Suspension Training Part III – Effectiveness and Efficacy

In this final part of our series on suspension training we’ll examine the effectiveness and efficacy of suspension training. Efficacy is defined as the ability to produce a desired or intended result, for example “there is little information on the efficacy of this treatment.” Conversely, Effectiveness is defined as being successful in producing a desired or intended result, “effective solutions to environmental problems” for example. However, when it comes to science and research the two words have more specific meanings. Basically, efficacy is a measure of whether or not something works whereas effectiveness is concerned with whether or not it can be used practically. That is to say that there are many things (tools, treatments, etc) that are efficacious but due to their cost in dollars or time or other factors, they may not be practical to use or be effective in practice. More on the difference of efficacy and effectiveness here.

Suspension Training Efficacy

One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research called Effect of Using a Suspension Training System on Muscle Activation During the Performance of a Front Plank Exercise found that “abdominal muscle activation was higher in all suspended conditions compared to the floor based plank.” This is in line with the marketing and purported benefits of suspension training. The study found specifically that “The highest level of abdominal muscle activation occurred in the arms suspended and arms/feet suspended conditions, which did not differ from one another.” So, some amount of instability or suspension is beneficial but more is not necessarily better. The study also found activity in the two joint quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee and hip joint and in an important shoulder/scapular stabilizer the serratus anterior, “Rectus femoris activation was greatest during the arms suspended condition, whereas SA activity peaked during normal and feet suspended planks.” The authors concluded that “These results indicate that suspension training as performed in this study seems to be an effective means of increasing muscle activation during the plank exercise. Contrary to expectations, the additional instability created by suspending both the arms and feet did not result in any additional abdominal muscle activation.”

The protocol in the study consisted of performing 2 repetitions each of 4 different plank exercises for 3 seconds each, three of which were using a TRX Suspension System;

  1. floor based plank
  2. planks with arms suspended (TRX)
  3. plank with feet suspended (TRX)
  4. plank with feet and arms suspended (TRX)

21 subjects participated and the muscle activation was recorded from rectus abdominis, external oblique, rectus femoris, and serratus anterior (SA) muscles using electromyography. In practice, trainers and exercisers tend to hold the plank position for more than 3 seconds which brings up the question of what happens as the person holds the plank suspended or unsuspended for a longer time and how applicable are these results if in practice the plank is held for longer periods.

Another study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research titled Activation of Spinal Stabilizers and Shoulder Complex Muscles During an Inverted Row Using a Portable Pull-up Device and Body Weight Resistance found that Four inverted row exercises studied activated the LD (latissimus dorsi), UT (upper trapezius), MT (middle trapezius), LT (lower trapezius, and BB (biceps brachii) at levels conducive to strengthening. This seems to show that a suspension training apparatus, in this case a “portable pull-up device” is an appropriate substitute to free weights for creating the resistance necessary to build strength. 13 male and 13 female subjects participated in the study. Interestingly, the investigators reported that “No statistically significant differences in muscle activation existed between single- and double-leg WB (weight bearing) in any muscles.”

When examining push up exercises the study Analysis of Pushing Exercises: Muscle Activity and Spine Load While Contrasting Techniques on Stable Surfaces With a Labile Suspension Strap Training System also from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that  ” In general, the instability associated with the labile exercises required greater torso muscle activity than when performed on stable surfaces.” The researchers also found it interesting that ” a standard push-up showed significantly greater shear than TRX angle 1 (p = 0.02), angle 2 (p = 0.01), and angle 3 (p = 0.02).” This study used kinematic analysis of body segments and muscle activity in a 3D model of 14 men to estimate muscle force. They compared exercises performed using stable surfaces for hand/feet contact and with labile suspension straps. A metronome was used to control speed of movement for each exercise.

To quantify the load at different angle of the push up, Effects of Angle Variations in Suspension Push-up Exercise in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research examined this question. The study used 28 male subjects and compared forces during push ups at 4 different body angles (0, 15, 30, 45°) while using a TRX suspension training device. The results showed that “as the TRX angle was reduced, the load applied to the TRX straps increased…” This was true during the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercise, e.g. “for both the elbow joint changing from flexion to extension and vice versa.” The greatest forces were recorded at 0°. Forces equal to 50.4% of the subjects body weight were recorded when their elbows were extended and 75.3% of their body weight when the subjects elbows were in the flexed position.

Electromyographical Comparison of Pike Variations Performed With and Without Instability Devices also in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that there were “significant differences between the instability devices and the stable pike. These results indicate that with more freely moving instability devices (e.g., suspension device, Swiss ball, etc.), core musculature may require greater muscular demands.” The study compared the EMG results of 20 men and women performing 5 variations of a pike on varying surfaces –

  1. stable ground [PK]
  2. Swiss ball [SB]
  3. suspension training device [ST]
  4. BOSU ball [BOSU]
  5. Core Coaster [CC]

Two additional studies looked at the influence of suspension training on hormone responses. Both these studies – Effects of Suspension Training on the Growth Hormone Axis and Anabolic Hormonal Responses to an Acute Bout of Suspension Training were publish in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Additionally, both studies, which were similar in protocol were funded by The Citadel Foundation and Fitness Anywhere, Inc. Fitness Anywhere is the parent company of TRX. The both the growth hormone study and the anabolic/testosterone study used a 60 minute suspension training interval workout that consisted of 23 exercises performed for 30 seconds each followed by 60 seconds of rest. The results of both studies showed positive increases in hormone levels similar to those achieved in high intensity circuit type training with free weights or other modalities. The growth hormone study concludes “These data indicate that a suspension training workout using the recommended 30 sec:60 sec work:rest ratio is sufficient to stimulate the GH axis in recreationally active young adult males. Practical Applications: This evidence supports the use of suspension training as a stimulus for anabolic hormone release, suggesting this is a viable alternative to traditional resistance training for stimulating the anabolic hormones that support recovery and muscle growth. ” The anabolic/testosterone study concludes “A suspension training workout using 30 sec work intervals followed by 60 sec rest periods elicited typical TT and novel T:C ratio responses to moderate intensity resistance training in physically active males. Suspension training appears to stimulate an expected testosterone response with a lower associated stress (i.e. cortisol) response resulting in a positive anabolic profile lasting at least two hours after the workout. Workouts using 30 sec work and rest intervals, 45 or 60 sec work and 30 or 45 sec rest intervals may likely result in more robust hormonal responses.” Both studies state that their results support “the use of suspension training exercise as a viable alternative mode of exercise to traditional resistance training. ”

No studies that I have found have investigated the use of suspension training straps for lower body exercises such as hamstring curls, hip bridges, or squats. Additionally, I have not found any investigations into the use of suspension straps for plyometric or jumping type exercises for metabolic or power training. It seems to me that the use of suspension training straps for these types of exercises is superfluous. A function of choreography and class or session logistics rather than a function of efficacious or effective exercise selection.

Effectiveness

When compared to needing a gym with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, it’s clear that the use of suspension training apparatus can be effective as well as efficacious. When compared to a calisthenic program that uses full pull ups and handstand push ups, the suspension trainer can be a way to regress or lessen the loading for those not able to perform full push ups, pull ups or other body weight exercises. Suspension training straps can also be a way to assist lower body exercises like squats or single leg squats making them accessible to those that cannot yet perform them with their full body weight.

However, when looking for a place to suspend a suspension trainer, the effectiveness of the products is not as great as imagined. Note that there are many anchoring systems and frames sold to allow one to use these suspension devices in gym and class settings because finding anchor points is not as easy as one would think. As a person that lives in an old house (see video) the door mounting devices also fall short in utility because I don’t have room in the hallways to use the devices. As someone that works in NYC, the Parks Department is not amenable to using trees to attach suspension devices either.

As debates continue regarding open chain vs closed chain exercises, stable vs unstable surfaces, and functional vs aesthetic exercises it’s also interesting to note the differences between object manipulation and body management skills. Body management, object manipulation and locomotion skill are the three areas of physical literacy suspension training clearly falls under the body management category but doesn’t satisfy the object manipulation or locomotion skill categories. Suspension training shouldn’t be the only source of resistance exercise in a program.

 

 

Citations –

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2014/11000/Effect_of_Using_a_Suspension_Training_System_on.5.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2016/07000/Activation_of_Spinal_Stabilizers_and_Shoulder.17.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2014/01000/Analysis_of_Pushing_Exercises___Muscle_Activity.14.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2017/04000/Effects_of_Angle_Variations_in_Suspension_Push_up.18.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2016/12000/Electromyographical_Comparison_of_Pike_Variations.20.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2011/03001/Effects_of_Suspension_Training_on_the_Growth.97.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2011/03001/Anabolic_Hormonal_Responses_to_an_Acute_Bout_of.96.aspx

 

Strength and Why You Need It

This post was on the original LTHE blog in 2015. Here it is slightly revamped for 2017.

I was recently asked the following by a fitness writer; “what are your tips for measuring your fitness levels, what tests tell you about balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular strength? How does this test work to test fitness? What tips can you give to reach an appropriate level of fitness for your age and gender?:   Though I had some issues with the term “cardiovascular strength” as those two words are at different ends of the spectrum from an exercise physiology perspective, I thought it was one of the best questions I’d ever been asked by a “fitness writer.”

The question brought up two big problems I have with the fitness industry.  One, why don’t more people want to know where they are and how much progress they’ve made with a given program, class, or trainer, and two, what is really important for being able to live a full, functional, active life?  The former is a topic for another post, and you can bet that it will have much to do with the lack of education of trainers in commercial gyms, the lack of an educated fitness consumer, and the overall demise in Physical Culture in our country.  The latter is the topic of this article, and though it shares some common issues with the former, it has some other unique issues of its’ own.

What is strength?

Definition of STRENGTH

1: the quality or state of being strong : capacity for exertion or endurance

2: power to resist force : solidity, toughness

3: power of resisting attack : impregnability

4          a : legal, logical, or moral force

b : a strong attribute or inherent asset <the strengths and the weaknesses of the book are evident>

From a training and exercise physiology perspective, strength is measured as the maximum weight you can lift one time, your One Repetition Maximum (1RM.)  Strength is also considered one of the measureable elements of “Health Related Fitness.”

Why You Need It

I’m going to skip the banal and ubiquitous “muscle is metabolically active and helps you burn fat”, “more muscle increases your metabolism”, “resistance training will help you lose fat”, etc. and focus on the practical and pragmatic aspects of strength.

  • Your effort doing any physical task is a function of how much of your maximum capacity that task requires.  So, for example, if the maximum amount you ever try to perform a squat exercise with is 30 pounds (i.e. a fifteen pound dumbbell in each hand), and you need to carry a 30 pound bag of cat litter (pictured) or some other load of groceries into your house, you are using 100% of your capacity to do this simple task.  No
    wonder people get injured doing simple daily activities or are exhausted by doing errands or chores.  Now, imagine a progressive resistance training program that has you squatting your own body weight, for reps even, now that 30 pound bag of litter only requires one fifth of your capacity if you weigh 150 pounds.  That’s only 20% of your capacity.
  • It bears mentioning that in the not-so-distant past we were much more active. Manual labor was common in our daily activities like carrying the coal bucket below.  Additionally, structured physical education like dumbbell drills were common in schools as opposed to just game playing games in phys ed class.  More on this later.
  • How much strength we need should not decrease because our activities of daily living are less demanding. We’ve already lowered the bar in so many areas, including physical education the buck has to stop somewhere.  So, let’s look at some common measures of strength or muscular capacity.  I think it’s fair to say, one should at least try to be average but the practical benefits of being above average should be obvious.

 

Here are the average scores for a push up test.  Men do “full” pushups and women “modified” pushups (e.g. from their knees) for this test though this should not limit how they train.  I also have to be honest, a pushup test is really a measure of muscular endurance not strength but it is a good place to start this discussion.

Men Age: 20-29 Age: 30-39 Age: 40-49 Age: 50-59 Age: 60+
Average 35-44 24-34 20-29 15-24 10-19
Women Age: 20-29 Age: 30-39 Age: 40-49 Age: 50-59 Age: 60+
Average 17-33 12-24 8-19 6-14 3-4

McArdle W.D. et al, Essentials of Exercise Physiology, 2000, 2006. Published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

For military service, the standards are higher of course.  Recruits are required to do at least 50 pushups to pass basic combat training.  This should be considered also in understanding what’s possible.  Also, not that long ago we still had a draft and these standards would have been required of all.  For women in the military, 19 push ups (full not modified) would result in a score of 60 on that component of the PFT (Physical Fitness Test), 42 push ups would be a score of 100.  These scores are for women 17-21 years of age.  http://usmilitary.about.com/od/army/l/blfitfem17to21.htm

With respect to Chin ups (palms facing you), an average 16-19 year old male should be able to do 6-8 chins, an average female in the same age range 3-4.  The minimum requirement for Marines is 3 pull ups, to get a maximum score of 100 on the Marine Corp Fitness Test, 20 chin/pull ups must be performed.  Females taking the Marine Corp Fitness test must perform a “bent arm hang”, hanging from the bar for at least 40 seconds with the elbows flexed to hold the chin above the bar.  Holding for 70 seconds results in a score of 100 for that exam component. As we age, the numbers go down, typically between the ages of 31 and 50, the number of pull ups we can perform decreases due to the age related decline in muscle associated with a lack of physical activity.  Obviously, this does not need to be the case.  Just ask Jack Lalanne.  It’s also important to say that the heavier a person is, the fewer chin ups or pull ups they can perform as they are lifting more weight with each repetition.  This brings up another important concept which is the strength ratio. That is per pound of your bodyweight, how much can you lift.  Strength ratios have been calculated for many of the multiple joint exercises that transfer to everyday activities.

Bench Press Strength Ratios = Percentage of your body weight that you can bench press one time.

Men Age: 20-29 Age: 30-39 Age: 40-49 Age: 50-59 Age: 60+
Average 1.06 .93 .84 .75 .68
Women Age: 20-29 Age: 30-39 Age: 40-49 Age: 50-59 Age: 60+
Average .65 .57 .52 .46 .45

 

Leg Press Strength Ratios = Percentage of your body weight that you can move on the leg press one time.

Men Age: 20-29 Age: 30-39 Age: 40-49 Age: 50-59 Age: 60+
Average 1.91 1.71 1.62 1.52 1.43
Women Age: 20-29 Age: 30-39 Age: 40-49 Age: 50-59 Age: 60+
Average 1.44 1.27 1.18 1.06 .99

The Physical Fitness Specialist Certification Manual , The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, Dallas, TX, revised 1997

Keep in mind that I’ve only presented the 50th percentile ranking here.  That means half the people can do more and half less.  When we look back at the example of someone training with the 15 pound dumbbells and wondering why lifting a 30 pound bag of cat litter is hard, this chart takes on new meaning.  One should easily leg press their own body weight to start, bodyweight coefficients from Baechle, T.R. and B.R. Groves.  Weight Training Steps to Success (2nd Ed.) Human Kinetics.  1998 show that untrained women should be able to lift 1x their body weight for 12-15 reps and untrained men, 1.5x body weight.

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The term redpill refers to a human that is aware of the true nature of the Matrix.

Image result for blue pill or red pill

Consider the following before you dismiss the importance of strength.

Physical Culture was a movement in the late 1800s early 1900s that used the motto “mens sana en corpore sano” a sound mind in a healthy body.  This concept that both the mind and body were integrally related and reliant was prevalent in the YMCA and other movements of the time as well. However, by the 1950s structured physical education in schools had been abandoned and replaced with games.  Part of the problems we face today are due to this shift in emphasis.  There is a more insidious problem with respect to physical education, strength, and movement in the fitness industry today which is the idea that these things are mutually exclusive.  For example, Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander, and corrective exercise practitioners focus on the quality of movement while trainers and strength coaches focus on the quantity of movement.  This is a false delineation, both the quality and the quantity are important and one should not only be able to move a lot of weight (have strength), but should also be able to do it in an efficient way.  The way in which the movements are performed (quality) should address both safety and the use of techniques that enable the lifter to 1-lift more, and 2-apply the technique in life situations. Despite what some celebrity trainers say, you should lift more than 10lb weights.

Strength also plays a large roll in our ability to do work. Would it be too much to say that weight lifting helps you run but running doesn’t help you lift weights? Regardless, one needs both for work and should focus on how to get the most bang for their buck so they can increase their work capacity. Work capacity is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy systems (strength.)  Fit workers can do more work with less fatigue and still have a reserve to meet unforeseen emergencies.  In short, fitness is the most important factor in work capacity and strength is at least half of fitness.  Another important component of work capacity is that in the work environment, our capability effects our coworkers as well as ourselves.  ”Work capacity is the employee’s ability to accomplish production goals without undue fatigue, and without becoming a hazard to oneself or coworkers.”  http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/FitnessAndWorkCapacity2.pdf   Thus, being strong and having a high work capacity is a part of “good citizenship.”  Maybe that’s an antiquated concept, but maybe fitness goes beyond our vanity (flat abs etc.) and is part of our social responsibility.

 

Please Stop Saying “TONE”!

Image result for i don't think that means what you think it means meme

If you’ve been around the gym a bit or you’ve been in the health-fitness-exercise field for any length of time you could probably retire if you had $1 for every time you heard someone say “I don’t want to get big, I just want to tone” or its myriad variations.

In this piece we’ll examine what tone actually is and it’s positive and negative aspects as well as try to examine what people really mean when they say that “tone” is something they want and what they may think the opposite of tone is – hypertrophy?

muscle tone

syn tonus (1) in skeletal muscle, a state of tension that is maintained continuouslyminimally evenwhen relaxedand which increases in resistance to passive stretch. Pathologically, loss of tone (flaccidity) can be caused,e.g. by peripheral nerve damage, and exaggerated tone (spasticity) by overstimulation, e.g. when the activity of the relevantlower motor neurons is released from higher CNS control in spinal injury. The term is sometimes also used, incorrectly, toindicate general muscle strength. (2) In smooth muscle, steady tension maintained in the walls of hollow vessels; regulatedmainly by autonomic innervation but influenced, e.g. in the walls of arterioles, by local variables: temperature, chemicalfactors or intravascular pressure, contributing to autoregulation of appropriate blood flow. See also stretch reflex.

Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine by Churchill Livingstone © 2008 Elsevier Limited. All rights reserved.
To get a visual of this concept, we have to understand the structure of our muscles and how the nervous system controls them. Skeletal muscle cells are long cylindrical cells that for the most part run the length of the muscle. They have a connective tissue covering called the endomycium. Muscle cells within any given muscle are grouped together into units called fasicles and these fasicles are also covered with a connective tissue called the perimycium. Groups of the groups of muscles cells (fasicles) make up the muscle itself and are covered with a connective tissue called the epimycium.
The connective tissues (endomycium, perimycium and epimycium) combine with each other at the ends of the muscle cells to form tendons which attach the muscle (muscle cells) to the bones and allow the contraction of the muscles cells to rotate the bones around the access of the body’s joints.
 
The nervous system and it’s nerve cells control the muscle cells. Each motor neuron and the muscle cells it innervates (attaches to) are called a motor unit. Some motor units and motor neurons control 1,000 muscle cells and some only control one muscle cell. In large muscles of the legs and torso where a gross or more general control is required we have fewer but large motor units. In muscles of the face, mouth, and hands where we require a fine tuned control, the motor units are small (one neuron for one muscle cell) and we have many of them so we can exert a very fine tuned control over the contraction (movement and tone) of those muscles.
The resting tone of a muscle is maintained by the asynchronous firing of the motor units within that muscle when it is not being told to contract voluntarily. It would look something like this.
Exercise, especially resistance training does have an effect on tone. But, it is not in the obvious way that the people that would say something like “I just want to tone, I don’t want to get big” may think.

The Motor Learning Effect

The motor learning effect is the reason that people gain strength in the initial stages of a resistance training program. This effect is most pronounced in people that were “un-trained” before they started the program. The gains in strength that these exercises have during the first stages of their program are because of the nervous system finding and recruiting motor units that it hasn’t used in a long time. The individual does not grow new muscle cells, new nerve cells or new motor units. Instead, due to the “overload” or the demands the new program puts on the person’s body causes the person to adapt by finding motor units that they haven’t been using. Now that the person can recruit this additional, previously un-utilized or under utilized motor units they can do more work or are stronger. Additionally, now that they have a larger pool of available motor units, their tone may improve because there are more motor units to do the asynchronous firing that creates the appearance of tone. This new level of resting tone, would be maintained in this manner.

After the first six weeks of a program, additional gains in strength will typically come from changes in the muscles cells themselves. That is the muscle cells must add contractile proteins (actin and myosin) organized in structures called sarcomeres that give them skeletal muscles their stripped or striated appearance. It’s much more difficult to get the muscle cells to hypertrophy or grow larger from adding contractile proteins. It requires taking in the right type, quality and quantity of nutrients, getting the right amount of sleep to maximize hormone levels for recovery and adaptation in the form of growth as well as the consistency of following a challenging resistance training program designed for hypertrophy. Not all resistance training programs are designed for hypertrophy. Programs can also be designed for improving muscular endurance, strength and power. The weight on the bar is only one of the many variables that is manipulated in program design and it is not the most important variable for hypertrophy programs. See also Strength and Why You Need It and The Truth About Body Weight Exercises.

So, it seems that the word Tone has been confused and combined by many with the concept of Hypertrophy. Now that we’ve established the difference, let’s talk about tone and it’s real implications.

Hypertonicity, Hypotonicity, Flaccidity and Spasticity

Tone can be conceptualized as a spectrum, a range or a scale. The middle of the scale would be normal, healthy average tone. The far left would be the absence of tone or flaccidity which is often the result of nerve damage and the far right of the scale would be spasticity or constant contraction of the muscle. The spastic condition is often the result of damage to the central nervous system. When a person says the want to tone, I don’t think they mean that they want to move toward the right of the scale towards a spastic condition of the muscle/s. It’s interesting that a neurological concept and term “tone” or “tonicity” has been coopted into a discussion of asthetics.

Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Strokes and other central nervous system conditions often result in a hypertonic state of muscle or spasticity. Often the flexor muscles or the extensor muscles are hyperactive together resulting in a flexor spasticity or an extensor spasticity and the goal of treatment is to lower or decrease the tone of the muscles. Nerve damage to the nerves in the extremities from trauma or Polio may result in faccidity or hypotonicity where no signals can get to the muscle cells and therefore there is no tone at all or a diminished tone. The concepts of tone and hypertrophy are very different though one form of muscular dystrophy (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) connects the concepts in it’s symptoms. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is sometimes called the pseudohypertrophic type because the flaccid weak muscles seem to get larger or hypertrophy due to a build up of scar tissue.

Facilitation, Inhibition, Recovery and Contracture

Tone is a function of the nervous system and changes throughout the day, minute to minute, hour to hour. We try to maintain homeostasis of tone when at rest and adjust our tone upward or downward based on the needs of the activity and environment. Despite our best efforts and homeostatic mechanisms our tone does not always meet the demands of the circumstances and can snowball out of control.

 Facilitation, Warm Up and EPSPs –

The neurons that control your muscle cells, the ones that are part of the motor unit and directly connect to the muscle cells get signals from lots of other neurons in your central nervous system telling them what to do. These lower motor neurons, the ones that are part of the motor unit and directly attach to the muscle cells are getting signals from many different upper motor neurons (neurons of the central nervous system) as well as from sensory neurons coming from proprioceptors in the muscles themselves. Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) and Muscle Spindle Organs (MSOs) are the main proprioceptors that work as a servomechanism to help maintain normal levels of muscle tone. The GTOs make sure your tone doesn’t get to high by inhibiting the lower motor neurons and the muscle spindles make sure your tone doesn’t get to low by exciting the lower motor neurons.

There are of course times that we want to have more than the normal amount of tone so that our muscles are ready to contract without delay. This is accomplished by signals coming down the spinal cord upper motor neurons to the lower motor neurons and causing the lower motor neurons to fire more signals per second. This in turn cause the tone in the muscle to increase. The motor units are on ready. Facilitation of the lower motor neurons, bringing them closer to threshold and increasing their rate of firing is one of the results of and reasons for doing a warm up, movement prep, or the “activation” exercises that many trainers and therapist talk about. It’s also important to note that stress and worry will also cause more signals to travel down the upper motor neurons and facilitate the lower motor neurons increasing the resting tone of the muscles. This is one reason people often report a stiff, tight, or sore neck and shoulders when under stress for prolonged periods.

An Excitatory Post Synaptic Potential is what we call it when a neuron, in this case the lower motor neuron, is above it’s normal resting potential (-70mv) and closer to its threshold (the level at which it will fire an impulse.) Being close to its threshold or having an EPSP means that the neuron will fire more signals per second and in the case of this discussion, cause more motor units to contract and increase the resting tone.

Inhibition, Cool down and IPSPs –

Conversely, there are upper motor neurons that cause inhibition of the lower motor neurons. Parkinson’s disease illustrates the important function of these inhibitory upper motor neurons because the tremors and the eventual freezing or motor block is a function of too much tone or signals to the muscles because of a lack of inhibitory signals. The GTOs, the proprioceptor that causes inhibition is also important for lowering the firing rate of lower motor neurons, moving them further away from threshold and decreasing tone.

When we stretch and do other cool down activities like deep breathing, guided relaxation or a variety of recovery modalities like heat, cold, compression we can slow the firing of the excitatory neurons and increase the firing of the inhibitory upper motor neurons and the GTOs to slow the firing of the lower motor neurons and decrease the tone of the muscle. In this case, decreasing the tone of the muscle can help to switch it from catabolic energy expenditure mode to anabolic energy conservation and repair mode. Passive stretching and even foam rolling can stimulate the GTOs and increase inhibitory signals. More on this in Part 2.

An Inhibitory Post Synaptic Potential is what we call it when a neuron, in this case the lower motor neuron, is below it’s normal resting potential (-70mv) and farther away from its threshold (the level at which it will fire an impulse.) Being farther away from its threshold or having an IPSP means that the neuron will fire fewer signals per second and in the case of this discussion, cause the motor units to contract less frequently and decrease the resting tone.

Contracture –

Contracture is a condition of shortening and hardening of muscles, tendons, or other tissue, often leading to deformity and rigidity of joints. One way that contracture develops is due to nervous system disorders that cause an increase in tone. The increase tone puts the muscle in a shortened position which eventually causes it to loose its elasticity and the normal architecture of the muscle cells and connective tissue are replace with more inelastic connective tissue making the muscles hard to stretch preventing normal movement. Their can also be pain associated with contracture as well as decrease function. To “just want to tone” becomes even more of a troubling misunderstanding of the benefits of exercise when one considers that increase tone is a step on the way to contracture.

Recovery –

One of the goals of recovery modalities (see Part 2) is to decrease tone. To benefit from an exercise program, one must adapt to the exercise that is being done. This occurs by rebuilding and repairing the tissues used during the exercise so that they can perform more of the same type of exercise in the future. Recovery between workouts or exercise sessions is something that needs to be maximized to get the benefit of the exercise program. Maximizing recovery entails proper nutrition, proper sleep, proper hormone levels and normal levels of tone. Bringing the muscle tone back to normal after a training session signals the central nervous system that the stress is over and it can now release the rebuilding, repair or anabolic hormones. Normal tone in the muscles also allows the lymphatic and blood vessels to remove wastes and bring nutrients to promote the repairing and rebuilding process. Less tone is good for repair and recovery.

You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Tone is not the opposite of hypertrophy.