Are You Really Getting Toned?

 In Blog

Toned abs! Toned arms! Toned legs! I get it- people want to get toned. The problem is that most people are going about it the wrong way. If you want those ripped arms you’re going to have to ditch the high rep sets and start lifting some heavy things. Here’s why.

There’s actually a scientific term that describes what it means to be “toned.” It’s called myogenic tonus and refers to the state of activation in the muscle. What’s that? It basically refers to the nerve supply to the muscle along with how “awake” the muscle is. Power athletes like sprinters and high jumpers have a high level of activation. In their case, the muscle tends to stand out and we refer to that as “toned.”

The best way to get “toned” is to lift heavy weights. Almost everyone does the opposite – light weights for extremely high reps (think 20+ reps with dumbbells you could buy at a convenience store). But your muscles need something called mechanical tension in order to develop tonus. Mechanical tension is just fancy talk for “lift something heavy,” in this case a weight you could lift 12 times. However, that number could drop down to 3 reps, as 7 sets of 3-5 reps will sure get you toned.

Don't lift light weights to get toned

Image courtesy of punsayaporn at

The reason being is because not all muscle is created we equal. We all have a biceps muscle-called a biceps brachii- but the cells that make up those muscles are divided into different categories. Some respond well to endurance activities while the “high threshold muscle cells” respond to sprinting and lifting heavy things. These high threshold muscle cells are the ones that give your body and toned and defined appearance.

Heavier weights leads to something called protein synthesis, which causes your muscles to develop new muscle (1). Do this often and you’ll start to see new muscle- and get toned. Those lighter weights will cause a burn during the set and your body will pretty much return to normal shortly after the workout is over- there’s very little effect on your metabolism. That’s not a good return on your investment.

I’m not saying you have to be able to lift a house to be toned (although that would be pretty cool). My usual recommendation for most people would be:4 x 6-8. 4-0-1-0. 2 exercises per bodypart. Do that for six weeks and you’ll definitely have a lot more than just toned arms.


  1. Mangine T., et al. “Improving Muscle Strength and Size.”(2015) Kinesiology 2:131-138.
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