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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I've never had a problem losing weight, even though I don't try to. If I am stressed out or watch what I eat, I can lose the weight fast. Toning up has always been a problem in our family. I usually work out with weights twice a week but I don't see the results. Why do you think this is so?

(Article continued below.)

You could have problems toning up for any number of reasons. Since I'm not able to look over your shoulder during your twice-a-week weight training sessions or look into your cupboard, I can't tell you exactly what's going on, but I can offer a few suggestions that might help you out.

There are three likely culprits that are keeping you from the muscle tone you want: genetics, ineffective training and the quality of your diet (no matter how much or how little you eat). Let's look at each of these areas one by one.

Genetics: You mention that other members of your family have had a problem similar to yours, so blaming heredity is not necessarily a cop out. The ability to build muscle is in your genes to a certain extent. Some people can create a six-pack easily while others diet and exercise like mad and they still have a layer of fat covering their midsection. Some people have problems getting rid of fat on their back; others have fat-free backs, but they can't seem to build any muscle tone there, either. Some people naturally have shapely calves; others have naturally shapeless calves. Everyone builds muscle (or doesn't build it) differently, and you'll often inherit your own patterns from your parents or other close family members. That said, heredity is not destiny. You can increase your chances of getting muscle tone if you are careful about choosing your approach to your weight workouts. So let's look at that next.

Weight training: Twice a week is adequate for your weight training sessions as long as it's quality time. But if you're just hitting the machines at the lightest weight, or lifting 3-pound dumbbells until you get bored, that's wasting time. If you were dealt poor genes in the area of muscle tone, then you'll need to work harder and better. If you're serious about getting good tone, put in some time with a personal trainer. It doesn't have to be a life sentence. You can just hire one for a series of sessions to get you on the right track. Trust me, it's money well spent because a good trainer will be able to assess your potential and create the most effective training program for your type. A trainer will also make sure you are using proper form, which is a big key in building muscle definition. Even if you want to hold off on hiring a trainer for now, at least make sure that you use weights that are heavy enough to fatigue your muscles after 8 to 10 reps (your muscles are fatigued when you can't do another rep with good form). Rest for about a minute, then do another set until the muscles you are working are fatigued once again. Do this for all the muscle groups you are working during your session. If you work out this way, there's a good chance you will feel sore the next day. That's called DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and it means your muscles are processing the workout you did the day before. You should be over this soreness in a couple of days, just in time for your next workout. Continue working out with the heavier weights and eventually the DOMS will lessen and your muscle strength will increase. What if you're seeing gains in strength, but definition still eludes you? Then we need to look at what you're eating.

Diet: It's surprisingly easy to be thin and lack muscle tone. Having muscles that look good in a tank top and shorts is not just a matter of weight - it's a matter of body composition (your fat to lean mass ratio). The lower your bodyfat percentage is, the easier it is for you to show muscle definition. And how much your muscles show is as much a matter of the quality of your diet as it is the quantity of food you consume. If you eat a lot of starchy carbs, refined sugar and processed foods, your muscles aren't getting optimum nutrition, and you're probably also carrying around some extra water weight (diets high in starchy carbs can help you retain water). If you switch out the refined carbs for mostly whole grains and fruits, eat lots of vegetables and include some protein with every meal, then you're giving your body every chance to show off the muscle definition you're working towards when you weight train.

As you can see, getting muscle tone relies on a number of different factors. The only one you can't control is heredity, but that can be overcome by working on your training sessions and diet. Good luck!

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