The fitness industry has, and may always will be, dogmatic. “You gotta bulk up if you want to put on serious size, bro.” Which is actually going to lead to more fat gain, a harder time getting lean, and could result in muscle loss (a topic for another day). “If you want to lose body fat, you can’t eat carbs, they’re evil.” Not true, carbohydrates are important for optimal hormone functioning, can help with losing fat, and can keep you track with your fat loss goals (and another topic for another day). But, today, I want to focus on the dogma of high-rep training to increase the “tone” of your muscles.
With regards to the look of one’s muscles, tone can be defined as – the appearance of the muscle being tight and slightly contracted while at rest. Most people desire this toned appearance of their muscles, men and women alike. The problem is, most trainers and websites will tell you to perform high repetition exercise to achieve this look. I’m talking 15-30 reps per set. Not only does this do the opposite of increasing tone, it may cause the muscle to get bigger and may even may it look puffy. Not the hard, dense, and toned appearance they were looking for. So how do you achieve that tone look?
- Get rid of excess body fat
- First and foremost, if you have excess body fat, that needs to go. By reducing the blurring effect of body fat, you start to reveal your beautiful, awesome muscles. You do not have to sacrifice weight training for fat loss.
- Increase your strength
- Secondly, if you want to tone your muscle and give it that dense, firm look, you need to focus on increasing your strength. I can hear you now, “What is he talking about? Won’t that make me big and bulky?” The answer, in short, is NO. Training for strength is based on low reps and stopping each set shy of failure or fatigue. High-rep training is the opposite; you want to feel the burn and go to or near fatigue. Going to or near fatigue will cause the muscle to get bigger, simple as that. Staying shy of failure and focusing on increasing weight will cause the muscle to get more dense…and stronger. Without getting too science-y, high-rep training causes the fluid portion of the muscle to get larger. This will give the muscle a “puffy” look and the appearance is fairly transient; your muscles will look bigger but they won’t stay that way for long if you stop that style of training. Low-rep training, while focusing on increasing strength, causes the contractile portion of the muscle to get larger. This will give that dense, firm, and “toned” look to the muscle. This style of training will last longer as well, meaning your muscles will hold this definition for a longer period of time. This analogy will help: only doing high-rep training will cause your muscles to look like a stuffed animal; fluffy and soft. Low-rep strength training is like a sandbag; hard, dense, and firm.
- When I say low-rep training, I mean staying within the 4-6 rep range for muscles you want to tone but not build size. I also suggest performing 4-5 sets of the exercise while staying in this rep range. Now, the weight should be heavy but you should not be lifting until fatigue. An easy way to gauge this is if the speed of your repetition slows significantly, stop the set. This will ensure you do not push too much into fatigue and can maximally stimulate strength gains which will lead to that desired look. Additionally, you need to focus on contracting the muscles as hard as you can while performing the exercise. This improves the brains ability to activate the nerves responsible for contracting that muscle and will further improve muscle tone.
I’ll give an example for legs. This is a muscle group that a lot of women want to tone but not necessarily increase in size. Here’s how I would suggest doing a set of Lunges:
- Pick a weight you can perform 8 repetitions with perfect form
- While doing each repetition of the lunge, slowly lower your body down so your knee is at 90 degrees, taking about 2-3 seconds
- Contract your glutes hard at the bottom and drive your heel into the ground
- You want to “contract” your way through the repetition, not move through the repetition
- You should take 2-3 seconds to finish the repetition
That is 1 repetition
- When you feel your speed getting slower or you cannot lower your body under control, stop the set
This same principle can, and should, be applied to all exercises that work muscles you want to increase tone in. To summarize: If you want to get “toned” you need to drop excess body fat and focus on increasing strength. This will lead to that hard, firm look you desire. If you’re interested in a workout that shows you how to increase muscle tone, subscribe to our newsletter so you can get a free workout when it becomes available. If you have any questions, or objections, leave a comment below.
Thank you for reading.