Lean, Toned and STRONG!

My article last month "Flat Ab "Hacks" and Other Lies" prompted quite a few conversations with our gym members concerning proper core training, breath training, as well as other popular fitness myths. So I thought I'd write about another very common source of confusion: getting "toned" and what it takes to get there. Now, I know this is primarily something that ladies have been misinformed about, but gentlemen please keep reading because I'm also going to share some cool stuff about how muscles are built, training intensity, and how to maximize your strength gains!

Here are some common misconceptions about muscle building:

“I just want to get toned” – While a lot of coaches get a little annoyed with this one (we hear it a lot) I totally understand what is meant when someone says it… You want to see some definition, don't want to be big, and the idea of lifting more than an 8 pound dumbbell is causing a mild panic attack. I've got you, and I've been there! But here's the truth: muscle tone is the residual tension in a relaxed muscle.  The more tension you are able to generate in a muscle, the more tone the muscle will have.  So if you want tone, you have to build muscle. If you want to build muscle, you are going to have to lift some weight.

“I’d rather use lighter weights and just do more reps”  You can, but that is not going to produce the same results as lifting with a challenging (relative to you) load.

“Lifting heavy weights will make me bulky” Not necessarily (keep reading to see a photo of me lifting 225 pounds at a bodyweight of 106). The truth is that adding muscle mass (I’m not talking about adding fat) is actually quite challenging.  It requires a lot of training hours, and a lot of nutritional work.  This is good news for people who aren’t looking to add size, but tough on those who are.

To understand the why behind all this, you need to understand that muscle growth (known as hypertrophy) happens in two different ways: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs when the number of capillaries in the muscles increase, and the muscle fills with glycogen.  One glycogen molecule binds with three water molecules, and the result is a muscle that is filled with more fluid.  It looks larger, but is not necessarily stronger, unless of course you are training in a way that also builds myofibrils. Sarcoplasmic growth occurs when training is done for more volume, at a lower intensity. So, more reps with relatively lighter weights. This type of muscle building usually doesn’t last as long, and you have to train pretty much constantly to maintain that “pump”.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy on the other hand, occurs with heavy resistance or high tension work of some kind. In this type of muscle growth, the contractile myofibrils in the muscle increase, resulting in a muscle that is stronger and harder, but not really much bigger.  Because high tension and heavy loads can’t be sustained for long periods of time, you will typically do fewer reps. Intensity of exercise and volume most often have an inverse relationship, where when one goes up, the other goes down. Myofibrillar muscle growth typically hangs around longer, so if you go on vacation for a couple of weeks, you won’t really lose your strength or appearance.


So how do you make the most of your training time to get the lean, strong and toned results you are looking for? Of course if you have fat to lose, we can’t ignore nutrition.  But speaking just in terms of what you do in the gym, you need to train with the right level of intensity in your strength work.

For myofibrillar muscle growth, most of your training should be challenging, but not so difficult that you lose your technique or can’t complete all the reps. We know that the greatest strength gains come from spending the majority of your training year lifting loads somewhere between 70% to 80% of your perceived rate of exertion.  Occasionally in the year you might go lighter for recovery and technique, or heavier for a peak or competition, but most of the time 70% – 80% is the intensity you want.

Intensity in strength training is easiest to figure out with exercises where we can get very specific with loads, like barbell lifts. We can make small adjustments of 5 pounds at a time to find the right load. And the longer you’ve been lifting, the more data we are able to collect so that we know just how much you can lift for a heavy single, and how many reps you can do at a given percentage.  So if you can deadlift 300 pounds as your single rep max, you will get the biggest benefit from most of your reps being somewhere between 210 – 240 pounds (70% to 80%).

For those newer to training, and with less years of data collected, this can be harder to figure out, especially if you are using tools like kettlebells where the jumps between sizes are bigger. Let’s say your coach has assigned you 3 sets of 12 kettlebell goblet squats. How do you know if you performed them at the right intensity to build muscle myofibrils and get stronger? Remember your training should be challenging, but not too difficult. Here’s our rule of thumb: the last two or three reps of your set should feel hard, like you had to work to make them happen.  If you felt like the whole set of 12 was hard the whole time and you weren’t sure you’d make it to the end, the weight is probably too heavy.  If you felt like you could have done 5 more reps, or like you don’t need to rest before you do your next set, the weight is too light, or the intensity with which you were performing the exercise is not enough.  

This is where people often make a common mistake: I ask for a set of 12 squats with a 10kg bell, but once Susie got to 12 reps she felt like she could have done more, so she banged out another 10 reps. NO!!! I don’t want more reps, I want the prescribed reps to be at the appropriate level of challenge.  The last 2 or 3 should be work, and maybe you could have done one more, but you leave that one in reserve. So, your 100 lunges with 5 pound dumbbells… it will make you sore, but won’t build the type of muscle you are looking for. Don't confuse soreness with results.


With body weight exercises this can be even harder to decipher since we might have to make an exercise more or less challenging, but now we don’t have the benefit of a load to vary.  Using the same method as above, we might take push ups as an example. If your program calls for 4 sets of 6, the last two or three of each set should feel challenging. If doing all 6 with full range of motion and perfect technique is a struggle, I need to use an incline or a band for support.  If I do 6 and feel like I could do 4 more with no real struggle, maybe I need to raise my feet on a box, or practice dead stop push ups.

What about exercises done for time, like core work? These need to be intense as well, generally in the range of something you can do for no more than 20 reps (like a hollow rocker or dead bug), or for no longer than 20 seconds.  A plank done for a minute straight has to be done at low intensity to sustain it that long, whereas a plank held for maximal muscle tension (hardstyle) can only be held for 20 seconds tops. There are certainly some benefits to strength endurance efforts like longer held core work, but in terms of lean gains, guess which one is going to help you produce myofibrillar muscle growth?  


Here are a few other elements to consider for cultivating strong, healthy, vibrant and supple muscles:

  1. Train through full range of motion as often as you can. For example, in squats, try to get your hips below parallel if there is no injury preventing you. If you are doing push ups, take your chest to the deck.  In your pull ups, start from a dead hang.  If you are working up to full range of motion and you are not yet strong enough- that’s ok – you have to start somewhere and you will get there eventually.  If you are lacking mobility… that leads me to the next point…

  2. Don’t skip mobility work.  This should include a combination of self massage with therapy balls, stretching and more dynamic mobility drills.

  3. Make sure you train the muscles fairly evenly, especially antagonists.  If you like to do lots of biceps curls to build up those guns, you’d better include some triceps extensions too.

Ignoring the above can lead to muscles that are short, tight and don’t perform as well as you’d like. But hey, since your training sessions are likely to be shorter since you are doing fewer reps and training with more intensely, you should have plenty of time!

Strength & Love,


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