The most common goal I hear from women who are starting on their fitness journey is to get more “toned.” Usually it is used in reference to a body part, for example, “I want to tone up my arms and abs.” There are two beliefs that, despite advances in science and mounting evidence to the contrary, hold women’s fitness in the dark ages. These superstitions are spot reduction and “toning”.
“Spot reduction” workouts stem from the belief that you can lose weight in one body part. We store fat in different places based on hormones and genetics, but when we lose fat, it comes from all over. No matter how many workouts you may see to “lose fat in your arms” or “get rid of thigh jiggles”, you can’t pick just one area of your body to lose fat in. Workouts designed to help lose fat in a specific body part are created by marketers to get you to read the article, not to help you lose fat. You might lose fat eventually doing thousands of curls, but there’s a much better way.
I only mention spot reduction because it is married to the second fitness superstition, toning. The biggest problem with toning is that it isn’t a goal. How will you measure how toned you are? What women usually mean is they want to lose fat and gain muscle in the right places to look fit and attractive. What they end up doing is following random “toning” workouts. This often means lots of repetitions with light weights and hours on the treadmill or elliptical machine. Without goals, they never get what they are looking for.
The Truth About Tone
There is such a thing as tone, but it refers to tonus. Even when you are at rest, your muscles are in a constant state of slight contraction. This is due to the electricity flowing through the nervous system. The degree of tone, or tonus, in the muscle is a result of how much of this electricity flows through the nervous system to the motor units that cause muscles to contract.
There are three types of muscle fibers, type 1, type 2a, and type 2b. Type 1, commonly referred to as “slow twitch”, is used for endurance exercises and uses oxygen for fuel. When you do cardio, you are using these. When you lift light weight you are also using these along with some type 2a fibers. Type 2, “fast twitch”, fibers are used in explosive, athletic movements and weightlifting. Type 2b fibers are only used in lifting the heaviest weights and full out sprints. The heaviest weights and most strenuous exercise require the strongest nervous system signals.
If you want to “tone up” you need to do the complete opposite of popular toning workouts.
It may seem completely counter intuitive, but the way to get the lean, tight body you’re after is to lift heavy-very heavy. The best range for increasing muscle tone is around 90% of your one rep max. You will want to warm up with some light cardio. Then, do progressive doubles until you get to 90%. Start at around sixty percent of your one rep max and do two reps. Add 5-10 pounds and repeat until you are at 90%. At 90% you should do a single rep per set. When you have done 4-5 singles, call it a day.
When you lift heavy, you are primarily training your nervous system, not building your muscles. You won’t have to worry about get the big, “bulky” look. In fact, when weightlifters want to move up weight classes, they often have to abandon this kind of training and do more reps at lighter weights. Training at near maximal weights is tough, but it works. Do this 2 to 3 times per week on big lifts like bench, deadlift, and squat and see it work wonders for your body. You can throw in some light cardio and isolation exercises on the days you don’t lift heavy. This is how you get “toned.”