If you’ve read Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I probably sound like I’m bashing cardio at this point… which may be somewhat true, but part of that is because I admittedly despise it; if I’m Uncle Phil, cardio is my Jazzy Jeff. While cardio can help burn extra calories during a cut and has added health benefits, I just get no enjoyment out of it, so I only add it in near the end of my cuts once I feel it is necessary (which I guess can be analogous to Aunt Viv not letting Phil toss Jazz out of the house). However, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air jokes aside, one thing I will say is that if you need to do an hour or more of cardio each day to lose fat, there is probably something that needs to be fixed with your eating and weight training habits first (with the last leg of competition prep being the only exception that comes to mind).
While cardio is more or less my nemesis, the idea of needing to do a lot of reps to get your desired look bothers me far more. The myth of keeping the weight low and doing a ton of reps is baseless and it takes me back to my disdain for the phrase “toning up,” which comes along with a few untrue assumptions. First, it implies that you can target fat loss to an area, which doesn’t work. It also implies that you can add muscle and lose fat simultaneously, which can only occur in a few extreme cases (most of which involve “enhancement”), so we can cross that off. Lastly, it carries the stigma that heavier lifting should be avoided and you should do “high reps and lower weight” for everything and then do some cardio after. While adding in cardio can be a good (but not always necessary) addition for any cutting regimen, I take issue with the “high rep - low weight” camp (which I’ll mostly refer to as “HRLW” from here on out).
Training with heavier weights can lead to more muscle breakdown than only using lighter weight for higher reps.
One issue I have with this is based on the way the body responds to weight training. It is important to know how our bodies react to specific training since we need to make sure our approaches to weight loss are physiologically sound. The HRLW workouts will not lead to as much muscle breakdown as a more balanced approach that also includes some lower rep work (6-8 reps or so) at a higher weight. “Balanced” is the key word— there can still be a place for higher rep work, but I would advocate pairing it with other rep ranges as opposed to basing a whole workout plan around it. You don’t have to (and should not) use a weight that you feel has a higher injury risk or compromises your form; you just need to realize that you can move a heavier weight for 8 reps than you can for 20 reps, and then implement that. The issue here is that many people never actually try to do this, and that is where my main gripe with the “high reps and low weights” idea lies.
My biggest problem with HRLW is that it leads to a lack of challenge. Listen, I know that “feeling the burn” on curl number 40 and fighting through to the 50th is still a challenge. What I’m talking about is challenging your comfort zone. What challenges your comfort zone leads to growth, both physically and mentally in this case. I’m not saying you have to powerlift and go for one rep maxes— I don’t do that, either. What I’m saying is that you should look to make progress with the weights and reps you put up over time (a.k.a. “progressive overload”), which brings me to my next point: you’ll make more progress if you try to go for more weight/reps over time than you will if you stick with the same thing every workout.
Progressive Overload: gradually increasing the amount of work performed during training with the goals of elevating your work capacity and eliciting changes in body composition.
The tried and true method of progressive overload has worked for generations of bodybuilders, and that’s because it causes your body to keep making adaptations to your training. If you’ve noticed, I talk about the body adapting quite a lot. Well, that’s because adapting is one of the things the human body is best at. It doesn’t inherently want to gain a lot of muscle or have abs that look like Mega Bloks, so it will quickly adapt to a change. Because of this, you have to keep changing the stimuli that you throw at it. If you are attempting to lose fat, that will entail increasing your level of activity/training while maintaining your calories, or lowering your calories while maintaining your level of activity/training. If you want to pack on some muscle, this will entail sufficient levels of training (that will need to increase as your body adapts) and eating enough for your body to recover and build muscle (which will require more food as you grow).
All of these reasons are why I am against the myth of “toning up” and the idea of doing high reps and low weight. There is not a need to train much differently when you’re trying to lose fat than when you are trying to gain muscle; the main difference is your nutrition. You also probably don’t need to do as much cardio as you’re anticipating, as a proper weight training program and consistently following a meal plan will do enough of the heavy lifting for most people.