You'd be surprised (or not) at how often I hear, "I want to get toned but I don't want to get bulky" when I'm discussing fitness goals with clients and friends. I could do an entire monologue on why this statement irks me, but I'll save that for a later date. Because I hear this sentence at least three times a week, I'd figured I'd clear up a couple of misconceptions around lifting light weights and doing higher reps to get toned.
If your goal is to get toned, you may be wondering exactly what to do when it comes to lifting weights; light weights with higher reps and sets or heavy weights with moderate sets and reps. Before I go any further, we've got to define what toned means. The word toned is subjective and means different things to different people. For me, toned is maintaining my muscle mass with muscles from my quads to my abs looking strong and defined. For others, toned could be in between having a lot of muscle definition and no muscle definition. For the sake of this post, I'm going to refer to toned as building lean muscle and burning fat.
Now that that's settled, here's how you should be lifting to get lean muscle, aka toned.
The Weights You Use Matter, but There's a Caveat
When it comes to lifting weights, some people refuse to pick up anything heavier than 15 pounds, and others love to lift heavy. I'm here to tell you that lifting heavy weights (remember, this is relative) isn't bad. Actually, it's really good for you and can decrease fat mass and improve strength and cardiovascular fitness. If you want to get "toned," you shouldn't shy away from the weights.
With that being said, if you're lifting weight that's close to your one-rep max (the heaviest weight you can lift for one-rep of a specific exercise), you're more than likely going to increase your muscle mass due to the metabolic tension (in this case heavier weight that causes your muscles to adapt and grow) you're putting on your muscles. Want to know how to choose the right weight? Read this. Other mechanical stressors like how you're performing the exercise (for example, focusing on the eccentric portion of the movement) and how much time is spent under tension can affect muscle growth as well. Long story short: it's not just about the weight, which brings me to my next point:
It Comes Down to the Math
As you'll recall, the question we're trying to solve is whether lighter weights and more reps is better to get toned or not (please read this again in your best professor voice). One thing you'll have to consider is the math. Nope, you don't need to pull out that dusty TI-84 calculator for this one. Simply put, when you look at your workout plan, you should do around three sets per exercise (don't exceed this) and less than 24 sets in total. You should also work in the moderate rep range (about eight to 12 reps). Why? Because more sets and reps, aka volume, leads to more muscle mass since your muscles are more metabolically stressed with higher sets and reps.
If you're the person who loves to do every exercise you can think of at the gym, you're going to have to rein it in. If you feel like you need more of a "burn" and like feeling gassed, leaving your mark of hard work in the form of sweat on the gym floor, I recommend adding conditioning elements like resistance band sprints and intervals on the assault bike into your training plan.
Overall, to get toned without putting on noticeable muscle mass (I'm talking a major increase in your size), I recommend lifting medium weights and performing three sets of about eight to 12 reps per exercise that you do. At the end of the day, I'm a firm believer in testing things out and finding what makes you feel the best.