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Categories: Strength Training

High Reps vs. Low Reps: Which is Better?

By Marc Perry / July 6, 2017

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 5 pound 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 6-12 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 heavy weight increases strength, whereas high repetitions with light 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 For Strength

For optimal strength increases, the research conclusively supports low reps with heavy weight vs. high reps with light 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 For 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 group lost muscle along with some fat.3. 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 For Building Muscle

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 light weight and high reps.

For example, a recent study of resistance-trained young men found that light weight with high reps, performed until failure, was equally effective in stimulating muscle proteins as a heavy weight with low reps.4

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.5

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.

Do you want to follow a proven fitness plan? Then start my 12-Week Body Transformation Program

Show 5 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. Geliebter A, Maher MM, Gerace L, Gutin B, Heymsfield SB, Hashim SA. Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(3):557-63
  4. Mitchell CJ, Churchward-venne TA, West DW, et al. Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2012;113(1):71-7.
  5. 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.

67Comments

  • Heather says:

    I'm still confused as hell so I'll directly ask...

    I'm fat. I'm trying to not be fat anymore lol. I told you... Direct.

    I'm doing cardio, overhauled my eating etc and have introduced strength training at my local gym.
    My goal is weight-loss, muscle tone and fitness.

    So my workouts are as follows 3x a week for 90mins. (including cardio and cool down stretching)
    I use Life Fitness pin loaded machines for pretty much all of it.
    All upper body is 25-35kg weights 2 sets of 10 reps with 30 seconds rest between sets. 1 min rest between machines.
    It's not quite the point of failure but I'm struggling to get through.
    Lower body ranges from 35kg-65kg, 2 sets of 12 reps. Again 30sec rest between sets, 1 min rest between machines.
    I then do 2x sets of 10 rep with 5kg free weights doing fly's laying on a bench.

    Then I do 2 sets of 10 for the ab bench, 2 other weird ab benches 10kg (leaning over and lifting my torso/holding myself off the ground and lift my knees to my chest) plus kneeling on the ground weighted forward bends at 35kg on the TX machine with free rope over my shoulders.

    I'm scared I'm bulking when I want to be burning?
    I know bigger muscles burn more fat.... but I don't wanna be she hulk

    Cancel reply
    • Kristin says:

      Hi Heather - if you want to lose fat, nutrition is going to have the biggest impact on your results. It's great that you're working out by doing a combination of cardio and strength training, but you also need to look at what you're eating.

      In order to lose fat, you have to eat fewer calories than you burn. I would recommend getting an idea of what your daily calorie intake is right now by logging your food in an app like MyFitnessPal for at least 3 days. This will inform you about your current calorie intake, so that you can determine a good calorie range for weight loss.

      I recommend keeping your calorie deficit small - around 250-300 calories fewer than you currently eat per day. Continue to strength train and do cardio. Monitor your progress. If you start to see weight loss, then keep doing what you're doing. If you're not seeing progress, then decrease your daily calories by another 250 per day (for a total of a 500 calorie deficit).

      Weight loss and body transformations are a journey, and taking the slow road is often better for long-term results. Avoid restrictive diets and extreme solutions. These approaches usually yield fast results at first, but typically backfire when you stop following them. Think more about daily habits that you can stick with for the rest of your life. How can you eat a little bit healthier every day? What can you do to be a little more active this week? Asking yourself these questions, and gradually implementing lifestyle changes is the best way to get a lean, strong, and healthy body.

      I hope that helps! If you have more questions, feel free to reach out to us at support@builtlean.com.

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

      Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    no it didn't help.
    Because after all that writing you still didn't address the question I asked.
    I simply asked for advice on my actual working out that I detailed explicitly.
    I very clearly asked if I'm working out right to assist in fat burning not bulking.

    I've already got the nutrition side sorted with a nutritionist.
    So I'm OK there.
    Please answer my question properly not what you think I am asking. But what I'm actually asking.

    Cancel reply
  • Ginsling says:

    @ Heather:

    You mention your weight amounts and reps - suggest that you add in another set so aiming for 3 sets of 10 reps, then try to increase the weight (and if necessary drop back to two sets when you do this). I do heavier weights for only two sets (with 8 reps) aiming for strength (I've no chance of bulking up at age 50, female, and only weighing 53kg). I would also suggest you try running or rowing or swimming for at least 45 minutes 3 times per week with your heart rate at 60% of your max heart rate (and that will give you better results if you know your real max rather than the 220 minus your age one-size-fits-none formula).

    For the record, I train for ultra marathons, so run anywhere from 80-100+ km per week, and I don't lose muscle mass because of both the strength training, the type of interval training I do, and taking in a lot of clean protein (ps I'm vegetarian). I don't worry about calories, and I carb-restrict as well.

    Hope that helps - but it's only n=1.

    Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    stop with the nutrition advise people and answer the question!
    (sigh)

    Look at my gym plan.
    My goal is to lose weight (nutrition side is sorted)
    I've been told I'm doing strength training.

    After reading this article am I doing the right kind of strength training (high weights with low reps) to assist in fat loss...

    Or should I be doing the high reps and low weights for fat loss?

    Please please just answer the question directly

    Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    I'm going to try get the answer again...

    OK so if you read the article above you'll have seen it talk about one kind of working out building muscle and the other kind strengthening muscle.

    I am doing low reps with high weights. Which one is this going to do?
    Build or strengthen.
    And....
    Without any further nutrition advise or your personal plan and story attached...please tell me which one of those two I should be aiming for to maximise fat loss?

    Nb...I'm already eating well. I'm already doing cardio. I'm already stretching resting and drinking water.
    Please just tell me... If I'm doing low reps and high weights am I strengthening or building muscle and again.... which one of those should I be doing to assist fat loss NOT bulking up.

    I hope this is clearer.

    Cancel reply
  • Ahmed Hassan says:

    How about doing 1 month of low reps (3 sets of 5 each)- heavy wts (90% of 1rep max ) followed by 1 month of high reps(10-12) - lighter weights(70-80% of 1 rep max) ?

    Cancel reply
    • Kristin says:

      That's definitely a great way to continue to challenge your body. I would recommend flipping the model, though. Start with higher reps and moderate weight for 1 month, then transition to lower reps and heavier weights. This will help prep your body for the increased load, and can help make you more injury resistant. You want to teach your body to master the movement pattern before you challenge it with more load.
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

      Cancel reply
      • Ahmed Hassan says:

        Hi again Kristin , I did a fat % test today and I have found out that during this past 2 weeks ,heavy weight - low rep training, I gained 1.7% fat.I was 8.5% before i start and now I'm 10.2% , do u think this is normal for this routine because of the low rep range would for sure lower the calories expenditure during the workout? I think I should slightly reduce daily calorie intake during while im following this workout routine , shouldn't I? sorry for the many questions :)

        Cancel reply
      • Hassan says:

        Thanks Kristin for your reply and advice , yes I been lifting on light/moderate weights , high reps of 10-15 for almost 1 year , I gained muscles initially then I reached a plateau , before a friend suggested this 1 month-1 month alteration so now I have been doing 2 weeks on this heavy lifting and I think I'm gaining more muscles(scale is going up) hopefully it's not just fat from the reduced calories spend per day as I know high rep would burn more calories than what I'm doing now , do u have any ideas to overcome platues , I'm 81 KG , 178 CM @ 8.5% BF

        Cancel reply
        • Kristin says:

          I think you're on the right track in terms of overcoming plateaus. A big part of continually seeing progress is knowing when it's time to switch up your workouts. Our bodies adapt to a specific workout routine after about 4-6 weeks. Then, you'll want to re-evaluate your workout program, and find a way to increase the challenge. Alternating between higher reps & lower weights for 4 weeks, and lower reps & higher weights for 4 weeks is one great way to do that. You'll probably find that you're stronger and can lift more weight with ease when you return to higher rep sets after lifting heavy for awhile.

          I also think it's important to identify what your primary workout goal is. Do you want to build muscle, or lose fat. We don't recommend trying to do both at the same time. Reason being, they require different nutritional strategies. Your primary workout goal will also help you determine the best workout approach to see the results you want. Keep up the good work, and let us know how your new workout strategy is going for you.

          -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

          Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    But I've been doing the heavy weights and low reps (10 per set) for 2mths 3x a week. So I don't need to transition into it.
    But, do I need to go slowly on how I decrease the weights?
    Say drop 5kg each time until I've dropped half the total over a month... Or can I just start low weight high reps tonight?
    Annnnd...how many reps make it high? I'm already doing 10 so would 15 be enough or should I go higher?

    Cancel reply
    • Kristin says:

      Hey Heather - I would consider 10-15 reps to be in the higher range. Lower reps tend to be in the 3-6 rep range, which is more about increasing your muscular strength. I would actually recommend that you do the opposite. Instead of trying to go higher rep, increase your weights and do lower rep. For example, for the next 3-4 week, work in the 6-8 rep range. Going super heavy (in the 3-5 rep range) is pretty advanced and comes with higher risk of injury. I would only play around with that rep range if you're working with a strength coach or trainer. You'll want to be 100% certain you're doing your exercises with perfect form & technique when lifting that much weight.

      After lifting in the 6-8 rep range for a few weeks, you can return to the 10-15 rep range. You'll probably find that you can comfortably lift more weights this time. Give that at try, and let us know how it goes for you!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

      Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    And going that way, 6-8 would I do 2 or 3 sets?

    that's for weight loss not making me the hulk right?

    Thanks this is good stuff

    Cancel reply
    • Kristin says:

      If fat & weight loss is your goal, you'll want to eat a calorie reduced diet. As long as you're eating fewer calories than you burn, you shouldn't put on bulk. That said, you're the best gauge of your body and how it responds to your workouts. Some women do build muscle easier than others. If you tend to fall more in that category, then pay attention to how your body is responding to your workouts. If you're not seeing the results you want, then switch up your workout program.

      Now, as for your question, you could do either 2 or 3 sets. Take enough rest between sets to recovery adequately. The point here is max strength, so rest is key. Try it out, and let me know how it goes for you!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

      Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    Brilliant thanks!!
    Off to the gym now for my final workout of the week. So will try this see how it feels!
    Yes definitely eating clean. Although I don't buy into low fat products. I just substitute for naturally lower in fat items. Eg.. Cream for coconut milk... Sugar for stevia... cream cheese for cottage etc.
    I'm always worried about what synthetic crap goes into low fat stuff.
    I eat high protein, low carbs low sugar and make a point of eating my "rainbow" of veges/fruit with each meal.
    So, every meal has to have at least 4 colour mixes.
    I try to eat all 7 colours throughout the day.
    OK so last question before I head off...
    Abdomin workout...same theory as above? 6-8?
    Or because it's mostly Swiss ball or floor work do I go for high reps?

    And what is L-cartinine?
    Should I use?

    Cancel reply
  • Heather says:

    hey Kristen,

    So I did the low reps of 8 x2 sets higher weights.
    Q
    Weird fail.
    During the workout yes it was really hard in a different way.
    But..i am now experiencing no muscle pump or tension only an hour later.
    So I got to the point of failure faster with heavier weights but it does not have that cool burn and swelling after that makes you know it's been worked.
    So I'll try 3 sets of 8 on Monday and see if that's better.
    Otherwise I'm guessing 10 is my magic number?
    I'm lifting 45kg with arms and 75kg with legs.
    I like that pain after. Feels weird to have no muscle pump at all when I was red in the face panting doing it

    Cancel reply