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Home » OSL Blog » Low Reps Vs High Reps: Which Gives Best Results?

Low Reps Vs High Reps: Which Gives Best Results?

November 2, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. When it comes to low reps vs high reps, the winner will be dependent on the goals you have in the gym.
  2. Working on your muscle strength, mass, and endurance will all need different weight ranges and rep volumes.
  3. If you want to cut to get lean or lose unwanted fat, there are also different rep volumes and weight loads to consider.
  4. Each person is different and results will vary; consider keeping a log of your workout routine and diet to see what works best for you.

Are you frustrated by a lack of muscle mass even though you work out frequently?

Or have you been holding on to the last few pounds that just won’t budge?

Confused about whether low reps vs high reps are better to help you meet your goal?

Today, we’re going to take some of the most common goals, and break them down. We’ll try to determine which works best, low reps or high reps, for:

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle mass
  • Muscle strength
  • Cutting
  • Muscle endurance

But first, we need to go over a few things before we get into the battle of low reps vs high reps.

Before We Begin

Throughout this article, we’re going to talk about different muscle fibers and the percentage of reps per minute. Let’s go into a little more detail on each of these and then we’ll dive into what’s best for your goals.

Muscle Fibers

There are two main types of muscle fibers that make up your muscle tissue. They each have different roles and activate at different times. 

  • Type I muscle fibers: These are also called slow-twitch muscle fibers. They are the first activated when a muscle is engaged, so they have a low activation threshold. These muscle fibers are slower to fatigue and endurance-based.
  • Type II muscle fibers: These are the fast-twitch muscle fibers. Activated once the force is too great on the slow-twitch fibers. They are quicker to fatigue but have greater power and strength to pick up heavier loads. More type II fibers are used during explosive movements and require longer rest periods.

The Strength-Endurance Continuum is a visual representation of the relationship between strength and endurance.

It demonstrates that strength is increased by high weight at low reps and endurance by low weight and high reps.

Reps Per Set

  • Strength: 1-5
  • Hypertrophy: 6-12
  • Endurance: 15+

% of 1RPM

  • Strength: 80-90%
  • Hypertrophy: 60-80%
  • Endurance: >40%

Your 1RPM is the maximum amount of weight you can lift in one rep for each type of exercise.

Whatever that number is, you’ll do a percentage of that for a designated number of reps and sets. The weight used will be different for everyone based on the 1RPM.

If you need help figuring out the percentage of each rep, enter your 1RPM here and it will be calculated.

Your Goal: Weight Loss

When it comes to weight loss, most people have a certain number as a goal. For many, this is not realistic or attainable.

Overweight Person at Gym

Depending on what you’re doing to actually lose weight, you might never see that number on the scale. 

  • Are you just changing your diet? 
  • Are you exercising too? 
  • What type of exercise are you doing?

If you are trying to lose weight through diet alone, then you might be able to see that number. But if you are also exercising, especially lifting weights, it’s much harder. 

Remember, muscle weighs more than fat.

If you are simultaneously losing fat while gaining muscle, the scale isn’t going to move much. To really determine if you are losing weight by losing fat, you have to do body measurements. 

Start where you are now, measure each of your body parts, and track them weekly or every two weeks. You should start noticing changes within the first few weeks.

3 Bodies Showing Muscle

Take body measurements of each body part:

  • Neck
  • Chest
  • Arms
  • Waist
  • Hips
  • Thighs 
  • Calves

Don’t rely on the scale, rely on the changes your body is making to achieve your weight loss goal. Some parts (like your arms and legs) may increase in size as you build muscle, while others (your stomach) will decrease.

Measuring your waist

Now, when it comes to weight loss, should you do more reps or more weight?

What Does the Research Say?

While losing weight, you want to maintain any muscle that you do have while gaining strength. This is why you can’t rely on the scale for a true picture of your weight loss success.

For long-term weight loss, it’s advisable to maintain your fat-free mass (muscle mass) and resting metabolic rate. Exercising will increase your energy while helping to burn the fat off faster.

Consider this study following 65 obese people, ranging in age from 19 – 48. They were divided into three different groups:

  • Diet only
  • Cardio plus Diet
  • Strength training plus diet

Their resting metabolic rate was measured, and they were put on a diet of 70% of their RMR. The study lasted for eight weeks, where the exercise groups trained three times a week.

Looking At Research

At the end of the study, each group had lost about the same amount of weight. But, in the strength training group, gains were seen:

  • Significant increase in grip strength
  • Significant increase in flexed arm muscle mass
  • The least amount of fat-free mass lost of all groups

This means that all the weight and inches lost in the strength group are mostly fat rather than muscle. A great thing for someone looking to increase their overall body composition and lose weight.

Low Reps vs High Reps for Weight Loss

So, when it comes to low reps vs high reps for weight loss, which is better? You’ll want to shoot for high reps with low weights, at least 12 – 15+ per set to optimize weight loss. 

Ideally, you’ll want to lift weights that are about half of your 1RPM (reps per minute). This will engage your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which will increase overall muscle endurance.

Light weights with slow movements will increase aerobic metabolism to fuel your fat burn.

After a few weeks, increase your weight to 60 – 80% of your 1RPM. You should be in the 6 -8 rep range at this weight, completing two to three sets total per exercise.

Man lifting Barbell

Refer back to the Strength-Endurance Continuum chart as needed when making rep changes.

If you really want to accelerate your fat-burning, consider high-intensity workouts, as a supplement to reps. These are quick, short bursts of intense exercise followed by short bursts of rest.

This will engage your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

HIIT workouts will really get your RMR going and zero in on burning fat while also engaging your muscles. Not sure where to start when it comes to eating better? Here’s our guide on how to start eating healthy

If you’ve got stubborn stomach fat to lose, make sure you check this out as well.

Your Goal: Muscle Mass

When it comes to high reps vs low reps, which do you think is better for increasing your muscle size?

If you ask bodybuilders and powerlifters, the consensus is to lift heavy weights with lower reps. While there are some who think that super high rep training with light weights is best for bodybuilding. 

Man Dead-lifting barbell

And you also have to consider muscle strength along with muscle hypertrophy (size). Do the number of reps and weight load differ when considering strength vs hypertrophy?

Consider what the research says. This meta-analysis of 21 studies set out to determine the maximal benefits of each loading range.

All of the studies lasted at least six weeks and sets were performed until momentary muscle failure. Here are the results:

  • Gains were highest in the high-load training groups
  • Hypertrophy was improved similarly under both conditions

If you want the most benefit from weight lifting to increase muscle strength, go with heavy weights and mid-range reps. If you are looking to build muscle mass, you can do either, but a combination would be even better.

Considerations to Changing up Your Routine

Changing up the weight load and rep range is beneficial for a few reasons:

  • Low reps with heavier weights increase the number of sets needed. This also increases the time spent in the gym and it puts more pressure on the joints and overall fatigue requiring more recovery time. 
  • Working the same reps and loads over time will cause you to plateau. This is also usually where people stop making progress, as the body and mind have gotten used to the routine.
  • Heavier weights with lower reps can cause problems because you eventually max out and can’t handle any more weight. If you push too much, your form could suffer and you’re at higher risk for injury.

For best results, and to reduce the risk of fatigue, plateau, and injury, change up your routine. Consider a weekly change where you rotate your workout reps:

  • Week 1: high reps, low weights 3 – 4 times per week
  • Week 2: low reps, high weights 2 – 3 times per week

Or you can even work out heavy one day, take two days off for recovery, and then go light the next gym day. Figure out what works best for you and your muscle fibers.

How Many Times per Week for Best Results?

When looking to increase your muscle size, is it best to go to the gym as much as possible? Not really.

As we’ve already discussed, your muscles need time to rest and recover from your workout. You need to have at least one day of rest in between strength training, sometimes more if you’re lifting heavy.

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We’ve looked at a few meta-analyses, and the information found seems to be pretty consistent. One session per week is better than nothing but twice or three times is even better to gain muscle.

This meta-analysis wasn’t able to find significant data that going from two to three times weekly increased muscle growth.

For optimal results in muscle strength and mass, aim to work out two to three times a week as a beginner. If you’ve been working out for a while, you might find three to four days is the sweet spot.

Those training for competitions may find that they need to work out more than four times per week.

High reps vs Low reps for Cutting

We just discussed the effects of reps and weekly volume on muscle gains, but what about cutting? Would you benefit more from low reps vs high reps when trying to cut down?

Man with Lean Muscle

If you are trying to maintain or get lean, you’ll want to reduce the weight but go with higher reps. This will ensure that you maintain the muscle you have but not increase your muscle size.

You’ll also want to consider reducing the amount of time you spend on strength training. Reducing from two or three times a week down to once or twice would help you get lean and maintain.

Make sure your diet stays in check as well. You don’t want to end up gaining unwanted fat while reducing your strength training.

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If you haven’t already, consider a different approach to nutrition, like intermittent fasting. It can help keep your weight in check, maintain muscle mass, and might get you healthier.

The cutting phase usually doesn’t last long, as most bodybuilders use it to get ready for competitions. Once the cutting phase is done, increase your time in the gym along with weight load to bulk back up.

Your Goal: Muscle Endurance

If you want to be able to increase your rep count, you have to have muscles that don’t fatigue as easily. One way to ensure you don’t tap out too soon is to build up your muscle endurance.

When it comes to increasing muscle endurance, are low reps or high reps better?

To build up your endurance, aim for high reps with light to moderate weights and short rest periods. You’ll also only want to do one to two sets since you are doing higher rep counts of 15 or more.

This will build up your slow-twitch muscle fibers to prepare you for strength and hypertrophy training.

Man Planking

Unsure if you need to improve your muscular endurance? Do you struggle to reach the number of reps you set out to do before rest is needed? Chances are you can stand to improve your endurance.

There are also several tests you can do to see what your current muscular endurance is. 

Ideally, you can work on both your muscle endurance and strength at the same time. Focus on the high reps with light weights for a few weeks if you feel you need to build up your endurance.

Afterwards you can switch to heavier weights with lower reps and longer rest periods to increase strength gains.

Everyone is an Individual, Results may vary

No matter what, not everyone will have the same results. Some may find more benefit in doing low reps for more sets. Others might get better results using high reps with fewer sets.

Muscular Man Flexing

There are a lot of factors that go into this, mainly:

  • Genetics
  • Current muscle size
  • The amount and type of fat you have to lose
  • Body type
  • Hormone levels
  • Metabolic rate
  • Muscle fiber composition
  • Diet (this is a big one)

The information we provide today is not universal, so your results may vary. 

If you find that you are doing the “right” thing but not seeing results, it might be time to talk with your doctor. They may be able to shed some light on your personal factors listed above. 

The more you know about your own health, the more likely you can get results to meet your goals.  Things like hormone imbalances, body type, and types of fat in your body can be the reason you’re not seeing results.

Bodybuilder Flexing Bicep

You also can’t expect to see results immediately. Building muscle mass and strength as well as losing unwanted fat takes time. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see results within the first few weeks of making a change.

The best thing you can do for success is:

  • Set realistic goals
  • Track your progress (or lack thereof)
  • Eat a healthy diet

Tracking will probably give you the best insight into your health and what would work best for you.

To track your progress, take notes of what you did for each work out:

  • Number of reps and corresponding weight loads
  • Types of exercises
  • Days you worked out
  • Body composition changes and inches lost or gained

Is there a Battle Winner?

When it comes to the battle of low reps vs high reps, does one beat the other? It does, depending on your goals.

Let’s recap what we learned today about reps to help you meet your goals:

  • Best reps for weight loss: low weight with high reps for weight loss, and then increase weight load after a few weeks.
  • Best reps for muscle strength: low reps with heavy weights, best to stick within the 3 – 8 rep range. If you are just starting out, max out at 6 reps and then build-up to the mid-range.
  • Best reps for muscle mass: a combination of low reps and high reps. Stick with heavier weights during low reps and then switch to lighter weights when doing high reps. Change up your reps weekly for the best results.
  • Best reps for cutting: high reps with low weights, keeping your diet in check so as not to gain weight or reduce wanted muscle mass.
  • Best reps for muscle endurance: high reps with low weights and short rest periods. If you feel you need to increase your endurance, focus on this for a few weeks and then work on your strength and mass.

Remember, you don’t want to do weight training more than three times per week. Two to three times is going to be the magic number, and always include a rest day in between.

Your schedule will ultimately be up to you. If you need help with your weight loads, then refer back to the Strength-Endurance Continuum and use your 1RPM scale.

What do you think about the battle between low reps vs high reps? Do you agree with our battle winners for each goal? Do you have anything to add? Let us know in the comments below!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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