Muscle Tone – A Controversial Term Examined

February 6, 2010

Mention the term “muscle tone” on many of the major bodybuilding forums and prepare to get flamed. I don’t spend much time over on those sites unless I notice a surge of traffic coming from a forum to this blog. Typically I upset someone for challenging their locked in notion of getting in shape. A member of one of those forums will then post something inflammatory about a particular post of mine. Then I get a few dozen homophobic and sexist comments sent my way (the owners of those forums must be proud). This post will address the term “muscle tone” and why I use it on a regular basis, despite being a pet peeve of the bodybuilding forums.


[Just another creative photo for you. Mannequins can be kind of creepy, but that is what gives them their charm.]

Thank God for Mark Rippetoe and His Book!

I owe my understanding of how to tone a muscle to Pavel Tsatsouline’s work Power to the People. I read this amazing book back in the late 90’s and it changed my approach to lifting for muscle tone forever. While I think that book is pure gold, Mark Rippetoe explains how to improve muscle tone perfectly in his book, Practical Programming for Strength Training.

“The modern fitness industry’s concept of “toning” muscles is specious—it might sound cool, but it lacks any tangible and definable meaning. 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.

“High Intensity Training Improves Tone the Fastest”

Heavy strength training is what increases muscle tone (it is what I have been saying for close to 3 years now). It creates a muscle with greater residual tension while in a rested state…meaning the muscle is firm and defined while at rest…more “toned”. Here is the rest of Mark’s quote about muscle tone…

As a test, go poke the traps or quads of an elite weightlifter at rest, if she’ll let you. They’ll he 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 he quite enlightening. Most exercise programs that claim to improve muscle tone are actually lower-intensity hypertrophy programs and are only moderately effective for improving muscle tone. If “tone” is the goal, strength is the method.

Low Body Fat Reveals Your Muscle Tone

The guys in the bodybuilding forums have a really basic understanding of how to create a defined look. They believe that you can’t “tone” a muscle. They are flat out wrong and could learn a thing or two about muscle physiology, how the nervous system is tied into lifting, etc. It is true that you need to lose body fat to reveal your muscle tone…but the muscle tone displayed can vary greatly depending upon a number of factors. Bottom line, it isn’t just about building a muscle and then getting to low body fat levels to create a defined look (which is what many would have you believe).

Muscle Tone is a Function of the Nervous System

As Mark Rippetoe states, muscle tone is an “electrophysiological” phenomenon. Getting stronger is also largely a function of the nervous system. The greater the nerve impulse to a muscle…the stronger it contracts and the greater force that muscle will generate. As a muscle becomes stronger, your nervous system becomes more efficient at sending strong signals to that muscle. Over time, the muscle will have a greater “ionic flow” even at rest…AKA greater “muscle tone”.

Note: I was pretty shocked by the prevalent homophobic tone of a particularly large bodybuilding forum. I guess that is what is considered cool on that site. I consider this the same as racism. I can’t believe this stuff still exists. There are much better places to learn about getting in amazing shape without the hate and disgusting comments (I’ll get off of my soap box now).

Important Message: Although this site has received 25+ million visitors, I am starting from scratch and abandoning it. This site is dated and old school looking, terrible to read on mobile, etc.

It's like a Ford Pinto compared to my new site...which is like a Ferrari. Click the link to head over to my new site.

Starting Over...R.I.P. Fitness Black Book!

Thanks for reading all these years!


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve April 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm

“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 wort.”

As much as homebrewing and weight lifting go well together, methinks “wort” is a typo.

anagram game October 12, 2011 at 6:37 pm

True muscle tone that you can see is only achievable with a low body fat percentage.

Family Law manila May 28, 2012 at 7:59 am

Now so this is what you called a very controversial one. That’s going to be so perfect. May 18, 2013 at 8:40 am

My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was once totally
right. This put up actually made my day. You cann’t believe just how so much time I had spent for this information! Thank you!

NoCrown September 26, 2014 at 12:43 am

It seems bodybuilding is full of homophobia despite the fact that tons and tons of bodybuilders are homosexual and bisexual. Not just a few but as many as there are heterosexual bodybuilders.

It is somehow contradictory that it is usually said that many people who bodybuild do it because they want to overcome some insecurities of theirs yet those insecurities seem to be fueled by bodybuilding ever since most bodybuilders will act as sexist, mysogynist, homophobic people.

muscle Supplement Facts September 29, 2014 at 1:02 pm

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