Muscle TONE Versus Muscle TONUS

There is a very big Myth-Conception running through the American psyche, and therefore their bodies, that must be addressed early on in the question of how to solve many of the tension related problems of people today. That is the issue of the difference between Muscle TONE and Muscle TONUS.

Nearly Everybody — well, lots of people, anyway — wants to get *Toned.* Or they THINK they do, anyway. They are always talking about going to the gym or wherever to try and Tone Up their muscles, to get *firmed* up or to *tighten up* their muscles.

But we have to be careful what we ask for.

When people talk about getting Toned, they usually think about Working Out, doing things that exercise their muscles in a way that tightens and firms them up. They think that HARD muscles are strong and healthy muscles, and as long as their muscles are getting tighter & firmer & harder, they think they are on the right track to getting healthier.

… Even if they get achy & sore for a while.

(There is also an obvious aesthetic component people think requires hard muscles to look good. But this e-Course is more concerned about health issues, not aesthetics. But, briefly, you CAN look REALLY good without carrying around Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension. Just take a look at recent issues of widely available Yoga magazines. There are a lot of GREAT looking yoga bodies — including flat ABs — in there, and many of them have a lot less tone than you’d think. Or actually, they are very Toned, but without too much Tonus … BIG Difference!)

So, contrarian that I am, I am going to try and throw some cold water on this tight and toned muscle notion … and warm things up at the same time. As far as I’m concerned, many, if not most, of those Very Toned People are suffering from what I call the Hard Body Mythology.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not at all against muscles that are strong & healthy and have a lot of endurance, or that look *good,* whatever that means to you. Nor am I against fairly aggressive forms of exercise. Yet many of us have certain ideas about this *Tone* thing that are actually working against us in the long run.

The first element is that the tighter a muscle is, the more likely it is to be chronically contracted, tense, shortened, & hardened, while at the same time putting excess pressures on the various tissues & systems of the body, as described in two previous parts of this e-Course, Parts 3, A & B.

Although they are not all that common in today’s culture, there are people who have a lot of definition, a lot of tone, and a lot of strength in their muscles, yet they do NOT have much chronic tension or hardness in their muscles. In fact some of them are VERY strong, with a LOT of definition in their muscles, but almost TOTALLY RELAXED, with, at the same time, muscles that are very soft to the touch. Or, their muscles are soft until they perform an action.

Some of us have heard of or seen videos of 70 or 80 year old Tai Chi or Aikido Masters (Oriental martial arts) who, though some of them are quite small in stature, can, when sparring, make wallpaper out of a half a dozen big, strong, football players without breathing hard.

These masters are very strong, very fast, very powerful, very coordinated. There are very few who can defeat them in competition. Yet if you press on their muscles when they are just sitting around not doing much, they are very soft & malleable to the touch. There is very little resistance when you press down into their muscles.

They have a lot of TONE, but not a lot of chronic TONUS.

They can turn the Tonus ON when they need it, and OFF when they’re done. But they are ALWAYS Toned!


According to one medical dictionary (I use Taber’s Encyclopedic Medical Dictionary for this), TONE refers to a *healthy state* of a muscle or organ. TONUS, on the other hand, refers to the amount of nerve energy traveling down a nerve to a muscle or organ to make it function or contract, or keep it in a contracted state.

To be accurate, MOST of the medical dictionaries define the terms tone & tonus as more-or-less interchangeable. BUT, in Taber’s, they make a vital distinction: their exact definitions EMPHASIZE the two words the way I have described them here. The emphasis is what counts to be able to make this VERY important distinction, and is probably far more important than the authors of Taber’s even realize. But in my view, this distinction is critical to understanding how all this works.

Now the truth is that most people in the medical, physical therapy, or chiropractic world have not looked at these definitions all that closely, so you might need to bring your handy copy of Taber’s Medical Dictionary with you if you are planning on discussing this with a member of one of those groups. It is also true that the vast majority of alternative health care practitioners, including yoga & massage people, are not all that familiar with this distinction either.

A constantly contracted muscle — technically, a constantly Tonused muscle — is NOT what we are looking for, because a chronically contracted (Tonused) muscle is doing many or all the bad things we discussed earlier.

Most people, then, because they have been doing so much Tonus building activity and little or no Tension (Tonus) & Stress Reduction Strategy (TSRS), are stuck with a lot of chronic, excess Tonus (tension), and not as much true Tone (healthy state) as they think.

Take the Oriental Martial Arts Masters again …

The 70 year old martial arts master has a huge amount of Tone (healthy state) in his or her muscles, but he or she does not walk around with a lot of Tonus (tension) in his or her muscles. So even though their muscles are capable of generating a huge amount of power and force at a high rate of speed with amazing coordination, agility, endurance & strength, he or she does NOT walk around with chronically tight, hard muscles.

Yet if you press on their muscles, there are few or no wires or knots or cables of muscular tension. The muscles are usually quite soft and pliable to the touch. There IS a certain kind of firmness and resiliency, but definitely not mushy or flaccid. But healthy muscles are not rigid or hard to the touch, either.


Do your remember Mr. Miyagi and the Karate Kid? …

Do you remember Wax On, Wax Off?

One secret of the best martial artists is that they have the ability to, most of the time, keep their muscles in a VERY relaxed or DE-contracted state, meaning a very SMALL or NO amount of chronic nerve tonus in their neuromuscular system. But when the situation calls for it, they are able to instantly turn on a HUGE amount of Tonus, (more accurately, the EXACT amount necessary to do the job), do what needs to be done, and when their task is complete, their muscles return to a very relaxed, DE-contracted, low state of Tonus.

… Tonus ON, Tonus OFF!

In other words, they do NOT walk around with a lot of Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension (or C.E.M.&.N.T.).

The following link takes you to a story about the martial arts temples in the Far East and what new practitioners did to create a Clean Slate in their muscles to maximize their practices and, I bet, their lives:

[link temporarily disabled]


Matt Furey, the Zen Master of the Internet, and a truly world class martial artist & fitness trainer, describes it this way: If a baby squeezes your finger, they can squeeze surprisingly hard. But as soon as they are done, they relax fully.

Also, when they are gripping with their hand, they ONLY grip with their hand. They do not unnecessarily recruit the other muscles of their body to do the job. While the muscles of their forearm & hand certainly DO tense up for the moment of exertion, the baby, as a whole unit, does NOT tense up! The baby uses only the minimum muscles necessary to exert the desired force, and only for the time necessary.

(Well, maybe they HAVE started the Tension Accumulation Process already. But if so, it is at such a comparatively minute level right now that you would never know it.)

On the other hand (sorry about the pun), you might have, for instance, noticed that some people, maybe yourself, do something like constantly clench and unclench their jaw muscles when they drive or perform some other activity.

Or some interesting combination of unrelated and usually unnecessary contractions. They are recruiting extra muscles not even remotely needed to accomplish a task.

Why this happens is outside the scope of this e-Course, but doing this contributes to the overall tension accumulations and stresses in the body. If you start paying attention, you’ll probably start noticing yourself doing something like this much or even ALL of the time.

The baby might not have a lot of coordination or control yet, but they can exert a relatively high amount of strength while staying, overall, very relaxed. AND, the muscles of the martial arts master or the baby are not continuously and chronically compressing their nerves, blood vessels, joints, and so on.


Young children are very relaxed most of the time, and have no problem maintaining excellent posture. They don’t even have to *think* about their posture. Their body is just naturally upright without slouching, without effort, because of the natural dynamics built into the body at birth. They have high ENERGY levels, but very low EFFORT levels.

The Martial Arts Masters have a lot of muscle tone, and are capable of instantly turning the neuromuscular Tonus on when needed, but are also capable of instantly returning their Tonus levels back down to a minimum when no longer needed.

If only this ability babies have lasted a lifetime!!! …

The problem is that it’s initially an UN-conscious ability, but there’s usually no one around who can help them learn it as a conscious, life-long ability … unless they go and join some martial arts monastery or yoga ashram somewhere.

If this unconscious process became at least a little more conscious at a much earlier age, the developing child could be spared many of the problems of adulthood and so-called *aging.*

PARENTS — Take Heed …

Give Your Kids an UN-Tonus, or DE-Contraction, Break Today!!!

The Martial Arts or Yoga Master, or any developing human being, who learns to be more conscious of, and more effectively & efficiently utilize, their mind-body control systems, will have far fewer of the problems resulting from Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension. They will not feel like C.E.M.&.N.T. when they get older. …

They’ll MATURE with a minimum of AGING.

The question for most of us is, is it ever too late to reverse the Tension Accumulation Process?

The Bottom Line is that when it comes to true Toning — maintaining a healthy state of the muscles —we need at least as much of Tension Reduction Strategies & Techniques as we do exercise for Strength & Endurance. We must learn how to Feel, Relax, Lengthen, Balance & Control our muscles.

 Many Thanks for Reading,
David Scott Lynn (DSL*)
* DSL: Your Hi-Touch Up-Link to the Inner-Net
Inner-Net: Your Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-Fascial System