Next in our Q & A series is the common question: To tone my muscles, and avoid bulkiness should I use light weights and high reps?
A: Here’s the shortest answers:
· All rep ranges – high (15+), medium (8-15) and low (<8) – work very well to spot enhance, boost metabolism and improve muscle tone if there is enough effort. By effort I mean working to or very near muscle failure.
· The only kind of training that doesn’t seem to work well is super slow training. Super slow being taking 10+ seconds to lower a weight, then a long pause, and then 10+ seconds to lift it. This is not to say that pauses, and some slower reps will ruin your training.
· Don’t go light: lifting something that is light for you is not a good use of your time because effort matters. The weight you lift for 20 reps will indeed be lighter than what you’d use for 5 reps, but your muscles should be burning long before you hit 20. It should feel heavy AF for 20 reps.
· Definition is the name of the game: Muscle tone, in practical terms, is how a muscle looks at rest. Tone is only half the battle. The other half is revealing your tone, or having less fat over top of the muscle. This combo of tone and fat loss is called definition. I think it’s simpler to say “definition” vs “increased muscle tone and reduced body fat.”
· Muscle growth actually prevents future muscle growth via myostatin. When your muscles grow they trigger the release of myostatin. Myostatin tells your muscles to stop growing so much. (Google “myostatin deficient cows”). The more your muscles grow the more myostatin you make until you reach your limit. This is why the men at a drug-tested natural bodybuilding competition all have body weights in the 140’s and 150’s, with the biggest dudes being in the upper 160’s. With clothes on these guys look like very thin guys who workout and use far too much self tanner.
· Bulk is about size. Muscles grow very slowly once you are past the beginner stage, and/or over 40. Once you’re past the beginner stage muscles grow even slower*. The only tissue that can grow enough to create bulk is fat. So, bulk is the result of growing fat stores, not muscles. In other words, bulk is about calories in vs. calories out not heavy vs. light weights.
*For example, the oldest InBody scan that I can find for myself is from September 2017 where I had 94.8 pounds of skeletal muscle mass; and in August of 2023 I had 96.3. This is 1.5 pounds in 6 years. I’ve got way above average testosterone levels, have averaged over 200 grams of protein per day, and worked as hard as I possibly could to get my muscles to grow, and I have added one hamburger patty (quarter pound) per year.
When I turned 40 my IG feed started showing me all of these ads for low T. The ads worked and I panicked to get my testosterone levels checked. What a surprise! I was about double the average for a man my age. (It turns out I also have higher estrogen, and one client asked me, “is that why you’re so bitchy sometimes?” LOL)
· Low reps (<8) allow you to use heavier weights, which is great for your muscles, bones, connective tissue, and more. Low reps also need to be used with a lot of sets (5 or 6), and be supplemented with enough other fitness opportunities to ensure you burn enough calories, get your heart rate up long enough, and move your joints enough times to get them lubricated and expand their mobility.
When we say “toned muscles” we mean a combo of less fat and improved muscle tone, and it is simpler to say “definition.”
Work hard at whatever rep range. If you select exercises that are safe to exit, then you can push yourself harder and not worry about getting stuck. (For example, we never do squats with a bar on a clients back because if your legs give out at the bottom you are stuck. Not worth the risk. Instead we have clients hold loads in positions where they can easily put the weight down if their legs got too tired to stand up. Safe and effective.)
Tone is half the battle. The other half is calories in vs calories out.