We’re almost a week into 2011 now and many gyms, health clubs, and diet centers are bustling with a swell of new members, thanks to the time-honored tradition of the New Year’s resolution. Come back in February though, and the scene may look a bit sparser. What is it about the New Year’s resolution that leads to this utterly predictable progression from discipline to eventual surrender? Clearly it’s not such a bad idea to make productive goals for one’s self, especially at notable times of change like the beginning of a new year. The period of transition from one year to the next allows us time to reflect on our achievements and failures, our moments of glory and our downhill slides. It gives us a clearer perspective on what we currently are and where we want to go. So what’s the problem?
The first major mistake that people make when beginning to execute their fresh, ambitious New Year’s resolutions is to jump into too many changes at once. For example, say your resolution is to lose 20 pounds over the next year. It’s a common goal and one that is dearly needed in the lives of many individuals (though I’d personally rather it be framed in terms of body fat percentage). However, if you’re currently a desk jockey with a busy schedule, adding five or six outings to the gym per week may simply be too much to handle at first. Besides the physical ramifications of such a large-scale change to your exercise output, abruptly altering your lifestyle in big ways can often lead to a quick jumping of ship. It may be more reasonable to plan a trip or two to the gym per week and find time to fit them into the schedule. Later, as you become used to the new weekly timeline, you will be able to open up more space and continue to add sessions as needed. Jumping into any large commitment tends to induce at least a bit of anxiety. By applying your new exercise and nutrition goals slowly but surely to your current lifestyle, you will find the results to be much more satisfying, productive, and sustainable over time. Remember, a small improvement is better than no improvement at all.
The second mistake often seen with New Year’s resolutions is to expect too much too soon. While this problem is an ever-present plague in the nutrition and fat loss industry, it is especially prevalent around the New Year. Big goals and big ambitions can seem insurmountable when viewed as one large block. Taking the example of losing 20 pounds again, viewed as a lump sum, it’s a pretty significant number. When people don’t see the first 10 pounds come off by the end of January, they often start to panic and may even abandon the plan entirely. One way to avoid the stress of making small progress towards a large goal is to break the big number down into smaller, intermediate goals spread out rationally over time. That way, you always have an achievable, short-term goal on which you can focus. As the small landmarks are reached, the overall progress will grow and grow without you even having to consider it. Three to five pounds of fat loss per month is a good goal for most people. If you have a lot of fat to lose and are starting with some notably bad eating and exercise habits, you can set more aggressive goals, but always be sure to keep your expectations within reason. Setting proper goals is the first step to success and it doing it right often requires a level of objective self-assessment that many people aren’t used to. In the end, though, you will find that small, approachable goals set out over time will provide you with a much easier path towards big achievement.
Finally, and this may be the biggest issue of all regarding New Year’s resolutions, there tends to be a sense that, because we have failed with so many resolutions in the past, it’s ok to give up on your new ones, as well. The fact is that a resolution should be just that, a decision to become resolved, resolute to achieve your goal. Determination is a big part of being successful in many areas of life. You simply have to have a reason to make it happen. For some it may be about overall health, blood pressure, cholesterol, or well-placed concern over future complications from carrying excess fat and a lack of exercise. For others the driving force may be more present. Diabetes, mobility problems, or an inability to do what you want to do in your daily life can all be great motivation to stick to your resolutions. There are still others who want more out of their bodies, whether it’s greater sports performance, better endurance, or more strength and power. Whatever your reason for making a resolution this year, keep it fresh in your mind. When training gets hard (and it does), you will need to be able to focus on the reason why you are there.
This year, don’t just make a resolution. Design a plan for success with reasonable, small goals spread out over time. Make changes to your lifestyle slowly but surely to allow yourself time to adjust. Know your motivation and keep it in mind at all times. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks and small failures. They are a part of the process and are common to everyone’s experience, especially when making big life changes. Finally, get your friends and family on board, either by actively joining in with you as you make improvements or by simply being there to support you and help to keep you on track. Be resolute in your decisions and be accountable to yourself and your goals. 2011 can be the year that you permanently change your life for the better, so stick with it!
One of the most self-defeating comments I often hear from those I counsel on nutrition and exercise is that they “can’t make progress” because they are [insert age here]. You hear the same thing from individuals who are in their sixties, fifties, forties, and even thirties! It’s amazing how little confidence many people have in their bodies’ adaptability and capacity for positive development. Fortunately, the truth is that even quite elderly folks can make fantastic progress in areas including muscular strength, balance and stability, cardiovascular function, and overall measures of wellness (blood lipid profile, blood pressure, and others). I’d like to present just one example of a person who has made great progress in health and ability despite some very serious setbacks. She is living proof that no matter your age and level of fitness, you can make excellent improvements if you put your mind to it.
Barb was active as a young adult, skiing throughout college and overcoming a minor weight gain during college through the Weight Watchers program (decades ago, when it was a bit less “commercial”). In her late thirties, Barb got back into ice skating, a sport she had participated in as a child, but had given up long ago. For almost the next twenty years or so, she continued skating while balancing a job and raising two young children. Her rather serious dedication to skating and solid nutritional foundation allowed her to maintain a satisfactory and stable body weight and levels of strength and fitness. It goes to show you that, even with a real life to handle and an exercise regimen that is, at most, of moderate intensity, portion control and practical application of correct dietary fundamentals can hold you in good stead.
At 55 years old, Barb stopped skating and began to pursue professional photography, another lifelong passion. However, she kept up with her semiannual skiing trips. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, over the next couple of years she found herself less steady on her skis and felt like her ability to perform to her maximum had diminished along with her regular physical activity. Luckily for Barb, a family member who had an interest in weight lifting encouraged her to begin a resistance training program in order to get back and even improve her muscular strength and overall stability. At 58, Barb began a full body weight training protocol with a professional trainer. Despite her misgivings at the beginning, she made excellent progress and began to notice positive changes not only in her strength and performance, but also in the size of her muscles and the shape of her body. She was surprised that a weight lifting program could make such big improvements to a 58 year old woman. But that’s the beauty of the human body: no matter how old you are, if you eat correctly and exercise properly according to your goals, you can improve both your physical ability and body composition.
Unfortunately, after six months of productive training, Barb was dealt a terrible blow: she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, a disease of the uterus. She underwent almost a year of treatment, including rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Her body was hit hard by the sometimes fatal medication and procedures, but she did far better than many other people facing similar situations. Her doctors and fellow cancer survivors commented on her strength and toughness throughout the treatment. In fact, she credits her improved physical condition going into the diagnosis with her ability to take on the punishing solution to her disease.
Despite being depleted and weakened by the chemo and radiation, Barb survived her treatments and was told that her cancer was in remission. Less than six months later, she was back in the gym with a new trainer, ready to begin the process of rebuilding her body. Now, a year and a half later, the only remnant of her battle with cancer is the slightly softer hair she grew after losing much of her original hairdo. She has been making consistent progress since undertaking her new weight training protocol and continues to push for improvement. At 61 years old, she is proof that age is no excuse for poor health or performance.
Keep this story in mind next time you feel like you might be “over the hill”. If a cancer survivor in her 60s can make noticeable improvements in her physical strength and body composition, so can you. Fortunately, we are born into an incredibly adaptable machine. Even if it’s been mistreated for decades, it will respond positively if you make the choice to change today. Excellent nutrition and properly executed exercise can make a big difference in how you look and feel, no matter what year you were born. In the upcoming new year, make your health and ability your biggest priorities and don’t get yourself down because you feel too old to improve. Whether you’re 30, 40, 50, 60 or beyond, the right fundamentals can make a difference for you.
Exercise and nutrition are indispensible in the maintenance of long-term health as well as the development of winning athletes. Two of the most misunderstood areas of exercise planning are frequency and volume. In other words, how often should you exercise and how much work should you perform during each session? Unfortunately for many people, without proper regulation of both of these aspects of your training program, your results likely will be less than optimal. The good news is that proper frequency and volume are easy to implement within your program and that you can soon be reaping the results! This article covers mostly strength training programs, but the principles of proper frequency and volume apply to cardio, also.
Exercise frequency is defined as the number of training sessions you perform over a certain amount of time. For convenience purposes, training schedules usually are planned to repeat on a weekly basis. But, there’s no reason why a schedule can’t be designed around a monthly or even longer duration cycle. The proper frequency for you in a particular training program depends upon two major factors: your ability to recover from intense training and the way that you choose to divide your exercises. For example, assume you find, as many people do, that you progress most efficiently in strength and muscle size by working each major muscle group or movement once a week. There are myriad ways to divide that work. One option is to perform a whole body workout once per week. You could alternatively split upper and lower body exercises into two separate days. You could also do a “push, pull, squat” type of division in which you work all of your pushing movements on one day, your pulling movements on another, and your squatting or lower body movements on a third. There are others, but those three can be effective for a large percentage of the population.
If, on the other hand, you find that you recover faster than most (or are a rank beginner) and progress better working each muscle group or movement twice per week, then your split needs to be changed to fit your needs. Since you do NOT want to be in the gym six days per week, a “push, pull, squat” split working each twice a week is not going to work. However, you could reasonably perform an upper/lower split twice per week for four total training sessions. You could also choose to execute two full body workouts per week, instead. As you can see, your recovery ability has a say in the way that you divide your work, but you also need to keep your total number of work days per week under control. Personally, I find that two to four training sessions per week is best for most people, assuming that each session is intense and focused.
Now that you have your training frequency worked out, you need to decide on the volume of work that you will do during each session. Exercise volume can have a number of definitions, but the one that I find to be most useful for general application is: Volume = Repetitions x Sets x Exercises. What that means is that the total training volume is found by multiplying the approximate number of repetitions per set (you may miss a few in there when things get tough, but that’s ok) by the number of sets per exercise and multiplying that product by the total number of exercises you plan to perform. It’s worth noting that the first one or two warm-up sets of each exercise are not counted towards the total. Count only sets that make you work at least moderately hard.
For example, if I were doing a “push, pull, squat” split and I was planning my pushing day, I might set this schedule as such (not including warm-ups):
Barbell Bench Press 3 (sets) x 8 (reps)
Dumbbell Overhead Press 4x5
Rear Deltoid Raise 3x10
Triceps Pushdown 3x8
My total volume would be calculated by multiplying 7.75 (average number of reps) by 3.25 (average number of sets) by 4 (number of exercises). The total is just over 100. While this number means little on its own, over time you will compare volumes used in different programs and find a range that allows you to progress most efficiently. In fact, various areas of your body may require distinct amounts of volume due to variances in muscle fiber type distribution and other physiological factors.
Volume also is useful when assessed on a weekly and even monthly basis. My total volume per week will help me relate how I feel and how I am progressing overall to the amount of total work I perform. The stress put on the body when training intensely is not localized to the muscle group being worked; it is systemic. It affects immune function, energy levels, and other “whole body” metrics. Overtraining is a state, induced by putting out too much work for too long a time. It exhibits symptoms including a lack of training progress, disinterest in exercise, excessive fatigue, poor mood, and lowered resistance to disease. Avoidance of overtraining is essential to maintain consistent, long-term improvement. Keeping track of your total exercise volume over periods like weeks and months can help you adjust your training plan to prevent overtraining and maximize your progress.
As an example, if I completed a 16 week training plan and found that during the cycle I felt more and more run down and less interested in training as it went on, it is plausible that the volume and/or frequency was too high. When designing the next training schedule, I will calculate the total volume of work and make sure that it is less than that of the previous, non-optimal cycle. Through this process of analysis and revision, I will eventually find a balance of volume and frequency that allows me the best progress and prevents problems with overtraining.
Volume and frequency are integral parameters to any strength training program. Getting them right can be the key to optimizing your results. Too much volume or frequency will prevent the body from recovering properly from one session to the next and can negatively impact not only strength and muscle gains, but also immunity, mood, and overall wellbeing. Pay attention to your body and use that feedback to help pinpoint the amount of training that works best with your particular physiology!
I am a vehement proponent of discipline’s positive role in a proper nutrition and exercise program. I believe that the ability to stick to your plan and make decisions based on your principles and not your feelings at a given moment is one of the greatest assets a person can have in their journey towards optimal health and performance. On the other hand, a big risk factor for abandoning a productive nutrition and exercise plan is mental and physical burnout. After a long period of time adhering to a strict schedule, many people simply want a break. In addition, in many cases the body is looking for a little rest, as well. However, the more disciplined a subject is, the more likely they are to resist the urge to take some time off from the gym or eat some more indulgent meals. In the end, the concept of a cheat day is a good one, but it can be overused. As with many good ideas, cheat days can become too frequent and too out of control, leading to a regression in health and condition. Used properly though, a little time off can do both the mind and body a whole lot of good.
I use the term “cheat day” simply because it’s familiar to many readers. However, an entire day off may not be the best idea. Personally, I prefer the idea of a cheat meal. For many subjects, a single meal during which they can eat foods outside the bounds of their normal nutrition plan is enough to give them a mental boost and prepare them for another few weeks of discipline. It’s also possible to extend this concept to two meals. However, I think that an entire day of irresponsible eating can stretch the utility of the time off into the category of counterproductivity. One of the most successful methods of implementing a period of off-time is to plan a nice meal out with your family or friends and treat it like a special occasion. That way, you experience the feeling of relaxation and bonding with loved ones over food without having to monitor your diet so carefully. It also puts the cheat meal into the context of “occasional event” and not an everyday occurrence.
How often a cheat meal or day may be appropriate is dependent upon many factors. One of the most important is the effect that time off has on the individual’s ability to return to the regular plan of action. For some people, taking one meal or a day off leads to another meal or day off. That cycle of laxity can continue for days or weeks. In some cases, it can even cause the end of a successful nutrition and exercise plan. On the other hand, most people can simply have a nice meal out with a friend or take a relaxed day on vacation and then get right back into their regular, stricter schedule. If you find yourself in the former category in which the time off puts you on a slippery slope towards inactivity and irresponsible eating, then space out your cheat periods to a frequency of about once a month. On the other hand, if you find that a little time off proves beneficial to your state of mind and feeling of physical well-being while not compromising your overall discipline, then a frequency of once every two to three weeks may be appropriate.
Time off from a strict nutrition and exercise plan can benefit both the mind and the body. Continuous adherence to a strict eating plan, especially when losing fat, can eventually weigh heavily on a person’s morale. This effect is particularly common when first modifying your eating and exercise habits to fit a healthier and more productive lifestyle. The change in routine can be wearing on the nerves as it can take serious thought and planning to meld your new schedule with your current lifestyle. It is important to recognize that feelings of doubt and mental fatigue are normal when making big changes. Do not let your negative feelings take precedence over your pride in the progress you have made towards a healthier life. A small period of relaxation and time off from disciplined eating and training can allow your mind some time to refresh and motivate you to continue your journey of physical and mental improvement. Your body can also become worn down from consistent hard training and strict eating. Taking a day or even a week off from the gym can actually improve results after a period of strenuous, progressive exercise. In addition, a meal or two containing increased calories and nutrients can provide the body with useful extra fuel for building muscle tissue and replenishing glycogen stores emptied during hard training.
Cheat meals and days can be productive after a period of disciplined training and eating. However, like most good things, too much can be quite detrimental. Choose your time off sparingly and make it a special occasion. Don’t go overboard and try to still eat relatively nutritious foods during your cheat period. Finally, recognize that your urges for some dietary and physical relaxation are normal and can in fact indicate a physical and mental need for a break. Don’t feel bad about taking time off. Instead, enjoy it and use it to motivate yourself for your next productive nutrition and exercise cycle.
There are two major facets of athletic development: excellent nutrition and progressive training. Assuming that you have your nutrition plan squared away with the right amounts of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, your training protocol is all that stands between you and reaching your highest potential in both athletics and general health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, when many people begin a training regimen of any sort, they have little information to guide them in the design of their exercise program. While there is an almost infinite number of strength training protocols available, this article discusses a principle that is fundamental to all effective resistance training programs. The concept of double progression is the foundation of continuous progression in strength and muscle gain, and yet it is an idea that is almost unknown outside of serious weight lifting circles. Learn to understand the practice of double progression and how to incorporate it into your resistance training schedule and you will find the results to be well worth the effort!
The concept of double progression involves, as the name implies, two different but parallel routes toward strength and muscle gain. The first is increasing weight. If you can lift more weight this month (for the same number of repetitions, in the same style, etc.) than you could last month, your strength has increased in that time and in many cases so has your muscle mass. The second avenue of progression is in the number of repetitions of an exercise that can be performed. If you are able to lift the same weight for more repetitions this month than you could last month, then your strength has again improved with a similarly likely increase in muscle mass.
Unfortunately, the fact is that you can neither increase weight nor repetitions alone indefinitely. If you attempt to add more weight each week, you will very quickly find that your body cannot keep up, even when adding very small amounts of weight. In the same vein, if you try to add more repetitions each week you will also hit a wall in terms of progression and, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, you will also see little if any muscle growth as the repetitions add up. Luckily, there is a solution. Double progression incorporates both increases in weight and repetitions in a focused and disciplined way, ensuring multiple paths of progression and providing the opportunity for virtually continuous improvement.
The first step to designing a double progression plan for an individual exercise is to determine a range of repetitions that you know will produce strength gains. Unfortunately, that optimal range varies between people and indeed can even differ between muscle groups within a single subject. The key to finding your range is to simply try out different options and see what works best. This process can take quite a while, but it produces extremely valuable information.
I will relate my personal rep ranges so that you can develop an idea of how to start investigating your own. From experience, I know that most of the muscles in my back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, spinal erectors, etc.) produce the most consistent strength gains over time using a range of three to six repetitions. However, the muscles in my shoulders (deltoids) require a higher rep range of about five to eight. The difference in ranges may seem insignificant, but through trial and error I’ve found that, for example my progress on rowing exercises slows to a crawl or even stops if I use sets with more than six repetitions. Attempting to gain back strength using sets of eight is, for me, essentially futile. Similarly, when performing the overhead press, which strongly activates the deltoids, I have found that performing sets of less than five reps leads to rapid stagnation. While sets containing between five and eight reps are effective, sets of three produce little to no success. Experimentation is essential to determining your optimal repetition range, but the time spent is well worth the valuable data you will discover. On the other hand, if you are just starting out and have no experience, simply choose a range anywhere between six and twelve repetitions. From there you can try different ranges as you become more comfortable
Once you have determined a productive repetition range for each exercise, you now must find a weight at which you can begin to work your progression. One method used to come up with a starting weight is to discover your maximal capabilities at your desired repetition range and then decrease from there. Of course, any time you are working to the point where you cannot lift a weight anymore requires a spotter to ensure your safety. Once you have a safe mechanical and/or human safety system in place, work your way up in weight until you reach a point where you cannot properly complete a set. For example, if I choose five to eight repetitions as my optimal range in the bench press, then I will need to find out the maximum amount of weight I can lift for five repetitions, also known as my five rep max (5RM). After enlisting an experienced spotter to catch the bar when I fail, I will begin to lift in sets of five reps with adequate rest in between, raising the weight by five to twenty percent each set. At some weight, say 210 pounds, I will be unable to safely complete all five reps. I might get three or four and then be forced to stop. The weight used on the previous set is then my 5RM. For this example, we will say it was 200 pounds.
Now that I know what my maximum weight is for one set of five, I need to find my starting weight for my progression. Generally one does more than a single set of each exercise. So, for this example I’ll choose three sets of five to eight for the bench press. The total volume (set multiplied by reps) is another variable that you can tweak over time to produce the best results. Some people respond better to higher volume and many progress best with lower volume. Begin somewhere in the middle with two to four sets and work from there. When beginning a new double progressive cycle, it is best to underestimate your starting weight to give your body some time to adapt to the new regimen. With a 5RM of 200 pounds, I will begin the cycle with 160 to 170 pounds, or 80% to 85% of my 5RM.
To execute the double progression, my first workout will consist of a good warm-up followed by three sets of five to eight reps with 160 pounds. During each set, I will attempt to complete all eight reps. If I am unable to succeed with eight reps in all three sets, I will use the same weight next week and try again. However, if I do complete eight reps in all three sets, I will then increase the weight by five pounds during my next training session. I may be able to perform all three sets of eight successfully again with 165 pounds, prompting me to add another five pounds for the following week. However, at some point I will not be able to complete eight reps in all three sets. At that time, my goal would then be to add at least one rep each week until I again reached by goal of eight reps for three sets. More weight will then be added, the reps will drop back down, and the cycle continues.
Double progression fights stagnation and allows for multiples avenues of progression by taking into account both increases in weight lifted as well as the number of repetitions performed. By setting a repetition range that you know if effective for you, you can most efficiently effect strength and muscle mass gains while consistently raising the working weight to compensate for your newfound abilities. Progressive resistance is essential to produce increases in strength and muscle mass. These assets are extremely valuable to both men and women, regardless of their age, condition, or previous activity level. You will gain confidence, functionality, and self-esteem through the use of a properly designed nutrition and progressive resistance exercise program. Don’t be intimidated by the numbers or the challenges of lifting. Start slowly, do your best, and discover abilities that you never knew you had!
There is a commonly held misconception about resistance training (weight lifting, anaerobic, etc.) that is both so deeply ingrained in exercise mythology and so counterproductive to the user that it begs to be addressed. The idea that strength training methodology should change depending on whether your goal at the time is fat loss or muscle growth is simply false. I have to assume that this concept is a vestige of the "toning" age, which also happened to be the era of sideways ponytails, leg warmers, and ubiquitous perms. Clearly, none of these trends had any basis in rational thought and were therefore eventually swept under the embarrassing but forgiving rug of history. It's time to move on.
The reason why this myth is so pervasive within exercise circles boils down, I think, to the fact that many trainers have a poorly developed understanding of the physiological effects of different types of exercise as well as nutrition. As a result, their expectations are unrealistic and their exercise plans inefficient. I always stress the importance of education when it comes to nutrition and exercise. To become self-sufficient in this field and capable of managing your own body effectively, you need to understand when, why, and how you should use certain nutrition and exercise techniques. Without fundamental knowledge of the effects of your actions upon your body, trying to achieve your goal of fat loss or muscle growth is much like trying to bat at a piñata, blindfolded. You may eventually hit it, but you will waste a huge amount of time and effort swinging wildly and there's a good chance that you'll do some unintended damage along the way.
So, let's begin to clear up this myth by defining what our goal is for our resistance exercise plan. It is singular and simple: muscle growth and maintenance. Don't worry if your first reaction to that statement is, "But Rob, I don't want bigger muscles!" As you will soon understand, the growth rate of your muscles is primarily dependent upon nutrition, not exercise.
Now that we understand our resistance training objective, it becomes clear that changing our exercise methods depending upon our fat loss or muscle growth goals makes no sense. The key here is to allow yourself to separate the uses of nutrition and exercise as they relate to body composition management. Loss of fat is generally best achieved by inducing a caloric deficit, meaning you are taking in fewer calories than you are putting out. Conversely, muscle growth is most efficient during a caloric surplus. Exercise is an inefficient method for inducing either a caloric deficit or surplus. Maintaining the balance of your caloric input/output is best left to the tools of nutrition. However, with either goal in mind you will always be fighting to grow or maintain muscle mass, which is best achieved through intense resistance training. Let exercise and nutrition each do what they do best and fight the urge to overlap their uses.
Fat loss always comes with some decrease in muscle tissue. Our body is simply not going to lose 100% pure fat mass because our internal energy consumption pathways are not engineered as isolated systems, but are integrated to allow us maximum fuel flexibility. On the other hand, an increase in muscle mass is almost always accompanied by some accumulation of fatty tissue. Again, our body almost never takes an energy surplus and generates only one type of tissue. Body fat is like an insurance policy that aids our survival in times of famine. When you convince your body through intense exercise to increase its stores of highly metabolic, energy-hungry muscle tissue, it will also take a bit of your caloric input and invest that in a slightly larger insurance policy. While it is sometimes possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, for the vast majority of people in most cases it is more efficient to focus on one goal at a time.
Keeping in mind that the body rarely grows or consumes one sort of tissue in isolation, the duality of goals becomes apparent for any nutrition and exercise plan, whether aimed at fat loss or muscle growth. When executing a plan aimed primarily at maximizing body fat reduction, it is imperative for long-term success to also remember to minimize muscle tissue loss. As well, when attempting to increase muscle mass, it is important to minimize the gain in body fat. In both cases, however, fat loss is best achieved through nutrition and muscle gain through resistance training.
The old adage that, when it comes to anaerobic exercise, higher repetitions should be used for fat loss and lower repetitions for muscle growth is incorrect. In reality, the best repetition range to use is the one that produces the best results for you. If you consistently get stronger using higher rep ranges, the primarily use those. If you instead find better progress resulting from lower rep ranges, then stick to those for the majority of your sessions. The time to change your exercise methodology is when it stops working or becomes inefficient. If you are able to add weight or reps each week during a caloric surplus or even just maintain your strength during a period of caloric deficit, then you currently have a useful plan. Trust in the validity of your results because they narrate the real story of your success or failure.
Once you have designed an effective exercise plan for muscle growth, losing fat or gaining muscle is simply a matter of energy and protein input vs. output. If you use effective resistance training and supply your body with lots of good calories and protein, you will grow muscle. If you also take care to control some of the finer points of your nutrition plan, you will also be able to minimize fat gain. If you use the same exercise techniques and provide a caloric deficit while maintaining a good level of protein consumption, you will lose fat while minimizing muscle loss. Either way, the exercise strategy is the same because the goal of maximizing muscle mass never changes.
Using high reps for fat loss and low reps for "bulking up" is an outdated concept. The best resistance training method for you is the one that produces the greatest level of muscle growth. Only change your exercise plan when it stops working. Let nutrition handle your fat loss efforts. Your caloric balance is best controlled by monitoring what goes into your mouth and not what you do in the gym. Resistance exercise builds and maintains muscle mass. Nutrition decides whether you are actively growing muscle tissue or are instead trying to maintain it while losing fat. Always remember to use exercise and nutrition each in their most efficient role.