Muscle Tone: What It Is and How to Get It

Walk into your local gym and tell the instructor that you want to “tone up” a particular part of your body.

Chances are you’ll be given the stock answer, which is almost certain to involve light weights, high repetitions and lots of pink equipment.

This is better than doing nothing.

But there are faster ways to achieve your goals, and the type of training I recommend to anyone wanting to get “toned” is a long way from what most people are told to do in the gym.

What’s normally defined as a toned body is one where the muscles are not hidden underneath a thick layer of fat. If you want a more toned physique, then your goal is to turn that thick layer of fat into a thinner layer of fat, and replace some of what’s been lost with muscle.

I’ve explained how to drop fat so many times that you’re probably getting annoyed at me right now for even mentioning it again.

So let’s talk about the type of resistance training that works best if “toning and firming” is your goal.

I came across this quote while I was flicking through Practical Programming for Strength Training the other day. It sums up my thoughts on the subject a lot better than I can.

The term “muscle tone” or tonus describes an electrophysiological phenomenon, a measure of ionic flow across muscle cell membranes. It can be thought of as the muscle’s readiness to do anaerobic work. The more fit the muscle, the more electrophysiological activity it exhibits at rest.

Lack of exercise leads to poor tone, aerobic exercise improves tone a little bit, low-intensity weight training improves tone more, and high-intensity training improves tone the fastest.

As a test, go poke the traps or quads of an elite weightlifter at rest, if she’ll let you. They’ll be as hard as rock. The same muscles of an elite road cyclist at rest will be firm, but not hard. Then compare the athletes’ muscle tone to that of a sedentary person. The results will be quite enlightening.

Most exercise programs that claim to improve muscle tone are actually low intensity hypertrophy programs and are only moderately at effective improving muscle tone.

If “tone” is the goal, strength is the method.

You are no doubt concerned that even the thought of pressing, pulling or squatting a heavy barbell will turn you into the female equivalent of the Incredible Hulk, with legs like tree trunks or shoulders like bowling balls.

Truth is, it takes years of hard work and an almost religious obsession with exercise and diet to develop the kind of muscular female physiques you see in the magazines.

Gaining muscle is hard to do. It takes hours of training with heavy weights, eating a lot of food, and getting plenty of rest.

Avoiding heavy weights because you’re afraid of getting “too big” is like staying away from work just in case you accidentally turn into a millionaire.

It’s not going to happen.

But the relatively small amount of muscle you gain will make a big difference to the way you look. Muscle takes up a lot less space than fat. So instead of getting bigger, the exchange of fat for muscle will often make you look smaller.

While I was attempting to “declutter” my office the other day, I came across a study on this very subject [1]. It tracked a group of female tennis players following a periodized strength training program for nine months.

Don’t let the term “periodized” throw you. It just refers to some kind of planned variation in sets, reps and weight.

Basically, the program involved lifting weights three times a week, alternating between heavy (4-6 reps), medium (8-10 reps) and light (12-15 reps) weights. This is not dissimilar to the way Muscle Evo is set up.

At the end of the study, the women had gained weight – around 2.5 pounds.

But here’s what’s interesting.

Their body fat percentage actually went down, dropping from an average of 23 to 19%.

In other words, they lost fat. And much of that lost fat was replaced with muscle.

It’s almost impossible to change your shape with aerobic exercise alone. If you’re pear shaped, all aerobic exercise will do is make you look like a smaller pear. Strength training gives you a lot more control over how you look.

Like the man says, if “tone” is the goal, strength is the method.


If you want less flab and more muscle when you look down at your abs (or where they should be), check out The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet.

It's a straight-to-the-point PDF, written in plain English, that tells you exactly how to get rid of belly fat. To download a free copy, please click or tap here.

Need help getting in shape? For a “cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” training program that will give you more muscle and less fat, go here next.


Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.

1. Kraemer, W.J., Hakkinen, K., Triplett-Mcbride, N.T., Fry, A.C., Koziris, L.P., Ratamess, N.A., Bauer, J.E., Volek, J.S., McConnell, T., Newton, R.U., Gordon, S.E., Cummings, D., Hauth, J., Pullo F, Lynch JM, Fleck SJ, Mazzetti SA, Knuttgen HG. (2003). Physiological changes with periodized resistance training in women tennis players. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35, 157-168