This is a long-standing debate and has certainly caused confusion in many new fitness enthusiasts. You’ve got one school saying women should only do light weights with high reps to avoid “bulking” up, and you’ve got another saying heavy weights are more effective in helping you achieve a toned body. It really depends on what your goal is, but both schools of thought are effective and useful.
Many women will stick to 5 or 7-pound dumbbells and do high reps of 20 because they want to “tone” and not get muscular while men go for heavy weights on their benchpresses because they want to gain muscle and strength. There seems to be a popular idea that high reps help you shed body fat and “tone” muscle while low reps with heavy weights build muscle and increase strength.
Actually, you CAN use both high and low rep ranges whether you want to build muscle, lose fat, or just improve your whole physique and physical fitness. You’ll discover that depending on your goals, there are more optimal rep ranges for your specific training. Many fitness coaches will recommend that the ideal rep range for the best and greatest changes in body composition (whether muscle building or fat loss) usually happen in the 6-15 rep range. Let’s unpack this topic and get a better understanding of what’s what.
The University of Alabama in Birmingham conducted a study that showed dieters who lifted heavy weights lost the same amount of weight as dieters who only did cardio. However, the weight lost by the weightlifters was fat whereas the cardio dieters lost muscle along with some fat. A lot of folks believe that only high reps burn fat, which really isn’t so. The fact is that it’s not in the amount of weight you lift, or the number of reps you make, but it’s the intensity of the workout that determines how much fat you lose/burn.
What you want is to create the “afterburn effect”–that means creating muscular failure by way of as little rest possible between exercises (provided that proper form and execution are not a concern) as this can have a pretty powerful impact on metabolic, hormonal, and calorie burn effects. When it comes to fat loss though, the best foundation you can build for yourself is to make sure you have good and proper nutrition in place. You can NOT out-train or out-exercise a bad diet.
There’s this thing called the Strength Continuum where strength and endurance exist in a framework that shows the relationship between reps, weight, and training result. When we talk about strength, we’re talking about 1RM or 1 repetition maximum–it’s the maximum weight that you can lift for one rep, while endurance is the ability to use lower force repeatedly over time.
When we talk about low reps with heavy weight, we’re increasing strength. High reps with light weight increases endurance. Now as repetitions increase, there is an eventual transition from strength to endurance. Higher reps develop slow twitch muscle fibres (these are endurance-based) and low reps activate fast twitch muscles which are capable of greater power but get tired easily.
If you look at Powerlifters, when they train for competitions, their tendency is to lift heavier weight for low reps in order to increase neuromuscular adaptation (the efficiency of the brain to control muscles). You can get stronger by way of muscle increase (size) or increase in neuromuscular adaptation.
As mentioned above, reps below 15 are popularly seen as the most optimal for muscle building. However, there are others who say that you can still effectively build muscle with light weight and high reps. The point is to stimulate muscle proteins. If you can achieve this with high reps on low weight as you would with heavy weights and low reps, then you’re fine.
It cannot be stressed enough how fitness is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise (training). What you eat and how often and how intense you train is what will lead to progress that’s evident and a transformation that will inspire you to keep going. You don’t want to eat less than you need to, thereby starving your body the calories and fuel it needs to build muscle and burn fat. Lets say you take in less calories than you put out, and you’re in the gym lifting heavy–you can expect to gain very little muscle.
Hopefully this article has somehow helped you understand the benefits to both schools of thought. It’s all about finding out what works for you best and most efficiently. Fitness is hardly ever without misses. It’s a continuous journey that enables you to learn as you grow and gain a better understanding of how your body works and responds to certain dietary behaviours and training. You want your fitness journey to be sustainable and enjoyable in that even the painful and frustrating process is one you can look back to and be proud and glad you stayed committed to. So be patient with yourself, trust the process, trust the timing, and don’t give up.
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