Tone as in “tension” not “definition”

Over Activity is Just as Bad as Under Activity . . . That’s right… Too much muscle activity is just as bad as too little! No i’m not referring to the amount of exercising one does in a day/week. However, that does play a role and can be a detrimental role if you’re not in tune with how your body is responding to exercise.

What I am actually referring to is your muscle tone. Tone as in “tension” not “definition”. Muscle Tone or “Tonus” refers to the amount of tension a muscle holds in a resting state. Normal tone means that there is the right amount of “tension” inside the muscle at rest, and that the muscle is inherently able to contract on command.

High tone means there is too much tension in the muscle at rest. In other words, the muscle is tight and tense even though it is not doing anything.Low tone means there is not enough tension in the muscle when it is at rest and there is a lack of graded control of the muscle when it is being used.

Tone, also described as muscle balance and is influenced by the length-tension ratios in antagonist muscles, and is directly affected by poor posture, stress, repetitive movement, or injury. Once one of these influencers are present, the body will continue to endure movement, only now the movement occurs along the path of least resistance, otherwise known as relative flexibility which ultimately contributes to muscle imbalance.

This usually results in faulty movement patterns and/or dysfunction. As these patterns of dysfunction continue, the muscle imbalance will lead to muscles on one side of the joint becoming chronically shortened and muscles on the opposing side of the joint becoming chronically lengthened.

This is where the terms “overactive” and “underactive” come from. It is generally assumed that an overactive muscle is short, tight, and strong, as opposed to an underactive muscle, which is assumed to be long and weak. While these assumptions are sometimes correct, they may also be misleading for two primary reasons:

The sensation of muscle tightness does not always mean that a muscle is short.
Just because a muscle is short does not mean that it is overactive and strong, and conversely, just because a muscle is long doesn’t mean it is underactive and weak.

This is mostly due to your muscle spindles and Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO), two important sensory receptors. Muscle spindles are receptors within the belly of a muscle that primarily detect changes in the length of the muscle and rate of length change (Magill, 2007). The GTO senses changes in muscle tension and the rate of tension change (Magill, 2007).

Located near the origin and insertion of the muscle, when a muscle generates force the GTO becomes distorted and will fire nerve impulses to the central nervous system (CNS) regulating the force and tension developed. When a muscle is rapidly lengthened, the muscle spindles are excited and send a message to the CNS, resulting in the contraction of the lengthened muscle fibers (Clark et al., 2012). Consequently, this results in the sensation of tightness.

The most common example of this is the person with an anterior pelvic tight (excessive arch in the low back). As the pelvis tilts forward, the hamstrings are lengthened.

Overtime, these muscles begin to feel “tight.” In most cases, the individual will feel the need to stretch the hamstrings. As the hamstrings are stretched, the GTO will inhibit the muscle spindles (autogenic inhibition) and the hamstrings will begin to feel as though they have relaxed. Yet this altered position of the pelvis causes a lengthened resting position of the muscle, and as soon as the GTO is no longer excited the muscle spindle will begin to signal for the CNS to contract, leading to re-occurring tightness.

So the next practical approach from a training standpoint would be to stretch the anterior hip flexors and strengthen the hamstrings, shortening them into a more optimal length tension ratio to put the pelvis in a more neutral position at rest.

This can be applied to pretty much every muscle in your body. Your body works better in balance, that is why you must assess it for what it needs. Success in strength training comes from doing what you need to do not what you want to do. This may mean taking a step back from repetitive movement training and focusing on posture, recovery, and managing your muscle tone.

If not, yeah you may make strength progress due to being human and just adapting to the stress (fight or flight), but you may just be adapting in spite of the stress not from the stress. Meaning, eventually you will hit a wall/plateau or injury because of dysfunction and/or bad movement patterning instead of actually allowing your body to super compensate and adapt stronger via optimal length-tension ratio and new manifested muscle.

In the long run the latter will actually make you more powerful and decrease chance of injury. Don’t rush progress. Slow- long term progress is always better than fast-short term progress.

Assess your posture to ensure optimal length-tension ratios and muscle tone.



Clark, M.A., & Lucett, S.C., (2011). NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD.
Magill, R. (2007). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (9th ed.), McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. Medical Dictionary: Medline Plus. (n.d). August 19, 2014.