Muscle Tone vs. Muscle Strength: What’s the Difference?

Elite HRT

Written by Elite HRT on October 31, 2021

Medically reviewed by

Camille Frecking, Regulatory Affairs Specialist, MEDICAL ADVISOR

While many people may believe the terms “muscle tone” and “muscle strength” are interchangeable, the two terms mean different things. While both are related to muscle function, the similarities stop there. 

Muscle tone isn’t really something in our control, and there’s not a whole lot a person can do to change it. Muscle strength, however, can be changed through exercise, eating a healthy diet, and even hormone replacement therapy if you have a deficiency in muscle-supporting hormones. 

Read on to learn more about the differences between muscle tone and muscle strength. 

What Is Muscle Tone?

Muscle tone is the state your muscles are in during rest. It is regulated by signals that travel from the brain to tell your muscles to contract. Muscle tone helps you hold your body upright when you are sitting and standing. Changes in muscle tone enable you to walk, exercise, and move your body in other ways. 

Essentially, muscle tone refers to what your muscles are doing when you aren’t using them.

There are different types of muscle tone, including: 

Normal muscle tone.  Normal tone means that there is the correct amount of tension inside the muscle at rest, and the muscle is able to contract and move on command. People with normal muscle tone can “tell” their muscles to stop and start a movement with the appropriate amount of strength. 

Low muscle tone. Known as hypotonia, people with low muscle tone have muscles that may be described as “soft” or “floppy.” People with low muscle tone may need to put more effort into movement and may have difficulty maintaining good posture. People with low muscle tone have extra-flexible joints, may tire easily (low endurance) due to the extra effort they have to put into making movements, and may not have much muscle strength. Low muscle tone may be caused by neurological, nerve, or muscular problems. In other cases, the cause of a person’s low muscle tone is unknown. 

High muscle tone. Known as hypertonia, high muscle tone means there is too much tension in the muscles at rest. It is associated with a lack of flexibility and stiff muscles that are difficult to move. People with high muscle tone may make stiff movements and have poor balance. Hypertonia occurs when the parts of the brain or spinal cord that control signals from the brain to the muscle are damaged. This can occur for a number of reasons, including stroke, brain tumor, brain injury, and neurodegenerative conditions (e.g., cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease).

Muscle tone is not an indication of a person’s muscle strength. Some people with low muscle tone may have high muscle strength, and some people with high muscle tone may not have adequate muscle strength. 

Is Muscle Tone the Same as Muscle Definition?

Simply put, muscle definition is the way a muscle appears underneath the skin. If you look at a bodybuilder, you can clearly see their well-defined muscles under the skin. This is muscle definition, and people often refer to defined muscles as “toned” muscles, but that kind of “toned” isn’t the same as the muscle tone we’re talking about. 

If you want to improve the appearance of your muscles, it’s important to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet to lose excess body fat. However, muscle definition isn’t necessarily an indicator that someone is healthy, nor is it an indication of someone’s strength. For example, some thin people may have muscle definition but aren’t particularly strong. 

Exercise such as weight lifting can improve both your muscle definition and strength, but will not have an effect on your actual muscle tone.

What Is Muscle Strength?

Muscle strength is the ability to exert maximum force in a singular effort. It refers to what your muscles can do when they aren’t at rest. Muscle strength is measured during a muscular contraction. Maximum muscle strength is associated with the ability to general maximal muscle force during a particular exercise. 

Improving your muscle strength makes performing everyday actions easier, increases your metabolism, and helps with body alignment.

To measure your muscle strength, you can use the one-repetition maximum test (1RM). During this test, you perform one repetition of a single exercise to see how much weight you can lift. This is typically done by using a bench press to measure upper body strength, and a less press to measure lower body strength. 

Physical therapists can also measure your strength by using manual muscle testing, which involves pushing a body part (e.g., your leg) in a specific direction. They may also use a tool known as a dynamometer, which involves you pressing on it to exert a force that is measured in pounds. 

How To Improve Muscle Strength

Looking to improve your muscle strength? The best way to do this is through strength training, which is sometimes referred to as “resistance training” or weightlifting. 

Strength training increases the size of your muscles as well as your brain and nerves’ communication with your muscles. As your muscles get bigger and stronger, they also become more coordinated. The stronger you get, the easier it will be to perform movements that require strength (which comes in handy on moving day!). 

If you’re a beginner, you can do bodyweight exercises at home or at the gym to build muscle and strength. Examples of bodyweight exercises include push-ups, squats, lunges, crunches, pull-ups, chin-ups, and wall sits. 

If you feel strong enough and know the correct form for weight lifting, you can try adding weight to these exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your coordination. Make sure the weights you use are heavy enough to provide resistance, but not so heavy that you can’t lift them without using incorrect form. Using the incorrect form when weight lifting can lead to injury and set back your muscle strength goals. 

Increase the amount of weight you lift gradually as you feel stronger. 

Be sure to give yourself muscle recovery days in between exercise to allow your muscles the chance to rest, repair, and grow stronger. 

Eat a balanced, healthy diet with plenty of protein (e.g., lean meats, eggs, beans), as protein is the building block of muscle. 

What Is Muscle Endurance?

Muscle endurance is the ability to begin and sustain muscle force over a period of time. 

For example, it is how many times you can lift a weight without getting fatigued. The better your muscular endurance, the more reps you can do of a particular exercise. If you’re using the same group of muscles in a repetitive way without needing to stop (e.g., weight training, running, cycling), this is muscle endurance. 

Muscle endurance is important for more than just how many repetitions you can lift at the gym. You need muscular endurance for everyday activities, such as climbing the stairs at work, carrying your groceries in from the car to the house, and picking up and holding your grandchildren. Not only that, but good muscle endurance is 

There are tests you can do at home or with a personal trainer to test your muscle endurance. The push-up test is used to measure upper body muscle endurance. Do as many push-ups as you can before you become fatigued or break form. Once you have completed the test, write your number down and compare it to others in your age and sex category. You can also track your number over time to see how your number increases or decreases over time. 

The squat test can measure your lower body muscle endurance. Do as many squats as you can until you are fatigued or cannot do any more in the correct form. Write down your number and compare it to others in your age/sex category, and keep a record of the number of squats you’ve done to see how your endurance has improved over time. 

Why Are Muscle Strength and Endurance Important?

Good muscle strength and endurance are important for your overall health and well-being. 

If you’re not as strong as you’d like to be, choosing an exercise program to strengthen your muscles and endurance can offer a number of benefits, including: 

  • Helps you stay healthy and prevent long-term chronic illnesses (e.g., diabetes)
  • Increase your ability to do day-to-day tasks (e.g., lifting boxes) without getting tired
  • Improve metabolism
  • Reduce your risk of injury 
  • Improve your confidence
  • Keep you within a healthy body weight
  • Prevent muscle and nerve degeneration associated with aging 

Conclusion

Muscle tone and muscle strength are often used interchangeably, but they’re very different things. Muscle tone is often out of our control — we are born with a particular muscle tone or have a health condition that makes our muscle tone high or low. 

Muscle strength is within your control and can be improved through an exercise program with weight-lifting and bodyweight exercises. Improving your muscle strength can help you stay fit, may prevent injury, and can help you stay healthy as you age.

SOURCES

Muscular Strength and Endurance | HealthLink BC

Human Fitness. 2nd ed. Human Kinetics, 2006.

Repetition Maximum for Weight Training | Verywell Fit 

Three Muscle Endurance Tests to Try | Healthline