High Reps vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?

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If you walk into most gyms today, you’ll see a major contrast between the weights used by men and women.

Some women will curl 5lb dumbbells for 25 reps in an effort to “tone” their arms, while some guys will bench a ton of weight for only a few reps in an effort to put on muscle and increase strength.

The idea is that high reps help you lose fat and make a muscle more “toned”. On the other hand, low reps can help you build muscle and increase strength.

Is it really this simple? High reps for fat loss and low reps for strength and muscle building?

In this article, you will learn why it’s a smart idea to use both low and high rep ranges in your workout regimen if you want to build muscle, lose fat, or simply improve overall physical fitness. You will also learn why you can build muscle, increase strength, or lose fat with just about any rep range, but some rep ranges are more optimal than others for each training outcome. Finally, in terms of time-efficiency, safety, and overall effectiveness, the ideal rep ranges to elicit the greatest changes in body composition (both fat loss and muscle building) likely occur within the 8-15 rep range.

High Reps Vs. Low Reps | The Strength Continuum

The Strength Continuum is a framework where strength and endurance exist on a continuum that defines the relationship between weight, reps, and training outcome. Strength is represented by the 1 repetition maximum (1RM), which is the maximum weight that can be lifted for one rep, and endurance is the ability to exert a lower force repeatedly over time.

Low repetitions with high weight increases strength, whereas high repetitions with low weight increases endurance. According to the concept, as repetitions increase there is a gradual transition from strength to endurance.

Below is a commonly used graph of the strength continuum. The training outcome “Hypertrophy”, which means muscle-building is not an entirely accurate label as you’ll learn more about in a moment.

This framework also works in line with our understanding of muscle fiber types. High reps develop Type 1 muscle fibers (“slow twitch”) that are endurance based and slow to fatigue. Lower repetitions activate Type 2 muscle fibers (“fast twitch”), which have greater power but fatigue quickly.

High Reps vs. Low Reps | Strength

For optimal strength increases, the research conclusively supports low reps with high weight vs. high reps with low weight, but high reps can still elicit gains in strength as well.1

For example, in one study, 23 cyclists were placed into high resistance/low repetition (LR), low resistance/high repetition (HR), or cycling-only groups for a 10-week program.2

There were substantial strength gains in all 4 resistance training exercises tested for both LR and HR groups, but the LR group had “significantly” greater strength gains than the HR group in the leg press exercise. Interestingly, muscle hypertrophy and overall endurance was relatively equal.

As this study and many others highlight, for optimal strength gains, lift relatively heavier weight for low reps. This is in line with how Powerlifters train for competitions to help increase neuromuscular adaptation, which is the efficiency of the brain to control the muscles. You can get stronger as a result of increase in muscle size OR increase in neuromuscular adaptation.

High Reps vs. Low Reps | Fat Loss

Some believe heavy weights are only good for building muscle, but what about fat loss? Can lifting heavier help you burn more fat, or does it turn you into the hulk?

One study from the University of Alabama in Birmingham showed that dieters who lifted heavy weights lost the same amount of weight as dieters who did just cardio, but all the weight lost by the weight lifters was fat while the cardio queens lost a lot of muscle along with some fat. The common belief is that high reps magically get rid of fat. While high reps with light weight to fatigue can create a muscular response, it does not necessarily remove fat better than low reps with heavy weight.

While more studies are needed to compare the fat loss effects of high reps vs. low reps, substantial evidence is mounting that it’s not necessarily the amount of weight that is used, or the number of repetitions that helps burn the most fat, but the intensity of the workout. The goal is to create muscular failure with less rest between exercises, which can have powerful hormonal, metabolic, and calorie burn effects (See: afterburn effect). In addition, for fat loss, proper nutrition will have a MUCH greater impact on fat loss than the specific rep range, or even workout.

High Reps vs. Low Reps | Muscle Building

Similar to fat loss, the number of rep ranges that is optimal for muscle building is open to debate and the research is inconclusive. Most research points to reps under 15 reps as being better for muscle building, but other research shows muscle building can be equally effective with low weight and high reps.

For example, a recent study of resistance-trained young men found that low weight with high reps, performed until failure, was equally effective in stimulating muscle proteins as a high weight with low reps.

There is a common misconception that lifting heavier weights automatically helps you build muscle. That’s not the case at all. In fact, how much you eat in combination with the overall volume and intensity of the workout and how it becomes more challenging over time will make the difference, not necessarily the weight/reps. If you eat relatively less calories than you burn, you can lift very, very heavy weight and most likely not gain an ounce of muscle mass. This especially applies to women who have 1/10 the amount of the muscle-building hormone testosterone as men. In a calorie deficit, increases in strength are likely due to neuromuscular adaptation and not increases in muscle mass.

High Reps vs. Low Reps | Putting It All Together

So now we know just about any rep range can help you increase strength, build muscle, or lose fat, but what ranges should you use? What should be your focus? The following proposes what may be optimal rep ranges based on specific goals.3

Primary Goal – Increasing Strength

Strength – Under 6 reps (80-100% of exercise volume)

Hypertrophy – 6-15 reps (0-20% of exercise volume)

Endurance – 15+ reps (0-10% of exercise volume)

The top strength athletes in the world spend the vast majority of their time lifting very heavy weight for low reps. While we know higher rep ranges can also create strength gains, lower reps are optimal.

Primary Goal – Optimal Fat Loss

Strength – Under 6 reps (0-15% of exercise volume)

Hypertrophy – 6-15 reps (70-85% of exercise volume)

Endurance – 15+ reps (15% of exercise volume)

As stated earlier, the intensity of the workout is more important than the specific rep ranges for fat loss, but the following is a smart approach that combines what I consider the “sweet spot” of the 6-15 reps, which can further be broken down into 6-10 and 10-15. For less advanced lifters and the general population, those ranges can be changed slightly to 8-12, and 12-15.

There a couple very compelling benefits of the 6-15 rep range. First, you are getting significant muscle stimulation with much less chance of injury than lifting very heavy weights for low reps (under 6 reps). Second, it takes less time to workout than using 15+ reps all the time, which does not offer much added benefit. If you are a beginner, I recommend against using under 12 reps. If you don’t want to push yourself with low reps, there isn’t any need to go below 6 reps, or even below 10 reps if you are older, or fear getting injured. Lifting in multiple rep ranges will help stimulate a maximum amount of muscle fibers to help burn fat and improve overall fitness.

So how do you implement high and low rep ranges in your workouts? There are few primary options (1) complete low and high reps in the same workout using different exercises, (2) start out with higher reps (say 15 reps) and go down in reps as you complete multiple sets for a given exercise, or (3) change up your workouts, so that some are geared towards strength vs. endurance.

Primary Goal – Building Muscle

Strength – Under 6 reps (30% of exercise volume)

Hypertrophy – 6-15 reps (60% of exercise volume)

Endurance – 15+ reps (10% of exercise volume)

As you learned before, while research shows it is possible to build muscle with lighter weights, the traditional method is to lift relatively heavier weights and increase those weights over time. Of course, genetics play an important factor as does the composition of muscle fibers from one muscle to the next and one individual to the next.

If you are looking to increase strength, build muscle, and increase fat loss all at the same time (which is not a great idea for reasons discussed here – Can You Lose Fat And Build Muscle At the Same Time?), stick with the ratios in the Optimal Fat Loss section.

I hope this article was enlightening to help dispel some of the common myths associated with lifting weights and has empowered you with useful information you can apply to your current exercise regimen.

References

  1. Nicholas A. Burd, Cameron J. Mitchell, Tyler A. Churchward-Venne, Stuart M. Phillips. Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise . Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2012.
  2. Jackson NP, Hickey MS, Reiser RF 2nd. High resistance/low repetition vs. low resistance/high repetition training: effects on performance of trained cyclists . J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):289-95.
  3. Buitrago S, Wirtz N, Yue Z, Kleinöder H, Mester J. Effects of load and training modes on physiological and metabolic responses in resistance exercise . Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;112(7):2739-48.
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50 Comments on “High Reps vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?

  1. Andrew
    July 19, 2012 #

    This is a great post. Each different aspect for different goals. People need to understand to lift for their individual goal. There is not one size fits all answer!

    1. July 19, 2012 #

      @Andrew – That’s exactly the point. I hope I made it clear in the article, but I think nutrition and workout intensity is generally more important than specific weight and rep ranges for a given training outcome.

  2. July 19, 2012 #

    One thing I considered adding to the article but did not for fear of information overload is the idea that rep tempo can also impact the training outcome. So for example, light weight for lower reps with a long tempo (let’s say 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down) can have a different effect than light weight for high reps.

  3. Bobby Dough
    July 20, 2012 #

    GOOD SITE.

  4. July 20, 2012 #

    Marc – This is a fantastic article. I really like how you detailed out all of the scenarios. It makes a lot more sense now!

  5. Francis
    July 20, 2012 #

    Another Smashing Marc Perry article!!!

  6. July 20, 2012 #

    Thanks a lot, guys. I appreciate it!

  7. Thaddeus
    July 20, 2012 #

    Awesome! I was getting very confused about this subject only in this past week! Thanks for clearing it up Marc XD

  8. Fran
    July 20, 2012 #

    Fabulous article. For clarification, can you give an example of exercise volume and how you calculate or ascertain.

    1. July 25, 2012 #

      @Fran, sure I can! There are several different ways to calculate exercise volume, but the most popular is based on multiplying reps x sets x weight.

      So for example, let’s take 2 workouts. In one workout you complete 6 exercises for 3 sets each of 12 reps. Each exercise you use the same weight of 50lb The second workout you complete 3 exercises for 2 sets of 6 reps each and 70lb.

      Exercise Volume Workout #1 = 6 x 3 x 12 x 50 = 10,800lb

      Exercise Volume Workout #2 = 3 x 2 x 6 x 70 = 2,520lb

      So Workout #2 is only roughly 1/5 the volume of Workout #1. The missing factor of course is intensity. In the second workout, the rest between sets of each exercise may have been only 30 seconds, which would have been brutal because heavier weight was lifted. In workout #1, the rest may have been 2 minutes. It’s not easy to perfectly describe the volume/intensity for each workout, which is why a qualitative assessment should also be used.

      1. Fran
        July 25, 2012 #

        As always I so appreciate your responses and information, and your attention to detail. The support you offer is absolutely incredible as is your program. A chiropractor for decades now, always having been health conscious, the re-direct and remembering the basics has once again become my staple for longevity! I have reached my goals with your program and have the foundation to go anywhere from here. Thank you so much.

      2. July 26, 2012 #

        @Fran – You made my day with your comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and congrats on your success!

  9. Kevin
    July 21, 2012 #

    Hey Marc. Do u have any ideas on a good full body work out? I don’t no what exercises to do or how many times to do them

    1. July 25, 2012 #

      @Kevin – Check out my Get Lean Guide for a free full body workout and use the BuiltLean search bar at the top of the site and search “full body workout”.

  10. Diego
    July 21, 2012 #

    Marc, the site is amazing. I am a student of Physical Education and I think more people, especially here in Brazil, should have access to your content, you give permission to translate some posts that I find interesting and put on my blog, quoting the source, of course?

    Greetings
    Diego

    1. July 25, 2012 #

      @Diego – I think you can certainly translate them, but in summary form, then link to the original article. Reprinting full articles even in another language is against our copyright policy! But thank you very much for your kind comment!

  11. Jason
    July 21, 2012 #

    I agree with the others. A well written article. You did a good job of summarizing a very detailed concept.

  12. Ginsling
    July 22, 2012 #

    Marc, thanks for the distillation.

    You mentioned female physiological differences only once (hormonal). I don’t want to increase my muscle size, and I’m already quite toned (around 18% BF), but I do want to increase strength. I don’t do weight-lifting or use machine weights at all – I only use body weight as a means of training. So If I have understood your article correctly, I would need to increase the speed of my reps, but keep rep numbers below 15 to increase strength, and start adding weights (eg belt) to increase resistance?

    1. July 25, 2012 #

      @Ginsling – If you want to increase strength with only bodyweight exercises, I would recommend choosing harder and harder exercises. For example, you can check out these two posts – 10 Pull Up Variations and 10 Push Up Variations. In addition, you can add a weighted vest to make the current exercises you are doing more challenging.

  13. Don
    July 22, 2012 #

    Great article, thank you.

    Quote:
    “So how do you implement high and low rep ranges in your workouts? There are few primary options (1) complete low and high reps in the same workout using different exercises, (2) start out with higher reps (say 15 reps) and go down in reps as you complete multiple sets for a given exercise, or (3) change up your workouts, so that some are geared towards strength vs. endurance.”

    How many “sets” is ideal with this type of workout?

    1. July 25, 2012 #

      @Don – That’s a great question and worthy of another post. A lot of research has been completed looking at optimal sets. Some studies show only 1 set of a given exercise is needed to maintain and even increase strength, whereas others have shown 3, or more is optimal. I personally prefer 3 as the sweet spot, and up to 5 if I want to create more muscle damage for muscle building.

  14. john aouad
    July 23, 2012 #

    very interresting article with a great target & answers a regular question that all my clients & friends always ask me & they always forget the answer..good article marc.regards

  15. Priscilla L Martin
    July 23, 2012 #

    Hello Marc. I really like this article because I never knew how important it is to have a great training update while getting in shape or staying up with proper function issues. Working out, as you continue to inform us, is more than just some moves here and there. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Marq
    July 24, 2012 #

    Marc…finally!
    Now this is a good article,to me a sight of well developed arms and abs…or the whole package of a woman physique looks simply good and echoes that she actually does something for her and not just “go through the motions”..meaning cranking high reps with some itty bitty weight.At the gym I go there´s too many ladies who would benefit a bit different training, far too many times I´ve wanted to suggest different rep/weight scenario but the ladies-magazine infused “self-image” and the fear of getting TOO BIG TOO FAST is set so deep that they don´t want to even try! Which is pure BS,honestly.
    Unless you´re using illegal substances it´s impossible to gain huge slabs of muscle over night or even in forth night!
    I blame the “fashion magazines”…enough with these “coat-hangers” already!!!
    If I could suggest for the entertainment industry together with the fashion world, they should present these fitness competitors in off-season or fit (=weight training) celebs more and tell how much better “natural” bodybuilding is as a way of life or just a sport! Only time will tell….

    1. July 25, 2012 #

      @Marq – Agreed!

  17. Bryce
    July 25, 2012 #

    I have the habit of performing exercises in sets of 3 with 12 reps each, by beginning the first set with a lower weight and gradually increasing the weight by 5-20 lbs each set. Normally the first 2 sets I can complete to 12 and the 3rd set I’m anywhere between 6-12 (to failure). Right now my goal is to lose body fat (but won’t complain with some muscle gain as well!). Does this sound like a good set/rep combo? Or maybe I should be switching it up more? If so, how do you determine what exercises should have H vs L reps?

    1. July 26, 2012 #

      @Bryce – I think the rep strategy you are using for fat loss is solid, starting out with 12, then going down from there. You will be getting both endurance/strength benefits to recruit a lot of muscle fibers and help burn more calories. If you are doing any plyometric exercises, I would consider doing those with higher reps, such as jump squats or jump lunges. Also, you may consider throwing in a workout every couple weeks where you start at 15 reps then go down from there, just to change things up.

  18. Carol MacKenzie
    July 31, 2012 #

    Hi, very informative article, will need to absorb. My reason for viewing is that my husband has recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and I would like him to attend a gym to do exercises to maintain and build leg strength and upper body strength to enable him to stay ‘fit’ to help with mobility in the future. Can you suggest any specific exercises or regimes that might help.
    Thanks

  19. Fran
    July 31, 2012 #

    hi,
    Marc is the guy to ask re exercise and strenthening for sure, for any condition! May I also suggest rebounding with a trampoline. Very few exercises create the type of movement across the blood brain barrier that rebounding can do and it is extremely helpful with MS and Parkinson’s because of that. Be sure to get a quality trampoline which is “easy” on the knees and created to absorb that impact. Trampolines can be used at any stage for anyone. For instance babies are placed on them and you simply push down and give them that movement, or a railing can be placed around them for those who are challenged with balance.

    1. Carol MacKenzie
      August 1, 2012 #

      Hi Fran, thank you for the information, we do have a rebounder but hadn’t thought of using that, good information though. Unfortunately I’m not sure it would be suitable for my husband as he also has a degenerative spine, would it still be suitble?

      Marc, hope you pick up this thread and can contribute.

      1. Fran
        August 1, 2012 #

        Hi
        Everyone is an individual so you need to customize and of course check with your medical practitioner. For example, slow, steady bounces on the balls of your feet without lifting entirely from the rebounder will still give you the movement and positive benefits. Another example would be holding onto a railing while walking on the rebounder.

  20. numan
    August 5, 2012 #

    Hi Marc,
    For the optimal fatloss and inclusion of hypertrophy as the main component of the workout, does that mean an individual is supposed create a calorie surplus in order to build muscle and in the process burn fat. Or should a calorie deficit be sustained?

    Thanks a bunch,
    Numan

    1. August 9, 2012 #

      @Numan – check out these two articles which will answer your questions in depth – Can You Lose Fat and Build Muscle At The Same Time? and Top 3 Reasons To Lose Fat First Before Building Muscle.

  21. aayush
    September 15, 2012 #

    sir MARC,
    you are the best teacher i have in my life, you are great.
    i can’t thank u from my words, but a great thankx from my heart.
    what a wonderful artical.

    1. September 15, 2012 #

      @aayush – Thank you!

  22. Jennifer
    September 17, 2012 #

    Hi, thanks for the great article, and your very helpful site. I am trying to find a good strength building rep type for quads. I want to be able to do more plyometrics at a higher level, do exercises that require stronger quads, and hope it would protect my joints somewhat. I have done a mix of lifting styles, including a variety of tempo and patterns (pulse, slow up and quicker down, etc.), at high intensity for a little over an hour 3x a week for the last several months, and though my upper body (mid abs and up) has gotten noticeable definition and improved strength, my lower body, especially the quads, hasn’t improved very much. I don’t know if doing high intensity cardio 5-6 days gets in the way, since quads don’t get much rest, but I don’t want to give that up because of the huge mood boost. BTW, I do weights earlier in the day when I end up doing both. Also, is there a difference in recovery time for high reps vs. low reps, like 48 vs. 72 hours, or is it all about intensity? This is probably too many questions, but any suggestions would be much appreciated.

    1. September 20, 2012 #

      @Jennifer – I think using a couple rep ranges within one workout and manipulating the intensity of your leg workouts can definitely do the trick to help you increase your quad strength and endurance. In terms of improving definition and looking more toned, that’s simply a body fat issue that is typically best dealt with more precision around your nutrition regimen.

      I think you can consider something like (1) Squats, (2) Forward Lunges, and (3) Single Leg DB Deadlifts. Do these exercises as a circuit for 3 rounds using as much weight as you can so you can do each exercise for around 10 reps. I did this just yesterday and I can assure you I am feeling it right now and I was in a serious sweat. I ended up finishing my workout with sprinting and the workout literally took 20 minutes. You can do something similar where you choose a circuit of leg exercises while using relatively heavy weight, you don’t need to exercise for long. Than you can finish with some plyometrics at higher rep ranges to really get the burn going. Your legs should get very strong while still having high endurance. In terms of maximal strength, lower rep ranges around 3-5 is ideal, but the risk/reward ratio is a lot less favorable. Finally, 5-6 days of HIIT sounds like a lot of pounding, so I hope you are drinking plenty of water, stretching, and foam rolling. If you workout hard, you need to recover even harder!

      In terms of your last question about recovery and rep ranges, it’s all about intensity/volume, which I mention in the High Reps vs. Low Reps article.

      1. Jennifer
        September 21, 2012 #

        Thanks, I’ll add the single leg DB deadlifts to my usual, and buy additional plates for my barbell for a better range. I’m building strength first, since my doctor doesn’t want me to lose more weight, and will try your program to take the fat off when I’ve got enough muscle. Your site made me stop trying to do both at the same time, and my husband and I really appreciate the help your site gives us.

      2. September 26, 2012 #

        @Jennifer – That sounds great, Jennifer. Good luck!

  23. steve purkey
    September 23, 2012 #

    Marc,hey there bud im going to tell u whats going on i did six years in the pin working out six days a week.Well im six foot and weight bout 280 im just big, kinda look like those guys on worlds strongest men.well i dont want to look like that i want to look more like a body builder.I dont know what else to do as u can imagaine i have worked out with hr and lr and every workout u can imagaine,ive ran and jump rope.I dont know what else to do u have any ideas on how to rip up.Im strong i squat 650 for one then go down to 405 for twenty thats trashing the legs.Thats just a start but i dont want to talk to much.I pretty much do a different muscle group every day till the hole body is trashed,that way its got bout a week to heal is that to much time.

    1. September 29, 2012 #

      @steve purkey – I think a lot of guys including myself would love to have plenty of muscle and strength like you. It sounds to me like you should focus 100% of your energies on nutrition to get lean. You don’t get lean by just working out, it’s mostly eating. Check out this post on how to get ripped – How To Get Ripped & Cut: Definitive Guide. Good luck!

  24. Mitchell
    October 10, 2012 #

    How about Reps of say 10 with weights but with bodyeight exercises hig reps.

    Example 10 reps for weight exercises like benchpress etc but as much reps as you can with push ups, sit ups, chin ups/pull ups and other body weight exercises.

    1. October 11, 2012 #

      @Mithcell – That’s basically what I do and I think it’s sensible. With that said, you can oftentimes progress body weight exercises when they start to become easy. For example, doing different variations of pull ups.

  25. donna
    October 14, 2012 #

    Hello, thanks for your article, it’s really helped me to understand more about high/low reps. I used to do pump and wasn’t really getting much definition so now understand why! Could you please clarify something for me? If I did 4 sets of 12 reps for each muscle group, my resting period between sets being a set on a different muscle group to make the best use of time (so around 1.5-2 minutes), would this achieve fat loss and hypertrophy? Or should I do 4 sets all in one go with just 30 seconds rest between sets then move onto the next muscle group? Thanks in advance.

    1. October 18, 2012 #

      @donna – I’m a big fan of the former strategy for sure, which is technically called supersetting. Alternating exercises from let’s say push ups and pull ups is a much more efficient way to get better results in less time. You can even use 3, or more back to back with little rest in between each, then rest after all are done. For example, you can do an incline DB Bench Press, Body Rows, then Side Planks, so it’s a pushing movement, pulling movement, than core movement combination. Just giving you some ideas, good luck!

      1. donna
        October 19, 2012 #

        Fab, thanks Marc, really appreciate your advice!

  26. October 19, 2012 #

    Hi
    Is it better to workout for 3 sets with (12/10/8 reps) for a optimum workout.

    1. October 19, 2012 #

      @santosh – I tried my best to answer that question in the article.

  27. Ivan Boladian
    October 21, 2012 #

    Great Website, I would say you have hit the nail on its head.

    1. October 25, 2012 #

      Thanks, Ivan. Much appreciated.

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