I’ve been throwing a lot of weight around recently. Not my own – although there might be some arguments from close ones about the validity of that statement. No, I mean the dumbbells and barbells you’ll find in any weight training environment.

My background in this area started about 23 years ago, after I left my first career choice behind (as a professional ballet dancer). I chopped off my bun, swopped my pointe shoes for takkies and slipped into lycra, Fonda style!

I’m super comfy in the gym environment. I love weight training, I enjoy feeling strong and my body – luckily for me – responds really quickly in building muscle. If I’m honest about it, my feeling is that unless someone’s looking to prep for a specific event that requires cardio endurance (like a triathlon), there’s very little point in doing anything else in the gym. I can imagine gym bunnies fuming at such an heretical statement. Let’s be honest – nothing changes the shape of your body the way building muscle does and for the most part, the reason most peeps go to gym is to change their bodies. Yes, I know – many go for health reasons. Guess what – you can get that + fitness + strength + shape change from li’l ole resistance training. That is, assuming you know what you’re doing, or have a good trainer, of course.

Recently, I decided (after a leave of absence of about 12 years) to start teaching again. I specifically started weight training classes. Now, it has to be said that I’m a bit of a stickler (read ‘anal’) for good technique and posture. It has struck me, though – after chatting to many of my clients – that most people tend not to know what they’re doing when they hit the weights area of any gym. Often, they tell me, they just copy what the guy/girl in front of them is doing and he/she is likely copying the person in front of them.

So – since this seems to be a general issue for most – I thought it a good idea to unpack best practice for weight training, to help you get the best out of your time at gym. I’m going to cover the topic in a generalised, non-technical way, so bear this in mind.

Let’s assume that you, like me, want a toned, well-shaped body. There are three important principles you’ll want to apply when you start training and which will help you meet your goal (actually, there are four, but the fourth topic is too vast to cover here so I might just save it for another article).

The first principle is reps (repetitions). Aim for up to 12 reps; anything higher than 12 and you’ll be heading into the endurance body territory (see more below on rest periods). Based on the number of reps you’ve chosen, you’ll select a weight that causes you to reach failure (inability to continue lifting) on your last rep (i.e. it’s bloody hard to do but you can just about make it).

The second thing to think about is sets – in other words, the number of times you repeat any given exercise. Initially, the higher the number of reps you do, the fewer the sets you’ll need to do. As you get stronger and can perform the exercise with good technique, you’ll want to go heavier/fewer reps/more sets. Basically, goal dictates reps; reps dictate sets.

The third principle is one of rest periods. This leads us into a massively technical aspect of programme design, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s keep it low key. There are two main types of muscle fibres in your body – fast twitch and slow twitch. Each uses different energy systems – think of them as the petrol vs the diesel engine.  The petrol engine is your sprinter (fast twitch); the diesel is your marathoner (slow twitch). Each of these engines has different recovery rates. The petrol burns fuel very quickly, outputs more power but takes longer to recover; the diesel burns fuel more efficiently, but power output is slower and is quicker to recover.

So, in the case of building muscle, we’re using the petrol engine and need longer recovery between sets (60-180 seconds). If you don’t rest for long enough, the diesel engine kicks in, changing your outcome. Effectively, endurance – the diesel engine – breaks down muscle mass, so if you’re aiming for tone in the body, you’ll want to avoid using this engine altogether.

So, go throw those weights around – only do it with good technique and planning.