Posts in movement
The "Toning" Myth

First of all

Let’s try and move away from adopting a fitness routine for purely aesthetic reasons. This is an entirely different topic and conversation, and we won’t go there, but I want to plant this seed for you. There is nothing wrong with the desire to create physical change in the body, but I’d like to challenge you to include performance and health-based goals as well. Setting these will allow you to measure your progress objectively, in the short-term. More on that later.

What is “Toning” Anyway?

When I hear that someone is looking to “just tone,” this phrase is often directly followed by a clarification that they would not like to get “too big” or “bulky.” Since this is still so common, there is clearly a misunderstanding in the way that muscle tissue reacts to training stimulus. When someone expresses the desire to look “toned,” what they’re really saying is they want to put on muscle and lose body fat.

Toned — implies leanness in the body (low levels of body fat), noticeable muscle definition and shape, without significant muscle size (bulk)

Every person is different, and there will be slightly different outcomes even when training within the guidelines, but generally speaking if you’re looking to “tone up” my recommendation would be to approach your programming with the overarching goal of fat loss and cycle through the strength building categories that I’ve outlined below (in the order that they’re listed).

Define Your Goals

You can’t design a program without knowing what you’re trying to achieve. Most programs are periodized, which allows for progress toward multiple goals, with a focus on achieving just one at a time.

Periodization — an organization of training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period of time; typically dividing one year into macrocycles, mesocycles and microcycles

The general goals (for programming purposes) that we will be focusing on are endurance (specifically focused on stabilization and muscular — often used as a preparatory or introductory phase), hypertrophy (growth of muscle size), strength (maximal strength), and performance (speed and power).

Here are some terms you may need in order to decode the specifics:

Reps — one complete movement of a single exercise

Sets — group of consecutive repetitions

1RM — 1 repetition maximum; a calculator used to estimate your percentages of RM can be found here

Goal: Stabilization + Muscular Endurance

  • Focus — create optimal levels of stabilization strength and postural control

  • Programming Strategy — begin with and cycle back through this phase between periods of higher intensity training

  • Set Range — 1 to 3

  • Rep Range — 12 to 20

  • Intensity — 50% to 70% of 1RM

  • Tempo — slow; for example 4/2/1 (4 sec eccentric, 2 sec isometric, 1 sec concentric)

  • Rest Interval — 0 to 90 sec

Goal: Hypertrophy

  • Focus — maximal muscle growth through high levels of volume with minimal rest periods

  • Technical Strategy — to force cellular changes that result in overall increase in muscle size

  • Set Range — 3 to 5

  • Rep Range — 6 to 12

  • Intensity — 75% to 85% of 1RM

  • Tempo — moderate; for example 2/0/2 (2 sec eccentric, 0 sec isometric, 2 sec concentric)

  • Rest Interval — 0 to 60 sec

Goal: maximal Strength

  • Focus — increasing the load placed on tissues of the body

  • Technical Strategy — recruit more motor units, rate of force production and motor unit synchronization

  • Set Range — 4 to 6

  • Rep Range — 1 to 5

  • Intensity — 85% to 100% of 1RM

  • Tempo — fast or explosive

  • Rest Interval — 3 to 5 min

Goal: Speed + Power

  • Focus — both high force and velocity to increase power

  • Programming Strategy — combining a strength exercise with a power exercise for each body part

  • Set Range — 3 to 6

  • Rep Range — 1 to 10

  • Intensity — 30% to 45% of 1RM

  • Tempo — fast or explosive that can be safely controlled

  • Rest Interval — 3 to 5 min

A Quick Note about 1RM

Calculating your 1RM for each exercise you do, is a time consuming process. I would recommend using a calculator instead of pushing yourself to follow a testing protocol — this will allow you to input any number of reps and weight and can determine your percentages of RM.

I wouldn’t suggest attempting to calculate your RM for lifts you perform less than 2x per week. Also, keep in mind that for the data you input, the lower the reps, the more accurate your RM results will be — try to work with 2, 3, or 5 reps when possible.

Where to begin

Drop the fear of heavy weights, of getting bulky, of getting strong. Avoid zeroing in on aesthetic measurements. Shift your programming to a balanced, periodized formatting. Challenge yourself to set performance and health-based goals. Push yourself, but only do what makes you feel good. Remember that the point is to enjoy the experience.

*Specific numerical information sourced from NASM

Tight Muscles: Your New Strategy

When you feel tight, you stretch — right?

well, Not necessarily.

Let’s break down some misconceptions here and set the record straight on what’s really going on when you’re experiencing tightness.

First off, we need to come to the understanding that feeling tight doesn’t necessarily mean there is excess tension, shortness, nor stiffness. Tightness is a feeling, an experience. And it is not always an accurate reflection of the state of the tension or hardness of the muscle, nor the existence of “knots.”

what causes a muscle to feel tight then?

The body experiences tightness, similarly to the way it experiences pain. As a warning sign or alarm to indicate that the muscle has the potential to experience “threatening conditions”. What kind of conditions are threatening to a muscle? Certainly increased tension is not threatening, considering the function of a muscle is to create tension.

Factors such as inadequate rest or blood flow are seen as threats to the muscle tissues — these circumstances have the potential to cause metabolic stress and activate chemical nociceptors.

Nociceptors are sensory nerve cells that respond to damaging or potentially damaging stimuli and communicate this information to the CNS (central nervous system) which then determines if the threat is credible, and if so, creates the sensation of pain to direct attention to that body part

So the real issue, that we are being warned about through the experience of tightness, is not the existence of tension, but rather the frequency of tension or lack of blood flow.

What’s the solution?

It depends, of course.

Let’s dive deeper into some of the commonly practiced solutions to healing tightness and decode what works for which issues.


  • When to try: If you’re feeling tight from being stuck in a position for a long period of time, a simple stretch should do the trick. Situations like riding in a car, flying or working at your desk should be remedied by a simple stretch.

  • If this doesn’t work: Don’t assume the underlying issue. Many people run into trouble here because after trying, and failing to find relief through stretching, the assumption is made that the tissues must be shortened or adhered and soft tissue work is prescribed. In reality, there is still a chance that the reason the stretching wasn’t effective was because of increased sensitivity — in which case stretching and soft tissue would would make the problem worse.

  • Findings conclude: If it feels good and you get relief, keep going with stretching. If you try this and it doesn’t work for you, move on.

Soft tissue Work:

  • When to try: You’re in need of some short-term relief through a release technique. Options and variations include deep tissue massage, SMR (self-myofascial release) like foam rolling, and ART (active release therapy).

  • If this doesn’t work: Consider these techniques an option for a temporary, feel-good fix. Keep in mind that these solutions have been known to cause both increased and decreased sensitivity of tissue, depending on many variables, unique to each situation — so remain mindful and observant when working with these modalities.

  • Findings conclude: Again, if these techniques work for you, continue with them as you see fit. If not, move on.

exercise + Resistance Training:

  • When to try: When you’re not actively training the muscle or muscle group you’re experiencing a sensation of tightness. It’s a common misconception to associate strength training with the creation of tighter muscles; actually full range of motion strength training can increase flexibility.

  • Why it should work: Resistance training calls for adaptations in the muscle tissue that result in improved endurance, decreasing the likelihood of suffering from metabolic distress. Exercise also has the ability to receive stress and lower levels of inflammation that cause nervous system sensitivity.

  • If this doesn’t work: Consider your training schedule and allotted rest time between workouts. Of course, if you’re overtraining, injuring yourself, or preventing full recovery; you will create sensitive, stiff, and sore muscles.

  • Findings conclude: Based on these recent findings, a protective perceptual construct is responsible for feelings of stiffness, rather than the stiffness being a reflection of the biomechanics of the area affected. Simply put, functional strength and capacity have the ability to decrease the perception of threat related to lengthening said tissue; which should reduce, if not eliminate, the sensation of tightness.

Based on my experience with clients, I would recommend taking the time to consider the potential lifestyle and circumstantial causes of the tightness you’re experiencing, before attempting any form of correction. Then, proceed with isolated strength training exercises targeting the affected muscle or muscle group; always minding form and minimizing potential risk for injury. Use stretching and soft-tissue methods as you see fit, and consult with a physical therapist if you’re experiencing pain or are unsure how to proceed.

Information sourced from Todd Hardgrove of Better Movement via this web article.