Tone? Is That a Scientific Term?


Today’s subject is tone. How often do we hear someone say, “I don’t want to get too big, I just want to tone up”?

When I hear this, I want to laugh hysterically. It would be the nutritional equivalent of hearing someone say, “I don’t like apples so I’m going to just turn this apple into an orange”.

Just for starters, tone is not a scientific word. It is a sales gimmick. In my mind, any time a fitness professional uses the word tone, I can only hope that they are saying it to market to an uninformed consumer. If fitness professionals or consumers believe they can “tone up”, they are sadly mistaken.

Let’s get right to the truth. No one, I repeat no one, should ever worry about getting too big. The reality is that the hardest thing to do as a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach is to get someone to gain muscle mass. Strength is easy, muscle mass is much more difficult. If we acknowledge that the fear of “getting too big” is irrational and probably impossible, it is much easier to move on with the real process of training.

Getting too big should be put to rest with other foolish statements. For example, imagine a client telling you:

“I’m not going to concentrate on nutrition. I’m concerned I’ll get too lean.”

“I’m not going to exercise regularly, I’m afraid that I’ll develop too much consistency.”

“I’m not going to do any cardiovascular work; I don’t really want to live past 50 anyway.”

All of these statements are as foolish and inane as “I don’t want to lift heavy weights, I don’t want to get too big”. We need to stop perpetuating this fraud of “too big”. The “too big’ thing is a result of steroid-loaded athletes pictured on magazine covers. It has nothing to do with real life.

The best part of the joke is that the person who usually doesn’t want to get too big is a housewife or stay-at-home mom who has never picked up more than a ten-pound dumbbell. This takes the thought process from inane to absurd.

Do me a favor. Start telling your clients the truth. The key to improving a bad physique is simple. Hard work. Push yourself. Lose the “light weights and take a walk” thing. The reason we look like crap is that people try to convince us that gardening is exercise.

Gardening is something you do as a hobby. The only people who should just walk and lift light weights are those that can’t do anything else. Yes, something is better than nothing. But, something hard is far superior to something easy.

I read a great quote yesterday in a book called Raising a Team Player.

“When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.”

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17 Responses to “Tone? Is That a Scientific Term?”

  1. Good point on and in the gym environment “tell them what they want to hear give ’em what they need”

  2. In defense of tone. I use words like toned, sculpted, long and lean. I know full well these are marketing terms but is the language my client speaks. These words also tell me exactly what a client wants much like a guy might say jacked, cut or swol (this last one is a new term that’s popped up at my gym). In my opinion this tells me so much more than “I want to lift weights” or “I want to get strong”. If you begin the initial session with a female worried about getting bulky with a science lesson or the attitude that they should get over it and go lift some heavy weights, then you may just lose her to pilates or Zumba. I would prefer to reassure her that I will make sure she gets toned but not bulky and then I will march her into the weight room and give her an unbelievable workout, using probably about 80% of the exercises you would but a little lighter. Her goals may change over time as she starts to like the feeling of getting strong. Then again they may not. You can choose to not train everybody but recognize that there is more than one way to get someone fit. The first step is to get them started and then it’s to keep them coming back. Don’t lose them at hello.

  3. I found people sometimes fear the dogma and injury associated with lifting heavy things and tend to stick with full body weight movements. I also found asking the client to bring in a picture of what big means to them, helps in the vanity process while finding out the purpose. In the old days my Dad would make me work in the garden, lifting heavy bags, digging holes, pushing barrlles, splitting wood, planting fruit trees, and vegetable bushes, he was the smartest man in the world.

  4. Tracy Mernin Says:

    I’ve trained A LOT of housewives, stay-at-home moms…plus working women, retired women, and all other kinds of otherwise intelligent and rational women in the last 20 years. It’s safe to say that most of them, at one point or another, have said the dreaded words, “I don’t want to build, I just want to tone.” I’ve learned to first take a deep breath to avoid rolling my eyes/laughing or some other completely inappropriate and condescending expression. Then I usually smile and say something like, “I understand, and I promise that you won’t get too big, because honestly you can’t. Anyway, toning IS building, and I bet your purse weighs more than that 5 pound weight. Trust me.” It usually elicits a good laugh, and we move on.

  5. Craig Burns Says:

    During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. ~George Orwell. Keep telling the truth Mike. Will I get too smart if I keep reading your stuff ???

  6. […] out this article on strengthcoach.com called ‘Tone – is that a scientific term?‘. Next time someone tells me she (or he) wants to ‘tone’ her body I guess I can […]

  7. Peter- you are right, not the tone they are seeking.
    Scott- I know how hard it is for a drug free guy to get big, much less a female.

  8. Actually “tone” is a scientific term, but not with respect to physical appearance. Muscle tone refers to the tension in a muscle fiber due to continuous partial contraction. This can be improved through even minimal training, but I doubt that’s what your customers are referring to when they say they want to “tone up”.

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