A lot of people look to body building looking to – what else? – build muscle. However, there’s a whole other side to body building called muscle toning.
A lot of people would rather not bother with it – and indeed they don’t – because it doesn’t build muscle. So, what exactly is the value in an exercise that doesn’t build muscle?
What is Toning?
Before we go into why you really should find room in your workout for toning, we should spend a few sentences defining it.
“Toning” is also called “sculpting” or “shaping.” Toning is our favorite word because it speaks to what is happening to the muscle on a biological level rather than just on an aesthetic level.
On an aesthetic level, it’s true that these exercises make your muscles more defined and make your body look more lean.
On a biological level, these exercises maintain the health of the muscle without actively building it (Warner, p.32). They don’t make your muscles larger or even stronger. However, they do increase your endurance so that your muscles can work longer without giving up or becoming damaged.
Why Bother with Toning?
Maintaining muscle sounds great and all but won’t lifting to build keep your muscles healthy? To an extent. But there are also other reasons to make toning part of your routine.
We’ll say it once more because it bears repeating: toning increases your muscle resistance.
This is important if you want your muscles to do anything other than win you competitions or impress people at the beach. Most actual practical activities involving your muscles are going to involve prolonged intermediate activity rather than intense and isolated activity.
Suppose you don’t care about using your muscles for anything other than throwing weights around. Toning is still important! Increasing the resistance and health of your muscles means that you will be able to lift more weight.
The body isn’t just muscle – the part that gets big and impressive when you focus on building. The head of the muscle contracts, making the muscle shorter, drawing the bones together. The points where the muscles connect to bones or other points is where most muscle damage occurs. Toning helps to prevent these types of overexertion during heavier lifting.
Some people work out just to get big. Some people work out because they’re worried about their health. While there’s nothing wrong with muscle building, muscle toning is better for your overall health.
These exercises do more to burn fat. They also keep your heart and lungs active without giving them too much work to do, which can happen with building exercises.
This is the worst reason for toning but possibly the most popular. It makes you look … nicer. Your muscles don’t become larger but they become more shapely and better defined.
Even in some body building competitions, appearance can be worth more than sheer size. And for most people that are looking for a “beach body” the same is true.
How is it Done?
Okay, so you’re sold on toning. Now, how do you do it?
There are a couple of ways to go about it. One is a sort of formula that you can use when lifting. The other involves some specific exercises that are particularly helpful.
Manipulate Your One-Rep Max
Your one-rep max is the maximum amount of weight that you can lift one time with correct form (Warner, p. 6). Because every exercise is different, every exercise will have its own one-rep max. That is, every free weight, machine, or resistance exercise. The same doesn’t really go for body-resistance exercises like push ups. But, we’ll return to that.
If you’re trying to build muscle, you might use most of, all of, or even more than you’re one-rep max and try to do between one and three reps. If you’re trying to tone muscle, drop that down to around fifty to sixty percent and try to do at least ten reps.
If you’re just lifting to tone, your one-rep max might stay the same pretty much forever. If you’re also lifting to strengthen try checking your one-rep max at least once per month by adding no more than ten percent to your previous one-rep max and trying again.
If you’re one-rep max goes up but you don’t change how you lift, you’ll get less and less out of your workouts. But, if you try to push your one-rep max too hard or too fast you can hurt yourself.
There are a couple of exercises that are really only good for toning. At least after a certain point, most body resistance exercises like pushups fall into this category.
It can be hard to know exactly how much you’re lifting in exercises like push ups and your weight fluctuates through the workout process as you lose fat and build muscle. However, after a certain point, your one-rep max is likely to exceed the weight provided by most body resistance exercises to the point that they’re really only good as a warm-up.
Jogging and biking can provide some tone to the lower body muscles, particularly if you deal with difficult terrain. Once again, however, exactly how much force you are exerting for how long becomes difficult to calculate into anything like a one-rep max.
The same can be said for swimming and activities like planks. Both of these are good exercises for toning but not particularly good for building. However, they are great full body exercises. Swimming is particularly good for your heart and lungs.
The benefit about all of these exercises is that they’re full-body exercises. There aren’t a lot of good full-body exercises for building muscle, so setting a day for full-body exercises means that toning won’t get in the way of building – assuming you want to do both.
Changing the Tune on Tone
Hopefully this article has made you think twice about the value of toning exercises in your workout routine.
It’s true that doing these exercises won’t increase your muscle mass. However, they will help you lower your fat content, increase your endurance, and improve your overall health.
Warner, Joe. “7 Rules of Building Muscle.” Dennis Publishing. 2011.