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What Exactly Is This Muscle Tone I’ve Heard So Much About?

And how much toneness are we talking about here?

Whenever my personal training clients would tell me they wanted to build muscle tone, I’d always wince. I wasn’t wincing because I didn’t know what they were requesting of me, nor was it because I wasn’t capable of assisting them with acquiring what they desired. It’s because they didn’t fully grasp the concept behind muscle tone.

If you also have trouble understanding precisely what people are identifying when they talk about acquiring “muscle tone,” that’s quite okay, because the people who invented the phrase didn’t seem to have a firm handle on what it meant either. Granted, it may have meant something in each person’s individual mind during the early occasions when it was presented in print, but perusing these references one-by-one can only add to the confusion.

Generally speaking, the early notion of muscle tone appears to have been linked specifically with feminine fitness and appearance. One of the first references to “muscle tone” appeared in an April 1912 article in the Chicago Tribune by Lillian Russell, in which the allusions to muscle tone were clearly in reference to exercising facial muscles as a way to avoid the onset of wrinkles. Similarly, in 1917, a writer for The Morning Post in Camden, New Jersey wrote that no woman could carry herself well “…without a high degree of that quality which may be called muscle tone.” The writer went on to clarify precisely what was meant by muscle tone when she added, “If you are soft, flabby, flaccid, toneless — not vocally but muscularly — then the first thing for you to do is to follow persistently a system of all-around exercise that will strengthen and build up every part of your body.”

This exclusive association of muscle tone with women continued into the next decade. An April 1922 article from the Press and Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, New York further defined it as a decidedly female trait that could be lost during a time of sickness, but reclaimed by “taking lots of exercise.” 

It doesn’t seem that muscle tone, in its widely accepted spirit of muscle development, was acceptably applied to men until the late 1930s. During that period, famous dietitian Ida Jean Kain appears to have popularized the general usage of muscle tone as a term for describing a favorable quality of visible, viable muscles, and the usage of the term was later reinforced by British scientists David Burns and R.J. Bartlett, who borrowed it to describe a quality they were searching for in the physiques of future British soldiers. 

From that point on, muscle tone has been widely cited as a quality that multiple generations have sought to achieve through a combination of diet and exercise.

Sounds great! So how do I build muscle tone?

You don’t. Muscle tone isn’t something that can be built. 

I don’t understand.

Neither did the people who came up with the term. One of the reasons “muscle tone” appears to have been able to rise to a point of acceptance seems to be due to a confluence of several factors involving food shortages, a lack of understanding pertaining to the science of muscle development and an insufficiency in the advancement of fitness language.

I didn’t realize this would require a history lesson.

With me, everything requires a history lesson. Here’s the bottom line: What we refer to as “muscle tone” is a simple acknowledgement of the presence of one tissue (muscle) coupled with the absence of another tissue (body fat). People who have accumulated enough muscle mass in an area of the body where a sufficient amount of body fat is absent, either because it’s been burned away or has never been permitted to develop, will have visible muscle tone. 

In the era when “muscle tone” achieved acceptance as a term, bodybuilding hadn’t yet gained any meaningful traction with the general populace as either a sport or a hobby. As such, there was no widespread knowledge of the concept of working to accumulate muscle mass, which was probably also owed to the fact that so few people who lived or grew up in the Great Depression and pre-World War II eras could have sustained the food intake required to develop appreciable muscle mass even if they were aware of the processes by which it could be acquired. The average weight of American men in those eras was likely shy of 160 pounds.

In other words, for the overwhelming majority of the world’s populace, muscle was a “tone” that the skin could acquire, but not a “mass” that could be expanded or added to.

So you’re saying that muscle tone doesn’t exist?

Well, I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a figment of your imagination. If you say “muscle tone,” almost everyone will know what you’re referring to. The apocryphal usage of the term occurs when people say they want to “build” muscle tone. The tone is a quality created when you build muscle and burn fat. You can accelerate the manifestation of muscle tone by simultaneously building muscle and burning fat, but you can’t “build” muscle tone in and of itself.

Aren’t you being excessively anal about this?

Probably, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. If you’re exceedingly skinny, the process for creating muscle tone is no different from the process of building muscle. If you’re prevented from displaying muscle tone due to an abundance of body fat, but you also have obvious muscle buried beneath that fat, the path to appearing toned involves reducing caloric intake and burning off the fat. Likewise, if you lack any muscle mass to speak of and are carrying around excess body fat, a twofold approach of muscle building and fat burning should be prescribed. 

What this means, in a practical sense, is that you should focus on either building muscle, burning fat or both. The only tones you should be concerned with when you go to the gym is your LG Tone Platinum Headset, which you should use to block out all distractions, and maybe Tone Loc… but only if you have good musical taste.