Updated: May 27, 2022
No phrase seems to be more irritating to “serious” trainers than when they hear clients list toning as their main fitness goal. Tone is used in gym culture to explain wanting harder muscles, but not necessarily gaining size or strength. But what many don’t realize is that tone also is a term used in the neurological community.
In neurology, low tone is seen as soft, almost gummy muscles, when less neural input to muscles at rest creates floppy body positioning & difficulty with maintaining control of one’s posture. Conditions that cause low tone often diagnosed in youth, when developmental delays become obvious. And while they can be caused by problems anywhere along the path from brain -> spinal cord ->nerves ->muscles, they are always seen as a low volume of the “on” signal in this pathway. Physical therapy can help increase tone in these conditions- by using quick reaction timing & sensory awareness, coordination training and weighted strengthening, all to stimulate more neuromuscular tone, each method targeting different aspects of the brain to muscle pathway. When tone is increased, these clients are less floppy and there is an increase in muscle stiffness, which luckily translates into easier function.
While people who are requesting tone in the gym may not be anywhere near the set-point that warrants a diagnosis, they may still be noticing a skew from a comfortable normal, and a very valid need for more muscle stiffness in their own bodies. I firmly believe we know our ourselves best- and I wish this goal wasn’t disregarded so easily by people perhaps on the other end of the tone scale.
Generally healthy individuals who want more tone often rely on only ONE of the neuromuscular strategies available (frankly over-relying on the coordination of dance or sports). But because they overspecialize, they can become too efficient to stimulate their neuromuscular system further in that manner. If this is the case for you, consider working in a different direction on the path from brain -> spinal cord ->nerves ->muscles. Try stimulating your neuromuscular system from muscle to brain (with pure strengthening) instead of continually looking for coordination heavy programs (brain to muscle direction).
If you have mostly strengthened in your workout history & still feel less toned, you may have to go the other way- training quick reactions & coordination in order to stimulate tone. This population often avoids activities that requires high coordination, perhaps due to previous negative physical and/or emotional experiences with highly coordinated activity, often when they were much younger.
If this rings true for you, coordination & reaction time challenges can still be introduced in already safe, controlled and practiced movements, even using old standby gym exercises. Stringing a few exercises together using speed & efficiency as a goal can simplify the challenge to your coordination, making success & increased motivation much more likely. Done right, it should feel like a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge. Once it gets less mentally challenging, create a new combination to master. Modified sports conditioning drills are another way to strengthen the neuromuscular system in a controlled way that allows for focused practice without overstimulation. Youtube is an excellent resource, and often these drills require no to minimal equipment. Find easier drills to start- perhaps just quick toe taps to a step or shoulder taps in a plank as examples, and progress to more difficult suggestions once you master the movements and they feel easy.
Outwardly increasing tone may become obvious aesthetically, with visible muscle & a more taut body appearance. But the neurological changes can just as significant if one knows how to see them- increased functional strength & movement confidence, improved body awareness & coordination, and a reduced chance of injury. I would adamantly proclaim these are even more important outcomes of neuromuscular training, and they are the x-factor that brings about exercise program satisfaction.
Hopefully, the fitness community can look past their biases (frankly often based on gender, unfortunately) and appreciate the spectrum of tools & outcomes available to them. There is no one better style of training for improved tone- stay open-minded & courageous. Use a growth mindset to try different strategies and find what works best for you at your current level of health.