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You Asked: Heavier Dumbbells or More Reps?

Dear Fit,
I'm working on toning my arms so I look awesome in the strapless dress for my sister's Spring wedding. I'm wondering which is better when it comes to dumbbells — heavier weights with less reps, or more reps with lighter weights?
—Toning-Up Tara

I love this question since women are always asking me how to effectively tone their arms. To find out my take on this weighty issue (ha, pun intended)


Basically a good rule of thumb is to use a weight amount that tires your muscles after eight to 12 reps. This is known as muscle fatigue, where you feel discomfort or a slight burning sensation in the muscle you're working. If you can do more reps than that, the weight is too light. This rule may mean you need to use different size dumbbells for different activities, say a 10-pound dumbbell for bicep curls, but a six-pound dumbbell for tricep kickbacks. If you use lighter weights to do your strength-training exercises, it will just take you many more reps, which means more time spent working out. So it's a "six of one, half a dozen of the other" issue. Spend less time and use heavier weights to do less repetitions, or spend more time doing more reps with lighter weights. Personally, I'd rather save time and use the heavier weights. Don't forget to add pushups to your strength-training plan. They are a great exercise for toning your arms.


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Join The Conversation
VeeKeeTee VeeKeeTee 8 years
i'm home from college and don't have a gym membership for a month. it's kind of hard to get all sorts of weights
MandeeLei MandeeLei 8 years
Lift heavy for growth and higher reps/lower weight for endurance. When women say there arms are huge and they can't lift heavy it's usually because their muscles are surrounded with a layer of fat. Thinner women with lots of muscle can sometimes stand to gain a little bit of fat. Balance is the key in my opinion.
GratefulOne GratefulOne 8 years
I agree with the yoga statement, I see big changes in my upper body much faster when I do yoga frequently...
crayolasky crayolasky 8 years
LOL I didn't mean to put that face... I meant " =X ", oops.
crayolasky crayolasky 8 years
Ha, I was just about to say what missyd said! I don't know half as much as all of you do about building muscle. All I really know is what Fit said above about doing as many reps as you can and then lifting heavier weights when you're able to. My arms aren't as toned as I'd like them to be, and I'm thin so losing fat isn't the issue. I think it's because I only strength train at home haha... I am too intimidated to lift weights or use weight machines at the gym :X
missyd missyd 8 years
michiny i wish i had ur problem. LOL
Mme-Hart Mme-Hart 8 years
I mix it up by doing lighter weights with higher reps one day then the next time I'm do my arms I use heavier for shorter periods. I am a fan of making my muscles surprised as to what kind of workout they are getting.
iconoclastgrl11 iconoclastgrl11 8 years
I used to weight train regularly, and I wish I had some of yalls perspectives back then. Julea is right that heavier weights will mean slightly (or not so slightly) larger muscles. Generally, powerlift for mass/bulk, high reps for tone. Had I known that, I wouldn't have freakish man arms. No offense, michlny, kind of hard to hear someone complain about having Madonna-like arms (albeit thinner? Madonna is very proportionate)...I don't lift anymore, but I do 150 push-ups a day because now, if I don't maintain tone, I have gigantic flabby biceps (big downside of lifting for bulk too much). I love the push-up strategy; it's very body-responsive and self-directed.
michlny michlny 8 years
I wish there was a way to un-sculpt my arms!! I have Madonna arms (albeit thinnier) - but I long for arms that aren't muscular :( I stopped with weights but I cannot quit yoga... I wish there were something I could do! I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.....
karina2244 karina2244 8 years
Push-ups are great, since you don't have to worry about what weight to use... they are difficult and can be performed in many different modifications, so will give you great definition in your arms!
Spectra Spectra 8 years
Yep, GlowingMoon's right about not using TOO much weight. You never want to compromise your form when you're lifting because you could get hurt. I work with trainers as well and I've always been told to do 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps each using weights that will make the last 2 or 3 reps really tough. And I also have a very sculpted upper body...I'm not bulky at all and I lift quite heavy weights.
GlowingMoon GlowingMoon 8 years
I've been doing upper body weight training for many years. My upper body and arms are enviable, if I do say so myself. ;) I've worked with a couple of trainers. The rule of thumb I was taught was this: Use enough weight such that you're fatigued at 8 or 10 reps (meaning you cannot do anymore). However, never use too much weight such that your form is compromised (you're hunching over, your back is bent, you're engaging other muscles to lift that weight, etc). If you're losing your form, the weight is too heavy for you. After each set, rest for 2 minutes for the muscles to recover. Per my trainer, this is really important. He thinks most people don't rest enough between sets, and as a result, their muscles are less conditioned. Do two more sets, resting for 2 minutes in between. Also, never weight train the same muscles for two days in a row. Give the muscles at least one day to recover and rebuild themselves. Weight-train the same muscle groups every other day. I've been following this program for years. With a proper, low-fat diet, I am lean, and my major muscle groups are toned, with some definition (not too much. Trust me, I look feminine, not masculine). :)
Hoaxerz Hoaxerz 8 years
Seriously, where do you get your facts?! It is so not "six of one, half a dozen of the other" Contrary to popular belief (mostly among women), doing more reps at a lighter weight actually increases muscle mass more than heavy weights with less reps. Doing 5-8 reps will give you denser muscles, whereas 10-12 will give your larger muscles.
julea julea 8 years
What the heck do you mean by "toning"?? That doesnt mean much to me. Rule of thumb-- more reps/lighter weights = smaller muscles, slower results. lower reps/higher weights = faster results, slightly larger muscles. I's say a mix of both. Yoga is AWESOME for the arms, you get firmer and stronger almost immediately!
katyharper katyharper 8 years
So then, how many sets do you do? If your biceps fatigue after 12 reps with a 10-lb weight, do you rest for a while and then do more, or will that take care of it?
Spectra Spectra 8 years
I hate the term "toning" when it comes to muscles. When you strength train, you build muscle mass and it shows up through your skin. You also have to decrease your body fat content in order to see more muscle definition. So do your arm/upper body strength work, but don't forget the cardio too. I'm a big fan of using heavier weights because I like my workouts to be a little shorter. I don't like doing the 5 trillion reps stuff...I get bored when I do that.
sleepypie sleepypie 8 years
Yes! I've often wondered about that myself. Great to finally know.
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