When talking about tone in muscles most people think of how “cut,” “ripped,” or defined a muscle looks. There is a lack of understanding of what “tone” actually is. There are varying degrees of tone from flaccid (no tone) to tetany (maximal contraction that occurs in a situation such as lock jaw).
Muscle tone is a resting level of muscle contraction in which muscle fibers are alternately firing to maintain a constant state of readiness. A healthy muscle alternates its fiber usage to maintain a resting state of contraction in the muscle. Proper training can improve the efficiency of the muscle, which makes it look more defined. A healthy level of tone ensures a muscle is ready to encounter outside forces, without constant maximum contraction.
A muscle can have low tone where there is a low level of nerve input maintaining the muscle’s readiness, as well as a low level of stored ATP (the fuel for muscle contraction). Conversely, a muscle may have excessive tone where the muscle is not experiencing a healthy level of alternating muscle fiber activity. High tone in a muscle means constant contraction of most, if not all, muscle fibers. This excessive tone can be a result of injury where the muscle is protecting itself or protecting surrounding joints. Excessive tone is a problem.
Think of the effort your muscle puts into lifting a 50 lb bag. Now imagine the muscle is putting in that amount of effort constantly through the course of a day. It is not hard to understand why that is bad. The muscle is going to ache, deplete its ATP sources, maintain waste products, and limit oxygen exchange because the muscle is pinching off vascular input on a constant basis.
That is what I focus on when looking at healing a tissue–decreasing excessive or unhealthy tone. That is why we get massages: we try to get rid of the problems caused by excessive tone.