Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tone Without Bulk

(Mad props to Charlotte, who asked the question that inspired this post in the comments on Monday's post.)

The common wisdom on how to achieve muscle "tone" is doing high volume work (lots of reps) at low intensity (light weight). This appears to work because, immediately after doing a workout of this nature, your muscles feel firm, even stiff.

But this immediate feeling of firmness isn't a sign that your muscles are becoming "toned." It's a sign that your muscles have used up all of their energy supply. These high-rep workouts literally tire out your muscles to the extent that they don't have enough energy to relax! The firmness you feel immediately afterwards is basically the same as rigor mortis in a corpse. That's not a good thing, and the "tone" from these workouts only lasts as long as it takes for your body to replenish the muscle's energy stores.

In fact, if you're looking for firm muscles without adding bulk, high volume, low intensity workouts are the worst thing you could do! These workouts are what bodybuilders use to build bulk via a type of muscle growth called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the volume of fluid (called sarcoplasm) in your muscles and therefore increases muscle size without increasing "tone". (fluid isn't exactly firm...)

The best way to "tone" your muscles is to do the exact opposite of what common wisdom says to do. (Isn't that always the case?) What is commonly described as "tone" can be better defined as residual tension in a relaxed muscle. A muscle's capacity for tension corresponds to that muscle's strength. (stronger contraction = more weight lifted) So to increase the amount of tension in a relaxed muscle, you should increase the amount of tension that muscle is capable of creating. (higher capacity for tension = more residual tension when relaxed) In other words, you should make that muscle stronger.

This means that you should use high intensity, low volume workouts that build strength without inducing lots of hypertrophy. Pavel (from whom most of the ideas presented in this post are stolen) recommends 2 sets of 5 reps, using a weight that you can lift 5 times (but not 6) for the first set and 90% of that weight for the second. Rippetoe's Starting Strength program uses 3 sets of 5 with the same weight on each set. In my opinion, as long as you stay below 20 total reps in 4 or fewer sets with weights above 80% of your 1 rep maximum, you're on the road to building strength and therefore "tone" without adding bulk.

Training 1-23-08

5 x 5 x 240

Bench Press
2 x 5 x 230
2 x 4 x 230
3 x 230

5 x 325

13, 9, 8

Overhead Decline Situps
3 x 8 x 45

Comments: Squats are actually starting to feel easier as I approach my previous workout weight, probably just because I'm getting used to them again. Bench Press regressed from last time. D'oh! If I stall, I might try switching over to 8x3 for a while to see if I can break through. Deadlift was AWESOME. It was one of those where I grinded out the 5th rep, then walked around lightheaded for half a minute before getting what I fondly think of as that "hell yeah!" feeling of accomplishment. Happy that Chinups actually improved from before the layoff. Overhead situps for torso strength and to reinforce the "head through the window" feel of Press.


Charlotte said...

THanks for explaining this! Conventional wisdom is so often wrong it makes me wonder why it's "conventional". So good to know! Back in the day, I started with Pavel's scripted workouts... sounds like maybe I should go back to them!

Kristy said...

So I AM trying to build bigger muscles, and my trainer has me doing (for example) 3 sets of 8 to exhaustion each set. Is this just going to firm or will I build up bigger??

Lucas said...

Charlotte: What did/do you think about Pavel's workouts? I haven't seen much of his stuff other than Power to the People (which advocates a bare-bones Deadlift and Press workout) and some online stuff. I'm not quite sure what to think about him -- Power to the People seems to have some good ideas, but the juxtaposition of seemingly solid strength training info and excessively slick packaging and marketing makes me slightly uneasy for some reason.

Kristy: I have to admit that I'm more into training for strength than size, so I'm not the best person to address that question. However, from my understanding, something like 3x8 would probably work well for size gains. Most bodybuilding-style programs I've seen or heard about keep the reps per set between 6-15 and the total reps between roughly 24 and 45, with most ending up somewhere close to 30. So your 3x8 program fits well within those guidelines and would seem to do the trick.

And whether the goal is strength or size, the backbone of any program should be the big compound lifts: squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc. At least do a few sets of heavyish squats at the beginning of your workout, if for no other reason than the hormonal response it will elicit. (Lots of testosterone and human growth horomone get pumped into your bloodstream after squats.)

There's some debate in the bodybuilding community about whether it's advisble to go to failure on every set (or ever), but I don't know enough about the argument to really pick a side. (I will say that, for strength, training to failure should generally be avoided.)

If your goal is to gain muscle mass, one of the most important things to do is EAT. Eat the good stuff, and eat lots of it. Lots of meat, milk and veggies. You can train all you want and you can use the best programs in the world, but if you're not consuming a caloric excess, you're not going to gain mass. A diet high in meat, eggs, fruit and veggies can also help raise your testosterone levels, which will help you build that extra muscle you're looking for.

On a side note, why are you looking to build bigger muscles? bodybuilding? rehab? sports? just like the look? It's not a common thing to meet a woman who actually wants increased visible muscle mass, so I'm interested to know more!

(Sorry for the super long response -- I tend to get carried away.)

Kristy said...

Thanks for the response! I just want to look visibly muscular; not huge or anything. I definitely am not body-building or anything. I do an hour of cardio each day as well as 30 min. of strength training 6X per week. I eat a vegan diet with protein mostly from beans/soy products. I have a good energy level, so I think I'm doing all right. I'm not sure if I get enough excess calories most days, though. (I would think I would lose more weight if I had a deficit.) I should probably eat more calorie dense foods, but I get so full with the healthy foods I eat. I suppose I could add more nuts. It's such a tricky balance. I want to eat really good foods, have good muscles, and I could stand to lose 15lbs. or so. Thanks for the info, though!

Lucas said...

Kristy -- cool! I eat a slightly modified "paleo" diet, which is definitely not vegan, but I imagine we both field a lot of the same "why won't you eat this perfectly good food, you moron?" questions. And nuts are definitely a good source of protein. If I recall correctly, I think Almonds have the highest protein per serving.

If you want to lose weight, then ignore what I said about eating a caloric excess. My bad, I just assumed that "build bigger muscles" meant you wanted to gain weight (and you know what happens when we assume...) Losing a little weight could help you look more muscular by bringing out more definition.

And this may sound weird, but I'd say that you might get better results by cutting your exercise volume in half. Seriously. Do 30 minutes of high-intensity cardio instead of 60 and lift weights 3x a week (full body!) instead of 6.

One of the most valuable but counter-intuitive things that I had to learn about exercise was that you don't get results from the act of exercising itself. You get results from recovery. So don't cheat yourself by working too hard, too often.

Kristy said...

Very interesting...I'm currently on a very isolated set of workouts. On my six days, I do biceps/shoulders, quads/calves, back, triceps/chest, abs, and glutes/hamstrings. It seems kind of weird to only work each group once a week, but I have gotten stronger in just a couple of months. I'm starting law school in a couple of weeks, so I'll probably cut back a bit. Maybe you're right about the cardio, though. An hour is a little excessive. I just have it stuck in my head that more is better!