“Toning;” Better done with high reps or low reps?
Muscle Tone: The resting partial contraction of a muscle. Has nothing to do with the fictional concept of “toning.”
Toning: An 80’s exercise concept using high reps and light weights to supposedly make the muscle more visible without making it bigger.
One of the most common things I hear around the gyms is that you need to do high reps with low weights if you want to “tone up.” I can tell you that high reps with low weights can be wonderful for physical therapy routines. If your physical therapist has you doing high reps with light weight to rehab from a specific injury I would encourage you to keep doing so. If you are doing high reps with low weights because you want to “tone up” your arms for a vacation you’re going on in a week; that needs to stop right away. Here’s why.
First off, the “toning up” you are looking for is called fat loss. Unfortunately, there is no known way to pick our spots for fat loss. To the same note, doing endless crunches (or any exercises aimed at lumbar flexion) to lose belly fat will also elicit no fat loss response from the body. (It will also dramatically increase your risk for a low back injury which will halt any sort of progress, including fat loss.) What we should do is put ourselves in situations that CAN result in rapid fat loss through dietary modifications and a sound safe exercise program.
Can we do anything to change the way your body looks by the vacation you’re going on this weekend? No, unless you want to go get a tan, I hear that helps. But we can, over time, decrease body fat using high levels of intensity. This needs to come from lifting heavy loads. Heavy loads are a relative number because what’s heavy to me may not be heavy for you. The intensity needs to be high enough to cause the body to raise its metabolic rate post exercise. This is not going to come from aerobic exercise or 3 sets of 15 with the pink dumbbells. If you want to lose fat it has to be first through diet, and second through intense exercise that causes you to kick up your metabolism post exercise. Read, post-exercise; no calorie counting during the workout.
So this brings us back to the original question of what rep schemes to use for “toning,” which we now know is really fat loss. I’m going to say to work hard using various rep schemes in your program erring on the side of heavier weights and lower rep schemes.
This brings up another question of won’t heavy weights make me “bulk up?” The short answer is no. For females, this fear is completely absurd as you do not have the necessary testosterone to put on significant muscle mass. For guys, I just have to say, we’ll deal with the bulking up problem when it becomes a problem. With proper dietary restrictions to ensure fat loss and assuming you are not a genetic abnormality or using anabolic steroids, this problem should be the last thing you’re worried about. So in short, keep lifting heavy.