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).

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve March 1, 2010 at 5:26 pm

I love this post! Very intelligent. I believe you and I have many similar views on fitness. My site tackles a lot of the same stuff –
How do you feel about using supersets and dropsets and compound sets for high intensity training?

alex March 4, 2010 at 11:15 am

hey rusty, quite a bit on the comment here, but i honestly never thought of muscle tone in that way before.

I may be a younger guy, but the info you provide is really good. I am heading out to hawaii in 2 weeks, so i am using your ” vacation-body-blueprint” I have currently been using it for the last week or so, and the results are just amazing. Many THANKS!


Ian Kelley March 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

The reason that some ignorant bodybuilder’s are attacking you is that you have subtly attacked them with the theme of your blog and in many of your posts. As a natural bodybuilder I was a little annoyed at some of your writing initially but when I took a closer look I saw your content was good and your marketing was brilliant. Bodybuilding has a bad image and the reasons are complicated but if you haven’t studied it’s origin and history you might be surprised. From my blog:

Miks March 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Hey been following your advice and starting to see results on muscle definition, but i just wanted to ask a quick question. I’m 5ft 6 and weigh about 70 kg, I’m looking to lose muscle mass in my arms and pecs while maintaining strength and definition, become a bit leaner.

Any advice on the most effective way to achieve this goal?

Jordan March 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Hey rusty, I’m looking to tone all of my muscles. I feel I am big enough, what is the best thing to do? 3×3? my 1RM for chest is about 185. I’m looking for more definition, and looks like cam gigandet. thanks

Will April 20, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Hey Rusty how many reps and set should I do? I was going for a 5×5 workout with all the core big lifts like deadlift and squats but I remember one of your video said that this only had muscles to the thigh and hip area and your body would just look the same.

Will April 20, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Hey Rusty you said to lift heavy to get great muscle tone right? So are you suggesting to use all compound lift? Or should I also add isolation exercise like shoulder raises? Should those be that same as the heavy lifts with low reps and sets?

Pierre July 21, 2010 at 11:21 am

I have been reading many of the posts here and I find them helpful. I’m studying Psychology and I have an interest in Sport Psychology.

Protein shakes with high carb/sugar, steroids… Guys in the gym I go to have tried it all. Most of the bodybuilder see me and they don’t like me much because i do 3-5 reps mostly. Others who are looking for the calvin klein model look respect me.

I’m 6’4 and 178 pounds with very little body fat.

The ones looking for the lean model look, after seeing that what I do DOES work, come ask me for tips (not the bodybuilders, oh no, the know it all) and I help them because all I know I’ve read from the CST book and Convict Conditioning and your blog. I can do 10 one-arm pushup reps on each arm and that is something bodybuilders HATE me for.

What I’m trying to say is: don’t listen to them. All of us who have toned muscles know that what we’re doing is beneficial to our fitness and health (diet, HIIT and static hold exercises).

We also know that we are attractive and natural (no anabolics plx), and we feel good about it. In the end, that is what matters.

Keep doing your thing, your blog helps many people!

rocky robbin August 29, 2010 at 7:06 pm
Seane September 13, 2010 at 1:03 am

In my working position I lead more than sedentary life; I am sitting at my pc all day. I can tell you about muscle tone, or lack of it. Although I am within my ideal weight range, my fitness and muscle tone is disgusting. That is until I began Yoga. Yoga provides the ability to build on your core strength, without strain. It also provides a healthy stimulus to the mind and therefore buildings on the healthy body health mind concept.

Ultra Ankle November 9, 2010 at 5:58 pm

I was unaware the term “muscle tone” was such a controversial issue. All of the professional personal trainers and fitness consultants I know have always used the term, and whether the bodybuilders like it or not, colloquially it is understood to mean a certain state of the muscles which very closely fits the more technical way you described. What is the preferred term of these individuals who object to “muscle tone?”

physical therapy los angeles November 18, 2010 at 7:42 pm

It’s pretty crazy how much hate there is out there.

Thanks for the post. You definitely know what you are talking about!

Tone January 4, 2011 at 11:35 am

Muscle tone is at least still a better term than fat tone! Right now I think that’s my biggest problem — I’m still working on getting the fat toned down (err, removed altogether)… at which point I’ll then think about toning the muscles!

Alarms February 7, 2011 at 1:27 am

Muscle tone is definitely something that’s difficult to achieve. It takes lots of arduous work to sculpt the perfect body. Lord knows I wouldn’t be able to do it easily. 🙂

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

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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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