Many women ask me for advice about how they can become stronger and more toned. And almost always, this question is immediately followed by “but I don’t want to get bulky”. And images of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone float in their heads. My answer is always the same too:
“If it was that easy to become bulky, why do professional (female and male) bodybuilders spend many hours daily training each muscle to fatigue, while eating tons of food, that is also meticulously measured to meet their protein/carb/fat ratios?”
Often these more or less professional athletes accompany their training and diet plan with a supplement regime (and I’m only referring here to the legal kind!). Testosterone is the main hormonal driver for muscle growth and women have much less of it.¹ There is a big market out there for natural testosterone boosters for those who want to grow big muscles (which are a waste of money, but that is a topic for another blog).
So it is highly unlikely you end up looking like the Hulk by chance, but I get it. There is a whole lot of confusion out there about whether using light weights or heavy weights is better to “tone up”. Well, it all depends on what you want to achieve. “Toning up” is nothing else than losing the fat that is covering the muscle.
Using light weights is good for building endurance. Endurance sports are running, rowing, triathlons, obstacle races, hiking Kilimanjaro (which is on my bucket list). Light weights means you can do about 15 reps. If you can do 30 reps and are not even getting tired, then the weight is too light and you are wasting your time. A muscle needs to be pushed to fatigue. So your last reps should hurt.
If you need power you need to train with heavier weights. Similarly, if you want to work on one specific part of your body, let’s say your butt, lifting heavier weights can get you the results you’re looking for. Use heavier weights in exercises that target the body part you want to strengthen or sculpt.
Using heavier weights is also super time efficient. You simply don’t need to and can’t do as many reps when you’re lifting heavier weights. That’s why lifting heavy is my preferred way of weight training. And women should lift heavy to prevent osteoporosis. Believe me, I am trying hard and I push myself on most days, but I am far from looking anything like a bodybuilder. So relax and have fun with some heavy dumbbells!
The key is challenging your body with progressive overload.
Progressive overload means challenging a muscle to continue seeing results. If you never change the weight or reps, the muscle will no longer adapt. To keep seeing results, you have to keep forcing your muscles to adapt, and one way to do that is with a principle called progressive overload, where, over time, you increase the weight and/or reps for a given move. You can build your body with lighter loads and with higher reps. It really comes down to a personal preference. There’s a lot that works, so work out regularly and at an intense, challenging level, do what you prefer, and do something you’re going to stick with.
You have to be really careful with your form though. When you lift lighter weights, you can focus more on proper alignment and posture for each move. The tricky part is, you still need to focus on your form when lifting heavy. If your form gets really messy on your last few reps, you should probably lower the weight. I have seen this countless times in the gym. Someone pushing him or herself really hard with a weight that’s too heavy, and therefore doing the exercise with bad form (I’m sure we’ve all seen it, people jerking and swinging weights to get momentum), thereby risking an injury.
Here are some general guidelines on how to train depending on your goal:
If you’re training for muscular endurance: Do 12 or more reps per set.
If you’re training to gain muscle size: Do 6 to 12 reps per set.
If your goal is to increase strength: Do 6 or fewer reps per set.
If you’re training for general health, you can mix it up if you want to.
Before starting any fitness routine, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor first. Heavy lifting can put pressure on your joints, so if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, you’ll want to consult a fitness professional. Talk to your doctor, who may refer you to a personal trainer or a physical therapist who can prescribe the right program for you.
¹Reference ranges for total testosterone University of Iowa Department of Pathology:
19-49 years old 249-836 ng/dL
50 years and older 193-740 ng/dL
19-49 years old 8-48 ng/dL
50 years and older 2-41 ng/dL