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I saw one of those tabloid women’s magazines the other day and there it was, an article for how to trim down and tone up your arms.

The recommendation?  One of the oldest myths in the book:  lift fluffy light weights for high reps and get the blazing guns of your dreams.

Let’s get real for a moment. If you can lift a weight for 50 reps without so much as breaking a bead of sweat, and you could probably do another 50 right on top of that, then it’s probably too light…. way too light.


In order to understand why this is a myth, we have to break the answer down into two separate parts:

  • 1) Localized muscle conditioning; and
  • 2) Reducing body fat

Localized muscle conditioning

The adaptations that occur in your muscles are specific to the training stimulus applied (called specificity of training).  For example, if you lift heavy weights for low repetitions, you’ll develop muscular strength.

If you lift comparatively lighter weights for higher repetitions (or do long jogs), you will develop localized muscular endurance.

With regards to muscle tone/definition, lift all the weight you want but nothing is going to expose your guns for the world to see unless you burn off the fat between the skin and muscle.

Reducing body fat – methods that work

Irrespective of which training program you’re on, if you want your muscles to see the light of day, you need to work on reducing subcutaneous fat (just below the skin surface).

How do you do this?  The answer isn’t sexy, but it still comes down to good old fashioned healthy eating (cut out the soda, chips, and cheeseburgers), regular exercise which maximizes calorie (kJ) expenditure, blowing energy with lots of incidental movement, and then being consistent with it for the long haul.

You didn’t put on all that body fat overnight and it certainly isn’t going to vaporize after a 50 fluffy five-pound dumbbell curls.

Lose fat, build muscle, meet in the middle

The trick is to build muscle, reduce fat, and have them meet in the middle.

Using light weight might have merit for simply learning the basic movement pattern (i.e., learning how to do a bench press the first time), but once you’ve trained the brain how to properly perform the exercise, then it’s time to toss the two pound chipmunk-sized dumbbells and graduate to grown-up weights (ones that actually make you sweat and breath heavier).


Provided you’re sticking to your diet, exercise, and incidental movement plan for the long-term, you will eventually notice that, as you reduce your subcutaneous fat, your skin will become tighter over the muscles:  DEFINITION!

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Dr Bill Sukala is a Sydney-based health science communicator, clinical exercise physiologist, health writer, speaker, and media health commentator. He has published health articles in major publications around the world and has given invited lectures across five continents. Click here for more information or follow Bill on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

2 Comments

  1. Laura

    I ended up with bursitis in my left hip and shoulder after lifting a parent who had a fall. It is now 16 months and I am still hardly walking. I was only started on exercises 11 weeks ago after seeing and Exercise Physiologist to rebuild the muscle that has wasted since I hardly walked in 12 months. I had about 2 good months until it all returned. If I do too many exercises or the weights are too heavy I can hardly walk the next day. I dropped back to 2KG weights from 3 KG is this too light. I am 52 and very slim, I have also started Laminine 2 weeks ago and am now questioning this product. That’s what bought me to your site. Thank you Laura

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  2. Romeo Mariano

    The best single-exercise regimen I know is to simply do 2000 full push-ups a day. It is so easy to do since it can be accomplished without changing your clothing. No need to dress up and travel to the gym. No need to pay for a gym. Just do it on the floor. At 90 push-ups a minute, this would take at least 22 minutes to complete. It can be done in segments through the day if 22 minutes all at once is too much.

    A push-up may not be as heavy-weight as doing a bench press at a gym, but it is a significant weight that most people can push or lift. And most people can do more reps of the push-up than with a heavy weight bench press.

    Can it sculpt your body? Sure. Just look at how sculpted and ripped Gymnasts are when all they do are bodyweight exercises.

    During a single push-up, you support 69 percent of your body weight at the up position and 75 percent of your body weight in the down position. This means for an average 176 pound person (80 kG), one is pushing between 121-132 pounds during one push-up. So 2000 push-ups a day is like doing a bench-press of 121-132 pounds with 2000 reps.

    Additionally, a push-up is a plank exercise. 2000 push-ups a day is doing a 22-minute plank each day. This totally exercises your back and abdominal muscles – the core muscles. The push-up works nearly the entire upper body, back and core muscles. Few people can do a 22-minute plank. But you will be doing this once you get to 2000 push-ups a day.

    Can your muscles hypertrophy with simply doing this high-rep exercise? Yes. My brother-in-law did this when he lived in Australia when he weighed 150 pounds. On return to the U.S., he was able to bench press 300+ pounds having only done push-ups before the attempt.

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