The easiest way to understand this is to ask it from the opposite perspective — what would you need to do if (heaven forbid) you actually wanted to look like Helga the Hulk? The answer would be that you should aim to lift heavy weights.
Muscles respond to heavy loads by increasing in size and making new muscle — in short, bulking up. The consequence of lifting heavier weights is that you can do fewer reps before exhaustion, and this is where the notion of “few reps, high load” comes from for people who want to bulk up.
This is also the reason muscle-heads in tight T-shirts and vests, who can be spotted training in front of the mirror of your gym, tend to do only four or five lifts on each exercise, then wander around the gym for the next five minutes, before returning for another five lifts. They are aiming to bulk up, and so lift very heavy weights, but do no more than six reps before taking a break.
How to tone the muscle
If you want to avoid transforming yourself into a lumberjack, do the opposite — lower weights with more repetitions. This shifts the physiological response away from bulking up, and towards toning the muscle.
The trick is to find the right weight, and this is where that compromise between the size of the weight and the number of reps comes in. Ideally, you should aim for 15—20 reps of each exercise, and then do two to three sets with a short recovery in-between (a minute or two). You don’t want to be absolutely exhausted at any stage, even on the final rep of the third set. You should aim to reach a level of effort of about eight or nine out of 10 by the time you finish your third set.
Remember too, that cardio training using the arms and legs is a very effective toner. Cycling, running, stepping and arm-cycles are good to supplement this kind of weight training if your goal is to tone.
If your goal is to get fitter, and you have a specific event in mind (such as running your first 10km race), then you’ll spend most of your time on that particular exercise, with perhaps 80% of your time devoted to cardio. However, if you’re training for general fitness, some weight loss and toning, then the ratio changes.
The goal of cardio training is to increase your metabolic health, so that you quite literally burn off fat. Weight training has a longer-term benefit, in that muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so if you want to raise your metabolic rate in the long-term, weight training helps. It allows you to burn energy while you sleep!
If your objective is to lose weight and get fitter, I’d suggest spending about 40 minutes a day on cardio — a warm-up, some weight exercises, then a solid finish with cardio. If the goal is weight maintenance, strength and toning, then the cardio warm-up can be followed by a longer weight session, and a short cardio session to finish. The total ratio might be 15 minutes cardio, 30 minutes weights, 15 minutes cardio.
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