Toning Muscle Versus Strengthening Muscle

Muscle "toning" is a bit of a misnomer. Muscle tone refers to the state of tension in your muscles that contributes to your ability to maintain proper posture and coordination. Exercises that claim to tone your muscles really aim to increase the definition of your muscles. Resistance training is a great method to gain muscle definition and can be divided into two further categories: muscular endurance training and muscular strength training. While the two share similarities, muscular endurance training is geared toward improving the stamina of your muscles, while strengthening aims to add muscle bulk.

A woman is holding a barbell.
Credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock/Getty Images

Undercover Work

Muscle tone can be considered an undercover contraction. This particular type of contraction is controlled by involuntary spinal reflexes that work to maintain your level of coordination and posture. Without ample muscle tone, tasks such as sitting upright or raising your arm could be very difficult. The tone of your muscles is an intrinsic factor and is very difficult to change.

Endurance Training

Muscular endurance training will increase the definition of your muscles without adding bulk to your frame. The emphasis for these particular exercises is on completing a high number of repetitions with a lower amount of weight. This type of training builds your muscular strength to a degree but mainly focuses on increasing muscular stamina. Your resistance-training program should include eight to 10 exercises that work the major muscle groups of your body for two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions. The weight that you select should challenge your muscles, but not cause extreme fatigue after 10 repetitions. You should aim to participate in a minimum of two or three days of resistance training weekly with a day of rest between sessions.

Build Strength

Muscular strength is a measure of force against a specific resistance. In order to build muscle, you must practice progressive overload. Progressive overload is a process of constantly exposing your muscles to greater amounts of work than what they typically experience. Your resistance-training program should include eight to 10 exercises that target all major muscle groups for one set of eight to 10 repetitions. The weight that you choose should be challenging, and you should expect to experience extreme fatigue by 10 repetitions. Like muscular endurance-focused programs, muscular-strengthening programs should be added to your fitness routine for a minimum of two or three days per week with a day of rest between sessions.

Recruitment & Hypertrophy

While muscular-endurance training yields more fatigue-resistant muscle fibers, muscular strengthening increases muscle fiber size. Initial gains in strength can be attributed to greater fiber recruitment – a greater number of muscle fibers are receiving the impulse to contract and therefore produce a stronger contraction. Subsequent gains in muscle strength are due to hypertrophy, which is a cross-sectional increase in the individual muscle fiber size.

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