks will fall in behind.

  2. As a competitor on the U.S. Figure Skating team I had a world class team of of Weight trainers, Coaches, Sports Medicine Doctors, Physical Therapists, you name it. They all fell into this line of thinking More Reps/Less weight= tone. Less reps/more weight=bulky. I must have heard it from them at least a hundred times growing up. And whats sad is, I never really thought to question it.
    This article really does a good job of explaining how diet and exercise go hand in hand to create the “tone” and fitness that a lot of people are trying to acheive. Thanks for helping me change my line of thinking Jeff!

  3. Megan, we often don’t think we need to question information that comes from experts, and that group sounds about as expert as they come. Conversely, I am certainly not an expert, and I hope everyone who reads this will not take my word for it, but research the issue to their satisfaction from other sources as well.

    Another issue is that we as a society don’t understand nearly as much about exercise, physiology, and the human body in general as we’re led to believe by the media and our education. Entire schools of though are born, tested, and killed over the course of a decade. For example, in grade school and high school we were taught that lactic acid was a product of exercise and the source of muscle soreness. Now we know that’s not correct at all. We’re pretty sure that lactic acid has little to nothing to do with muscle soreness, and we’re positive that your body actually uses it as another source of energy. That’s right, in addition to the ATP production mechanisms with creatine phosphate, glycogen, and oxygen, we are now learning there is another ATP production mechanism that uses lactic acid as its fuel.

    That’s just a small example of how knowledge changes in a very brief period of time. CrossFit itself is actually part of a larger revolution in exercise that emphasizes functional movement, bodyweight movements, and cross-training. I believe CrossFit is the major antagonist in that revolution, but many would disagree. However, I’m not naive enough to believe that we’re getting everything right with CrossFit. I’m sure that in 20 years we’ll look back at some particular piece of it and say “What the hell were we thinking?” But right now I think it’s the best answer possible to the question of “How do we become fit?”

  4. Another outstanding article, Jeff. This really points out the value of always being suspicious of “conventional wisdom” and “popular opinion.” I don’t think there is ever a downside to thinking for yourself and questioning such things, and examining the data or evidence to make your own judgements. I wish I had been more questioning of the CW of a low-fat, high-carb diet 20 years ago.

  5. Great point Jeff. I think two perfect examples of debunking the myth that “toning” is achieved by low weight and high reps are Zan and Jordan. In my opinion their bodies resemble what most women fitness magazines refer to as a “toned” body and not bulky, and yet I never see them doing any low weight/high rep.

    Another myth that Jeannette used to believe until she got a personal trainer a couple years ago in Orlando was “I don’t want to workout my upper body because my boobs will shrink.” As the trainer told her and as she quickly found out, when you exercise and do proper nutrition your body will get rid of fat all over as you get fit.

    I think you hit it on the dot by bringing in nutrition into this article and saying that “..abs are built in the kitchen…” From watching my brother train for the Olympics in BMX, I have compared the bodies of the different riders and although they each do pretty much the same exercise routines, nutrition is what seems to be the determining factor as to how much they “bulk up” or not.

    Now, an interesting follow on to this article would be explaining a marathon runner’s (frail) body compared to a sprinter’s (fit) body and why.

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