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I hear a lot of people talking about going to the gym to "tone" up their muscles. What they usually do to improve their tone is to do relatively high reps with relatively low weights - say 30-50 reps with 30-50% max. These exercises are done without changing anything else about their diet or exercise routine. Does this sort of workout successfully tone specific muscles or a person's entire body?

Clarification: I'm using the word "tone" to mean "improving the shapeliness of existing muscle" rather than the scientific definition "muscle tension at rest".

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You mean they want to get bigger or leaner muscles? –  Ivo Flipse Mar 14 '11 at 19:12
Certainly not bigger, and they never say leaner. Just "toned". –  Sparafusile Mar 15 '11 at 10:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Toning exercises are done to teach the body to more efficiently conserve it's resources (such as oxygen) and to build endurance. Doing that many reps with that light of weights is likely not achieving much of an effect at all. Your muscles are developed by use, and that easy of an exercise relates closer to cardio than to a true workout.

Simply put, there are two types of muscle tone: myogenic and neurogenic. The former refers to your muscle tone at rest; the latter refers to muscle tone that's expressed when muscular contractions occur.

Low(er) rep training increases the sensitivity of various motor units resulting in increased neurogenic tone. On the other hand, myogenic tone is correlated with the overall density of your muscles (specifically the contractile proteins myosin and actin) and is vastly improved by lifting heavier weights. (Source)

So, yes, you can do more reps with lighter weights to make your muscles look better in a relaxed state, and less reps with heavier weights to make them look better in a contracted state. As a general rule, I've always been told to use the maximum weight you can do 12 reps with for toning, and the maximum weight you can do 7 reps with for building. The same article I've quoted there also says:

"... utilizing light weights (anything above twelve reps in my book) while dieting will likely result in loss of muscle, which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen."

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Thanks for the source. Good read. –  Sparafusile Mar 15 '11 at 13:48
"you can do more reps with lighter weights to make your muscles look better in a relaxed state, and less reps with heavier weights to make them look better in a contracted state" - I like that explination –  DustinDavis Mar 15 '11 at 22:39

Quick answer is if you're body isn't fit to show your "tone" then you can tone until you're dead but you wont achieve anything visually unless you change your diet. This is where I'm at right now. I have cuts but I also have a layer of goo that prevents them from being well defined.

Case-in-point: body builders use diuretics to drain every last drop of water from their skin before a competition to expose as much of their "tone" or "cuts" as possible. As soon as they hydrate again, the toned look fades a bit but they are still toned underneath.

Your muscles can be toned even if you cant see it. The more weight you lose, the more your tone will become visible.

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'Toning' is a look you might achieve after weight loss (dieting + cardio). It causes your muscles to look more defined. It has nothing to do with weight lifting.

Training for endurance instead of strength is less likely to increase muscle size if that is your desired appearance.

Both are a good workout for your muscles and endurance weightlifting is a good complement to dieting and cardio for your overall health.

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I don't have a source, but there is no such thing as "improving the shapeliness of existing muscle" - you are either adding, maintaining, or decreasing the amount of your muscle mass. You can't improve the appearance of your muscles without either adding muscle mass or decreasing fat percentage.

A lot of the discussion of "toning" seems to come out of a fear that some people have that after lifting just a few weights, they'll walk out of the gym looking like an Olympic-class bodybuilder, which is just completely ridiculous - it would be like thinking that a few golf lessons would turn you into Tiger Woods.

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Actually you can improve the look of existing muscle. That's the carbing up phase of pre contest preparation. But that's not what is being talked about. –  Gabriel Nov 14 '12 at 21:33

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