I’ve seen some pretty heated arguments on this one in my time, even between fitness trainers.

But what’s the truth? If you want to “tone” muscle for a graceful, shaped look, should ideal workouts for women utilize light weight and high reps or heavier weight and low reps?

Recent research sheds light on the subject, but before we jump into the kerfuffle about preferred  fitness workout routines, let’s get one thing straight.

“Bulking up” doesn’t just happen.  It’s in your genetics

Yes, you heard that correctly. .

“Bulking up” doesn’t just happen.  Both men and women have to work at it to gain muscle, and women even more so than men due to hormonal differences – we just don’t have the testosterone.  What women may perceive as “bulk” in their muscle is more often than not fat layered into the muscle as well as blanketed subcutaneously.  Both obscure muscle shape. “Shape” just ain’t gonna show unless you are lean enough for muscle to reveal itself.   When it comes to workout routines for women, as well as men, genetic factors are largely responsible for muscular responses to resistance training.  Women, smaller in size and with lower levels of testosterone, simply do not – with very little exception – have the genetic potential to “bulk up”.  A marketing disservice has been done to women to get us to fear the ‘bulk’

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s look at the high rep vs. low rep controversy

Light weight and high reps or heavy weight and low reps

As it turns out, there is a match with high reps low weights vs. low reps and high weights.  Either way will max your genetic potential, with a couple of considerations:

Resistance training with lighter weights and higher repetitions or heavier weights and lower repetitions can produce similar muscular responses…as long as the exercise set fatigues the muscle within the limits of the anaerobic energy system.

Anaerobic energy system? Specifically, that means within 90 seconds.  So you can go either way:

1)  Low weights high reps: make sure you max out with the targeted muscle(s) in about 90 seconds

2)  High weights low reps:  you will obviously achieve muscle overload sooner than the 90 seconds

If higher weights do the trick in less time, should we opt for that?

There may be  reasons to select the higher rep/low weight option other than the “toned vs. bulk” myth. This may include:

  1. orthopedic concerns: heavier weights can pose more risk and challenge to the joints
  2. access to equipment: at home fitness workout routines don’t always grant the luxury of a full arsenal of heavy weights
  3. workout style preference: some women just prefer the “feel” of higher repetition work as can be obtained in barre style workouts and isolation work, which I personally love and which is a foundation of the Fit Quickies™ targeted body shapers.  Isolate and overload, baby!

One last word…

Of course, your workout goals will determine training protocol.  For example, when I’m looking to build more upper body strength so that I can schlep scuba tanks around, I’ll be sure to include some heavier resistance when prepping for a dive trip.  At the same time, body weight resistance on pull ups and push ups did me just fine when prepping for the haul up the cables at Half Dome in Yosemite last month, which required  strength and endurance.  Tailoring your workouts to match your goals will deliver your best results.

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