What’s the best rep range for toning?

I’ve long lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked the ‘best’ rep range for a certain goal.  “Are light weights, high reps best for toning?’ or “will low reps, heavy weights bulk me up?” etc.  The truth is this that there is no such thing as the best rep range for anything.  It depends on the person their starting point, their structural profile, their end goal, and many others factors.  Anyone who tells you different is just trying to sell you a particular programme or system.

It’s not about one given rep range, rest period, type of exercise or six week fat loss system, it’s about planning and progression.  This is something that those who are in the know in the fitness industry call periodization.  Periodization refers to phases that a training programme moves through and is something that is essential when programming for anyone.

It’s important to recognize that any programme will work for six weeks. But one given programme or one method of training is very unlikely to lead to long-term success and continued results.  To make long term meaningful gains you have move forward progressively. There is no magic bullet, there is only what works for that person at that time, and that is entirely influenced by what has gone before and what is coming after.  And most people need to play the long game.

Let me explain.

Everyone who comes into our gym for example has an evaluation before they start training.  This sometimes irks the impatient folk who just want to get stuck in, but it is essential in helping us to determine your baseline in terms of mobility, stability, strength, nutrition, and ‘invisible’ factors such as sleep, stress, motivation, and so on.  We are then well placed to design a personal training programme that will get the desired results.

Now let’s assume for a minute that higher reps, lower weight, shorter rest period training is good for fat burning.  So, being that most of the people who come to us do so for the purposes of fat loss it makes sense that this would be where we start right?  Not quite.  In actual fact, we actually steer most people away from this type of fast moving metabolic style of training.  Why? Because this type of training is only effective when done from a strong and stable base – something that many people (especially women) do not present with initially.  Sure you’ll shift some fat in the first couple of weeks but it won’t work long term and it’s very likely to lead to plateaus and/or injury (we used to see it our gym and we still see it all of the time now with other gyms and personal trainers).

So where do we start?

Firstly we work to balance the body where needed.  Amongst other things we make sure that posture is correct (no, it doesn’t have to be perfect), that the shoulders are stable, the hips are doing what they should be and the abdominals are firing.  We also clean up the diet thus improving gut health and reducing inflammation, both of which will increase energy levels and allow us to get better results from training.  At this stage we might use moderate repetitions, typically in the 8-15 range – a range that’s going to help us simultaneously build muscle and gain strength.  Here we’d typically keep rest periods long enough that you can maintain the weight and complete each exercise in good form.

Next we might add some more focused strength training into the mix where we’d introduce some lower repetitions to allow us to focus on gaining strength (yes, women need to be strong also!).  Here we might introduce repetitions as low as 4-6 where we’re using weights that are heavier and challenging in that range.   Our goal here is to increase strength, not raise the heart rate, so rest periods here might be longer again.

A quick note for females:  Lifting heavy will not make you bulky – not if you keep the total volume of weights lifted low*.  There are guys all over the land going out of their way to add muscle to their miserable pigeon chests and failing miserably.  It would be a terrible evolutionary injustice if females could just wander into the gym, pick up a pair of 3kg dumbbells, and add muscle.  It just doesn’t work like that!

*In strength training we typically increase the number of sets as we decrease the number of reps. For example we might do 2 (sets) x 15 (reps), 3 x 10, 4 x 6, 5 x 5 and so on.   When we train females we might decrease the reps but NOT significantly increase the number of sets.  This ensures that we get the desired strength gains but create insufficient stimulus (volume) for muscle growth.  Hence, doing these heavy weights won’t make you bulky.

Following some structural balance and corrective work and a period of strength training we might then look to add in some metabolic resistance or circuit style training.  At this point we have a solid base from which to push, pull, squat, lunge, bend, sprint, jump and so on and we can use a decent amount of resistance under fatigue.  Here we would use higher reps or perhaps go for time rather than reps and minimal rest – with the goal here being to get the heart rate up and metabolically disturb the system as much as possible.  Which equals rapid fat loss.

Yes, the whole process might take longer than the ‘workout for ten minutes for super-duper abs’ but now we’re talking sustainable, injury free, fat burning and muscular development that leads to serious increases in fitness and a lean physique, with little risk of exercise induced injury.  Exactly what most people are after.

All because we have taken the time to build a solid foundation of stability and strength upon which we can work.