High reps vs. low reps: Which one is better for you?

We chatted to our in-house exercise scientist, Brooke MacDonald.

By Brooke MacDonald • 3 years ago • HEALTH & FITNESS


There are some debates out there that may never be settled, like smooth peanut butter vs. crunchy peanut butter. I mean, if you ask me – crunchy peanut butter all the way! However, as an exercise scientist, the one I always get asked about is “high reps vs. low reps” and which one is “better”. There is an abundance of research out there, spanning many years, all trying to find a “definite” answer.

But really, we can settle this right now. When it comes to working out which rep scheme you should be doing… the answer is: BOTH! So, lets break it down:

How do you classify what’s considered ‘high’ and ‘low’ in terms of reps and what’s considered ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ when it comes to weights?

A low rep range is anything between 1 to 6-8 reps.

A high rep range is anything from 6 to 8 reps, all the way to 20+

A light weight is around 40-50% of your 1 RM.

A heavy weight is 80-90% of your 1 RM.

A 1RM or “One Repetition Max” is the maximum amount of weight that one can lift, push or pull for a given exercise.

What are the effects of a high rep / light weight style of training versus a low rep / heavy weight session?

When it comes to resistance training, you can build muscle and increase strength or endurance with just about any rep range. However, some rep ranges are more optimal than others for each training outcome.

Higher repetitions with a lighter weight have been found to be better at improving endurance as our Type 1 muscle fibres (slow twitch) are developed due to the muscle being under tension for longer and being slower to fatigue.

Low repetitions with heavy weight are more optimal in increasing strength as our Type 2 muscle fibres (fast twitch) are activated as they have greater power abilities but fatigue quicker. And let’s remember that building strength does not necessarily mean building BIG muscles (wink, wink!).

Therefore, as repetitions decrease there is a gradual transition from endurance to strength.

If your goal is fat loss and definition, which one should you be doing?

Both! A combination of heavy strength training with low reps and high repetition metabolic conditioning with lighter weight is the most effective and scientifically proven way to lose fat and maintain muscle!

People often think that exclusively using lighter weights and higher reps is the best way to lose fat. While a high rep with light weight session can create a muscular response, it does not necessarily cause a greater fat loss compared with low reps and heavy weight.

There is a need for more studies in comparing this, however, there is considerable evidence to show that it’s not necessarily about the amount of weight, nor the number of reps, but the intensity of the workout. The goal when it comes to fat loss, is to create muscular failure with less rest between exercises, which can have a huge effect on the metabolic, hormonal and calorie burning systems.

When it comes to rep schemes, what does ‘training in the middle’ mean?

“Training in the middle” is the term thrown around when we default to training in the 8,10,12 rep range all the time. That is, always training with the same set or rep scheme with the same intensity, at every work out. It is important to have a program that uses all rep and set schemes as this will provide adaptations for both the neural system and also the metabolic system. Training in the middle all the time will cause no improvements or changes and the body will just plateau.

How do you determine which rep scheme is better for you?

Choosing the most accurate rep scheme for yourself is completely dependent on your goals. Whether you are wanting to build endurance and develop lean muscle mass, improve your speed and power, or increase your strength, these are all things that need to be considered. It is best to sit down with a coach and talk about the goals you are looking to achieve, to be given the best program.

For all programs, it is suggested to include a range of different rep schemes, as different systems will be activated building overall physical fitness. When it comes to beginners who are just starting out with weight training, sticking to a lighter weight for 8-12 reps will allow the body to develop correct movement patterns and reduce the chance of injury or poor technique.

Is it possible to combine the two rep schemes in one session?

Yes, of course! Combing the two rep schemes will help stimulate a maximum amount of muscle fibres (both fast twitch and slow twitch) to help burn fat and improve overall strength and fitness.

There are a few ways to implement this into your workout:

  1. Complete one exercise with low reps and a completely different exercise with high reps. For e.g. Heavy squat x 5, straight into walking lunges x 20.
  2. Start out with higher reps (15+) and go down in reps every set whilst the weight gets heavier.
  3. Have the first half of the session with a low rep scheme, focusing on strength, then finish off the session with a high rep scheme, focusing on endurance.

At what point in your training do you need to adapt or change your rep scheme?

During exercise, you are putting stress on the body and during recovery your body is improving its ability to handle this stress. Yay! You are getting fitter! However, the result is that you are able to manage your workouts easier and the adaptations are no longer progressing. Damn! This is why we do need to change the workout regularly. The exact point in which we should change our workout does varies from individual to individual (depending on our fitness level, our commitment, our goals and our body type). We should typically switch up our workout every 6-8 weeks. We need to have small micro progression or changes throughout the 6-8 week program.

The easiest thing is to remember is the FIIT principle:

Frequency (how often you train)

Intensity (how hard you train, sets and reps)

Time (how long you train for)

Type (type of exercise undertaken)

Change up two of the principles every two weeks, depending on your goal, and you will progress in the right direction.

Exercise Scientist (BExSc), F45 Instructor
Follow @brookiem5

With a bachelor’s degree in exercise science behind her, Brooke has spent many years in the fitness industry, devoted to helping people on their path to wellness through strength, conditioning and rehabilitation. Coming from a strong track and field background, she has developed a love for all things health and fitness. Her passion is driven from her belief that exercise acts as a form of medicine and she tries to promote and educate this throughout her every encounter. Her love for sneakers and runners is also a little bit obsessive…

Main image credit: Nike



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