How to Get Toned Muscles – without bulk

Stephen Holt, Timonium personal trainer

Millions of readers of national fitness magazines including Shape, Women's Health, Fitness. Woman's Day, Family Circle, Runner's World, (and many others) have made their exercise programs both more effective AND more efficient with fitness and nutrition advice from "America's Baby Boomer Expert," Stephen Holt.

One of my “go-to” lines when I’m speaking about Program Design for Women Over 40 (my standard topic – along with Biomechanics) at fitness conferences is:

“Every woman who comes to my office says exactly the same thing. Say it with me if you’ve heard it before. ‘I don’t want to get …’

And all the trainers chime in,

Then I follow with,
“I just want to …”

And all the trainers join in,

If only I had the proverbial nickel for every time I’ve heard,

“I don’t want to get bulky; I just want to tone.”

Sure, I understand what you’re trying to say.

But, you’re wrong :-)

Part of what’s going on with what most women call “tone” is a thickening of connective tissue.

Take a look of this diagram of a cross-section of a muscle.

muscle tone
Think of each “-mysium” as a sausage with a casing on the outside of it. (I can sense my physiology prof cringing right now.)

Muscle fibers alone are soft and squishy like a chunk of ground beef. It’s the casing (endomysium, perimysium, and epimysium) that makes muscles feel firm.

Lifting weights is by far the most effective way to thicken and firm this casing. That’s what makes your muscles look and feel “toned.”

Even more important …

Research shows that it takes a minimum weight of around 20RM for this “toning” to occur to any appreciable degree.

20RM is fancy strength coach talk for “20 Rep Max” or the amount of weight you could lift for exactly 20 (and no more) repetitions of a given exercise.

So, the next time you find yourself in a “Toning Class” doing more than 20 reps OR doing 20 reps and thinking “I could do even more reps,” you’re NOT toning at all.

(Sorry, barre.)

Bottom line …

If you can do more than 20 reps, you’re not using enough weight to accomplish much of anything beyond muscle endurance — which is a legitimate goal, of course, but no one will ever tell you …

The best solution is to vary your repetition range over the course of a scientifically planned program (you know, like the extra fancy Undulating A/B Splits we do at 29again).


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