“What was that last part?”
“You know, get more toned?”
“uuuhhhhhhhuuuuhhh.” One eye twitches.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine…it’s just….well…”
We hear it all the time. From the ladies. You ALL want to get more “toned.” Rarely does a woman walk into my gym and tell me she wants to get all “jacked-up.”
Here it is. You can’t “tone” a muscle. You can, however, “build” a muscle. Go back and read those two sentences again. Now.
What most women mean when they say they want to get “toned” is they want gentle lines all over their body, smoothly showing off the beautiful curves and contours of their musculature. Look out. I just used the word musculature, in describing beautiful, curvy women. I think I felt the Earth stop turning.
Now that we’ve agreed that women do, indeed, have muscle, let’s talk about how to build it. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t involve anything you’ll find on sites like this.
There are two ways to “build” a muscle. You can make it actually bigger, and/or you can build more connection or “density” into the muscle. This connection/density building in the muscle happens both neurologically (to fire more muscle), and through the circulatory system (to supply more blood). Realize that these are simplifications, there’s a lot going on when you pick up heavy stuff.
If you’re doing things that you can already do, you will get no adaptation in your body. Repeat, “If I can already do it, the adaptation is already done.” Going to “tone” by picking up 2.5lb pink dumbbells and doing sets of 20 reps when the commercials come on? That’s going to have a very limited capacity to elicit change in your body. Try it for the next 30 days. If you end up with monster shoulders, please send me the pic!
When you work with heavy loads (safely), you’re cuing some really sweet change to happen in your body. When your body struggles to move a load, whether it’s overhead, a deadlift, whatever, it sends all kinds of signals out to your body. And, they’re all good!
Legs: “Engineering! We need more power!”
Brain: “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain! I just can’t recruit any more muscle!”
Legs: “We’ve got 2 reps left, and I need that power NOW!”
Brain: “Well, maybe if I cross the pathways to the dilithium…it just might work!”
Legs: “1 more rep! I need it NOW!!!”
Brain: “She can’t take much more, Captain!”
Legs: “Last rep! We’re done….we’re done…great work.”
Brain: “Captain, with your permission, I’d like to rebuild the support structure and communication systems to the engines (legs) so if we’re ever in a bind like this again, we’re better off.”
Legs: “Permission granted.”
Now, it probably doesn’t go down exactly this way, but you’d be surprised how accurate this is. Compare this to:
Legs: “Hey Engineering, how are things going with our current rep scheme & weight?”
Brain: “We’re doing fine, Captain, just fine. Easy as dilithium pie. Are you gonna need any more power?”
Legs: “Not today. We’re just toning.”
Brain: “Good, good. I was going to rebuild the support structure and communication systems, but if you say we’re all good then…’Hey guys! Coffee break!'”
Seriously. This is what happens when you think you’re “toning”. You’re not. You’re just being lazy. You’ve given your body the day off. There’s no reason to adapt, because it can already do 25 curls with 3 lb weights. Now, I’m not trying to get down on people who are just starting out. When you just start out after being away from fitness and pushing your body for a while, yes, you should take it slow. You don’t want to take on the Romulans quite yet…alright, alright, enough with the metaphor.
If you’re just starting out and 10 reps of a movement with super light weights make you sore, that’s fine, but you should be working towards heavier loads. The general guideline here is that it should be heavy enough that you naturally hold your breath for some part of the movement. Yes, there is a more proper way to hold your breath during reps, and yes, I will write a blog post about it. Later.
So here’s the deal. The next time you’re in the gym, up the weight. Use enough that you think you’d have to dig really deep to get 10 reps. It should be enough weight that on rep 4 you’re thinking, “There’s no way. This is too heavy.” Then, make it to 7 reps. Stop. Rest exactly 90 seconds. Do another set. Then move on to your next movement. If this is too easy, rest 60 seconds, or maybe even 30.*
These 14 reps are going to leave you breathing heavy, your brain and body are going to be cranked, and your arms/legs/whatever might even be a little shaky. It’s going to be uncomfortable. That’s the idea. You’re not “toning,” you’re building muscle–sweet, glorious, curvy, sexy, beautiful muscle–both from a neurological point of view (communication) and from a density of muscle point of view (increased circulation). Both of these are what give you that butt you can bounce a quarter off of, and the “right to bare arms.”
*Please, don’t be stupid. If you had back surgery last week, it’s not the time for this. Know your body and where your fitness level is. I’m not there to coach you, so push it, but don’t injure yourself.
You can do this with whatever machines/weights/stones you have available. All of those machines that we as cavemen/CrossFitters make fun of in the gym, with all the cables and pins and plates? Those are actually a good way to start this. They are relatively safe, and if you don’t have a coach, your chances of hurting yourself are very low. Of course, you’re not going to get quite the same response from a leg press as a squat, and if I had my choice I’d choose the squat, but don’t let that keep you from applying this to your next workout.
And this is going to make you a LOT stronger, too. Your brain is actually going to have access to more muscle fibers. It’s going to be able to fire a greater quantity of actual muscle at any given time. So when you go up the stairs, you’re going to feel lighter. When you do your sport, you’re going to be faster. Light weight, high rep just doesn’t stimulate this way. It just doesn’t.
On a side note, very high rep workouts have the potential to make your joints mad. Especially when you start from a zero fitness level. This doesn’t affect everyone, but few people have joint issues in the sweet 5-10 rep range, provided they are moving properly. I could get more into the reasons for this, but this post is long enough already. Maybe in the future.
BTW, the girl in the photo? That’s Stephanie, a client of mine. She squats 250lbs. For reals. Ready to go heavy?
Let us know how it goes! I think Neely just tried it this week and loved it!
P.S. Look for my next post on “But, I don’t want to get big/bulky!” We’ll be “discussing” (setting people straight) on the specifics of muscle adaptation. It’s stuff you’re not going to read standing at the magazine rack at CVS.
PSS – You can thank Rachan and this comment for inspiring this post, their comment got me started and it magically turned into this!