High Reps vs Low Reps, Does it Matter?
High Reps vs Low Reps, Which should I choose? This is a very common question I get from my students and readers of my blog. "Hector, I've heard I should do higher reps with a lower weight to tone up and build lean muscle?"
Then on the other hand I I get, "Hector, I was told to NOT do higher reps with a lower weight, but to do lower reps with a heavier weight?"
Do you see how confusing this can be?
Actually both sides are correct, actually.
First we must always ask ourselves, What's the goal? Building absolute strength? Build lean muscle?
Before we get started on the whole "high reps vs low reps" topic, lets clear something up...
...If health, symmetry, and mobility are not a concern, strength should always be your first priority.
Do not worry about getting more conditioned by adding more cardio.
Do not worry about further increasing your flexibility (unless your sport requires it). Your priority should ALWAYS be strength!
Now that we have that clear...
When it comes to high reps vs low reps, both sides are correct.
To increase lean muscle to shred body fat, you need to increase your volume. To get stronger and build maximal strength, again you need to increase your volume.
You're probably wondering what I mean by volume?
Volume is simply the sum of your reps and sets.
Low reps / strength building, you want to keep your reps no more than 5 repetitions, maybe 6, anything higher is body building (there's nothing wrong with body building).
Again depends on your goals.
Higher reps to build lean muscle (Hypertrophy)
You do need to do higher reps, but not necessarily higher reps in each set.
You still want to keep your reps to 3-5 maybe 6 (again strength is priority). But you're just gonna do more sets. So you need to increase your volume.
Lean muscle is gained by increasing your volume (reps and sets) in the 55-65% zones of intensity e.g., lets say you can front squat (FSQ) a pair of 32kg bells for 10 reps (10 rep max i.e., 10RM).
To build lean muscle with this max, here is how you would program it with the same pair of bells.
Like I said muscle hypertrophy (building muscle) is built in the 55-65% zones.
You will still keep your reps to 3-6. If you choose the top end of the recommended repetitions, that will put you perfectly in the 60% zone of intensity. 6 reps is 60% of 10 reps.
So you will perform multiple sets of 3-6 reps.
Sample workout: To build muscle
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Perform as many sets of 3-6 possible in that time frame.
- Keep your rest periods short e.g., 60-90 seconds. This will keep the heart rate elevated which leads to a large energy expenditure.
- Pause for 2-3 seconds between each lift. This will increase your time under tension (another muscle building tactic) by forcing yourself to hold the bells longer, creating an even great energy expenditure.
Another tactic to put on slabs of lean muscle is to...
Increase density by performing more reps in the same time frame or the same reps in less time.
As you gradually increase density each session over the course of lets say, 4 weeks, you can trigger a really nice fat loss effect by creating a greater calorie burn.
Rapid fat loss!
Essentially density is doing more work (volume) in the same time frame or the same work in less time and...
...if you have a CRAZY busy schedule, density is your friend!
Lower reps for strength (Maximal strength).
Maximal strength is gained by increasing your volume in the 75-80% zones of intensity.
Now this does not mean these will be the only weights you will be using, but the majority of your volume should be based around these percentages.
To increase your maximal strength, lets say you wanted to increase your 1 rep max (1RM) in the kettlebell front squat (FSQ).
Using a similar example above, and you have a 1RM in the FSQ with a pair of 32kg bells.
Here's how you would program this to build the 1RM for the FSQ.
First you would want to establish your number of lifts (reps). Then we need to find a bell or a couple of bells that land in the 75-80% zones.
24kg is exactly 75% of 32kg. This is where you would place the majority of your time. Your lifts per set will be the same: 3-6. You will just perform multiple sets of 3-6.
Sample workout: For Strength
- (75%) 24kg (3,4,5,6) x 2
This is what we call a ladder or pyramid. These are great programming tools to get in a lot of volume without over fatiguing the central nervous system (CNS).
Notice I kept the reps in the range of 3-6.
In this session you performed 36 total lifts. That's A LOT of squats in one session, but it doesn't feel like much during training because as you peak the pyramid with 6, you start over at 2 for the next pyramid.
For strength compared to building muscle you want to increase your rest periods. Typically between 2-5 min of rest. But I highly recommend you perform the next set when you're ready.
Perform Fast and Loose drills between sets.
This is basically "shaking out your arms and legs". This helps to shake out the tension that you will be creating during the lift.
Imagine a swimmer or boxer right before a round or lap. Notice how they bounce up and down and stay loose?
You will do the same thing between sets.
So, you see, the whole high reps vs low reps is an important factor. It simply depends on your goals.
To gain lean muscle you need more volume in the 55-65% zones, only you will break up the volume into multiple sets of 3-6. This allows you to build muscle while focusing on strength.
To build absolute strength you need more volume in the 75-80% zones broken up into multiple sets of 3-5.
At the end of the day, strength is priority!
The stronger you become, the more weight you can lift, the more weight you can lift, the more energy you expend, the more energy you expend, the greater the opportunity for fat loss.
It's that simple 🙂 high reps vs low reps