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High Reps vs Low Reps for Weight Loss

dumbbell durlsYou’ve probably already heard the supposed idea that you should use low reps to build muscle/strength, and use high reps to lose fat. Is that actually true? Does exercising in a higher rep range help you lose more fat?

Using High Reps for Weight Loss

The whole idea of using high reps for weight loss came about from the idea the you should turn your strength training workouts into more of a cardio workout when you want to lose weight. Instead of doing 5-10 reps per set, people would do 10-20 (or more) reps. Usually, they would accompany this higher rep range with a decrease in rest time between sets. Good idea?

Absolutely! However, there are some drawbacks with this method. Most importantly, you run the risk of losing muscle mass when in a calorie deficit. Reducing the amount of weight you lift increases the chance of muscle loss. When trying to cut body fat, keeping your strength levels up should be a major priority. As you know, muscle is your best friend when it comes to maintaining a healthy metabolism.

Using Low Reps for Weight Loss

You might be surprised to know this, but yes – you can lose fat lifting weights in a low rep range. Sure, lifting in rep ranges of 3-6 reps might be geared more towards strength gains, but that doesn’t mean you won’t gain muscle or lose fat in the process. With an increase in strength, there is usually a corresponding increase in musculature – so long as your calorie intake is supporting that goal.

Muscle and Fat are 2 Different Entities

I like to look at muscle and fat as 2 different entities. After all, they are. I also like to focus my exercise on building/maintaining muscle and improving cardiovascular fitness, and using nutrition to manipulate body fat levels.

Many people like to use exercise to manipulate both. There is nothing wrong with that, but using exercise for both means you won’t be able to fully optimize both strength and fat loss goals.

Separate Your Fitness Into 3 Categories

A better way to look at your fitness program is to separate it into 3 different sections – strength training, cardio, and nutrition (rest/recovery is the 4th, but we’re talking “active” sections right now). Then, you can fully focus on each one.

It is entirely possible to combine both strength training and cardio into one workout, just understand that this will come at the expense of maximizing both strength and endurance. It’s difficult to put 100% into both strength and endurance training in a single workout. One goal is bound to suffer at the expense of the other.

Low Reps vs High Reps for Fat Loss

I periodize my workouts so that I’m using all types of rep ranges. Some workouts I focus more on strength in the 3-5 rep range, and other times I work on speed-strength where I work on pushing/pulling the bar at a high velocity. This rep range is in the 10 area.

On non-strength training days, I work specifically on my cardiovascular training. I might do some trail running or run a 5K. Or I might do some high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Sometimes I just walk.

If working out a certain way got you the muscle you have, stick with it and just manipulate your diet to drop the fat. I bet you’ll get to your goal much more effectively.

  • Laura

    Thanks Coach! Another great post. I get so confused on which I should do since there is so much information out there and I am attempting to build muscle while losing fat which, according to some experts, is very difficult to accomplish. Thank you!

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Laura,

      Yes, there is a lot of info out there. It gets confusing because 90% of it works. Your best bet would be to pick something and stick to it for a while. Give it at least a month to really gauge if it’s working. The problem happens when you try something and then read something somewhere else that you think is “better”. You end up changing your program up to incorporate your newest read. That cycle continues to the point of confusion, which eventually leads to people giving up all together.

      Pick it and stick it.

    • Neel Joshi

      Hi Laura, I think that it is possible to simultaneously lose fat and build muscle if you are relatively new to lifting and have a fair amount of fat to lose. As you become more lean, however, it will be harder, so you might want to focus on one at a time.

      If you want to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, I would recommend eating a little under maintenance, but not too much (I would say no more than a 500 Calorie deficit). Then make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet, and continue to lift. You should be able to see changes in the mirror in short order.

  • jvinijvini

    I really love this common sense site! I’ve read so much over the years and tried so many exercise regimens. I’ve been fit, but unhappy doing unsustainable workouts. I’ve settled on a short eccentric workout on Mondays, 20 minute HIIT on Tuesday rest Wednesday and Thursday and quick push and pull on Friday and HIIT again on Saturday. I’m going from 6 days/week down to four and from 6 hours a week to about 2. Much happier, more effective. So far, so good! Thanks coach!

    • Coach Calorie

      Glad to hear it Jeff!

  • Bronwyn Soutar

    It is very confusing what to do with losing fat, your advice has saved me from going insane. So many other articles telling me that I will have a flat tummy in 4 weeks etc..but you have said that I need to get rid of the fat first to see the muscle that is my tummy and you can’t spot train. I read somewhere recently that women can’t bulk up from weight training so their goal should be to build muscle. It said that if you want to build up your strenght go heavy weights with low reaps, but if you want to build muscle do lower weight and more reaps. The article moitivated me more to get into the gym. Now I’m confused..

    • Coach Calorie

      It sounds like you have the hang of things. Yes, heavier weights will typically build more strength, and more volume “can” be better for hypertrophy. They both have a place in your training program, and can both be used to lose weight.

  • Lewis Lydon

    To sum it up I guess you could say “cross training” perhaps??? Varying the types/durations of exercise should give all round benefits??

    • Coach Calorie

      Cross training will certainly make you a well-rounded “athlete”.

  • Brenda

    What is best for a woman aged 50, menopausal with 100lbs to lose?

  • Theresa

    i keep reading about how many reps to do, but never how many sets…can you address that please? Thanks

  • Coach Calorie

    A combination of high and low reps.

  • miss mo

    I LOVE your website! I’m am getting back into weight training… and fitness… after a lengthy break. Before i became ill, i used to do boxing, kickboxing, cycling, bootcamp, and weight lifting, 6 days a week. Now i am finally well enough to be active again (with a few limits and modifications), but i love strength training and am excited to get back to it. But i’m confused about what to do? I’d like to start out with doing it only 3 days a week, full body to lose weight and increase strength, and focus on my cardio the other 4 days. But do i do low reps with high weight? Or cycle between days of low reps/high weight, med reps/med weight, and high reps/low weight? I also still do kickboxing, cycling, bike/trail riding, and am adding in jogging, yoga and pilates. I need a little more cardio right now because i’ll be doing my first ever 5K obstacle coarse in 6 weeks!

  • Coach Calorie

    7 days of exercise is a bit much. Why not start off with 3 days of strength training and a day of cardio. If you want to prioritize your 5k training, take a look at this training plan –

  • Coach Calorie

    Training programs have to be designed with an end goal in mind. There are no blanket answers. Some people can get away with a single set to failure while others like high volume training.