High Reps or Low Reps for Fat Loss?

Tony Bonvechio
by Tony Bonvechio
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High Reps or Low Reps for Fat Loss?

Some debates may never be settled, like: “To-MAY-to” versus “to-MAH-to.” Creamy versus chunky peanut butter. Strawberry jam versus grape jelly.

It’s probably no surprise that the most heated debates usually involve food, but there’s a hotly debated topic that comes up a lot in the fitness world: Is it better to use light weights and high repetitions or heavy weights and low repetitions for fat loss?

Let’s settle this right now. The answer is… both!

That answer may seem like a cop-out, but it’s accurate. A combination of heavy strength training and high-repetition metabolic conditioning is the most effective and scientifically proven way to lose fat and maintain muscle. Here’s why.


Fact: Light weights with high reps alone don’t tone muscle or burn fat.

People often use light weights and high reps exclusively when aiming to lose fat, but this is a huge mistake — especially if you want to have toned muscles, because lifting weights doesn’t stimulate muscles enough for fat loss. Focused nutrition and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) take care of fat loss, while strength training will help you keep the muscle you already have. That said, to maintain the most muscle possible, you have to lift weights that are heavy enough to convince your body that it still needs that muscle tissue.

Do: Use light weights and high reps, but not in the traditional sense of weightlifting. Instead, do full-body exercises in a circuit, performing high reps with limited rest. See HIIT methods below for examples.



Fact: Heavy weights build strength, which helps you maintain muscle while losing fat.

Lifting heavy weights with low reps won’t help you lose much weight, but it will help you maintain hard-earned muscle while losing fat. High reps (12 or more reps per set) build muscular endurance but don’t really build strength. Sets in the 3–10 rep range work best for keeping the muscle you already have, then HIIT helps strip away the fat tissue on top of those muscles.

A landmark study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that overweight individuals who lifted weights while dieting lost significantly less muscle mass than subjects who only performed aerobic exercise while following the same diet. The kicker: The subjects who lifted weights and the subjects who did cardio lost the same amount of weight overall.

The lesson? Resistance training using moderate to heavy weights gives your body a reason to hold onto muscle tissue. In the end, the weight you lose will be more fat than muscle.

Do: Lift weights 2–3 times per week, using compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, pushups and rows. Do 3–10 reps per set, and stop each set 1–2 reps shy of failure.


Fact: Straight cardio burns more calories during the workout than lifting weights, but HIIT burns more calories overall because it raises your metabolism for several hours after your workout.

The most efficient way to lose fat fast is to create as large a metabolic disturbance as possible during your workouts. In plain English, you want to push your body to its limit with quick bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of incomplete rest. That’s the premise behind HIIT, and it’s hands-down more effective than traditional cardio for fat loss.

Some solid examples of HIIT methods include:

Do: Perform HIIT 2–3 times per week for 15–30 minutes. Push yourself hard! This is where the “light weight, high reps” approach actually works.


In the end, nutrition has the biggest impact on overall weight loss, but using a combination of strength training (heavy weights, low reps) and HIIT (light weights, high reps) can help you lose more fat and keep more muscle. To summarize:

  • Maintain a subtle calorie deficit to ensure you lose weight gradually (and use the MyFitnessPal app to track your calories for better results).
  • Eat enough protein to maintain muscle (about 1 gram per pound of body weight).
  • Lift moderate to heavy weights for sets of 3–8 reps 2–3 times per week to maintain muscle mass.
  • Perform high-intensity interval training 2–3 times per week to stimulate fat loss.

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio
Tony Bonvechio

Tony Bonvechio (@bonvecstrength) is the co-owner of The Strength House in Worcester, MA, where he trains primarily powerlifters and team sport athletes. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at bonvecstrength.com.


15 responses to “High Reps or Low Reps for Fat Loss?”

  1. Avatar Jodi says:

    This is, BY FAR, the clearest, most complete explanation of how exercise is related to weight loss that I have ever read. You make it “simple” without oversimplifying it. Awesome! Thank you for this!

  2. Avatar Don says:

    It boils down to burning off more than you take in, or take in less than you normally burn off.

  3. Avatar Leslie Napolitano says:

    Actually, your protein intake should be 0.8-1 gm per kg (not pound) of body weight.

  4. Avatar davedave12 says:

    weight loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise (maybe 90/10) common sense I can easily eat 1000 calories of junk before I could come close to burning 100 calories with exercise — small portions of nutritionally dense food — avoid fried stuff, baked goods, white foods (starches I mean – fish good) — toss in a little exercise, you will lose weight —– the only thing that is hard is the discipline — remember when you were little and your mom said – don’t fill up on bread

    • Avatar Jeremy says:

      In a HIIT workout, I burn a minimum of 900 calories in 60 minutes, and have hit just under 1100 calories in that hour. Women usually can burn around 400 to 500 in that same time. I personally haven’t changed my diet much at all and have lost 50 pounds in 6 months. I’m not sure where you are getting your numbers from, but based on my experience they are not even close to accurate.

      • Avatar davedave12 says:

        trying reading again I said anyone can eat more calories than they can burn so diet is more important — obvious If you burn your 1100 calories in an hour, then go to McDonalds, you can eliminate the benefit of you hour long work out in 10 minutes —- then number of people who can do HIIT for one hour is very small

      • Avatar davedave12 says:

        you can eat more calories faster than you can ever burn them — so what goes in is more important than what you burn — simple math

      • Avatar Nick Fergadis Giannakopoulos says:

        The thing is, you haven’t changed your caloric intake while taking up HIIT. What davedave says is, and his numbers don’t have to be accurate, is that you can run&jump around all you want, but then you can have a couple of burgers and milkshakes and negate all this caloric expenditure in just a few minutes.

  5. Avatar Anthony Bull, PhD, CSCS says:

    Tony, Do you have any peer-reviewed references for your statement that HITT burns more calories than cardiorespiratory training, including EPOC? Especially if both are at the same intensity.

  6. Avatar David Nickum says:

    Cardio does burn more than weight training just track the numbers. My tempo runs are under one hour and it burns 800+ calories. I hate when people say “cardio” because it’s a broad statement.

  7. Avatar jcgadfly says:

    Not doing HIIT but it’s the same effect (lighter weight, higher volume, little rest betwen sets). It’s a friend’s variation of German Volume Training.(10×10 1-2 minutes rest)

  8. Avatar Sandra C says:

    Great article; but I’m not a fan of HIIT. I walk, watch what I eat (most days), and go to Les Mills bodypump classes. I’ve trimmed down significantly in the last year and can see muscle mass now. Now I want to gain more muscle mass; so will lifting heavier on off bodypump days help with that goal?

  9. Avatar Sean McManus says:

    Only thing that leads to fat burning is having your glycogen stores depleted so you body uses fat as an energy source. This is most easily done by not having any calories for over 12 hours. Not weight lifting light or heavy weights. I restrict calories intake 18-22 hours a day and it’s extrwmely easily to see the fat that has been burned away as energy to get through the day

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