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Can low rep sets work for fat loss?

Ok, first of all so let me begin by apologizing for my absence from this blog for over a month now. Ever since I started writing online articles since 2010, I have never gone this long without posting something on my site. And contrary to what my good friend Sean Casey might have told you about me enjoying the Valentine month for a bit too long (ha ha, you can get me later for this Sean), the truth is that I needed a little break after KKM. And to be honest, I will probably take it easy for this month too. Nope, no writer's block for me yet, but just taking it easy for sometime to recharge the writer in me so that I can come back and provide more useful stuff for you to benefit from.

Anyways, enough about me, now lets move onto the topic for the day. For a lot of us when you mention weight training for fat loss, the first thought that comes to mind is light weights and high reps. Automatically people think of a lot of crunches, leg extensions, cable crossovers, and other such isolation exercises. I am not really sure how the concept of light weights and high reps became so popular for fat loss, but I can tell you that it is NOT the best way to go for the majority of the population out there.

Bodybuilders are the only athletes that consistently and successfully employ the light weights and high rep method before a competition to burn fat and get ripped. This however does not mean that it will work for you too. Let me explain. You see a a 260 pound bloated bodybuilder is not the same as a 260 pound obese person of the same height. A bodybuilder has a lot more muscle mass hidden beneath those outer pounds of fat. His metabolism is not slow and sluggish like a regular obese person, and an intake of a couple of extra hundred calories a day is more likely to add to his muscle mass, rather than fat. An off season bodybuilder is fat because he is eating waaaaay much more than what his body needs, think atleast 1000 extra calories. On the other hand, the average obese person has a terrible metabolism where even if he eats a couple of extra hundred calories then he will add it straight to his bodyfat.

However, the real reason why bodybuilders need to lift lighter weights before a contest is due to the fact that it is not possible to lift the huge weights that they have built upto in the mass building phase, while eating lesser calories in the cutting phase. For eg, a big bodybuilder might eat like 5000 calories a day in the mass building phase while squatting 500+ pounds. However, for the same individual it becomes almost impossible to lift such a heavy a weight when he cuts down to 2500 calories a day, simply because his body can no longer recover from such a high intensity workout while on a restricted diet . On the other hand, the average obese person, has not been training, and will struggle to probably even squat 10 times with his own bodyweight. Thus there is no real case of losing strength while cutting calories for the regular obese guy, unless he really starves himself too much.

As, I have said before that the regular obese or overweight person does not have a high metabolism. And when it comes to weights, very light weights does nothing to boost your actual resting metabolism. Your body can only respond to the intensity that it is being subjected to. So its not like if you touch a light weight, then your body can sense it, and decides that since the weight is light, thus it must automatically go into a fat burning mode, or if your body senses that its a heavy weight, then it goes into a bulking up mode. That kind of theory is an absolute piece of junk! The truth is that if your body has to struggle to lift a weight, then it realizes the need to get stronger, and this forces your body to make some changes, which causes it to increase your resting metabolism. Well, atleast that is the simplest way for me to put it.

That being said, it would be unfair to say that doing heavy single rep sets of squats would be as good for hyping your metabolism as sets of 10 rep squats would be. Ideally your muscles need to spend some time under tension during a set to to increase your metabolism. So then what is the ideal rep range, and how low is too low?

First of all, lets determine what is a low rep set. The simplest definition would be sets of single and double reps. However some would say that anything below 8 is a low rep set, and some would say that anything below 10 is a low rep set. While everyone will have their own definition of a low rep set, my personal view is that anything below 6 reps is a low rep set. 6-12 for me is a moderate rep range, and above 12 would be a high rep set.

Now first of all let me make it clear that when you want to lose fat, your diet is the number one factor that determines your success. But when it comes to training I will have to say that very low rep sets like singles and doubles are not ideal, and are actually going too low to create visual physical changes. As I mentioned before that your muscles do need to spend some time under tension in a set for them to become a better fat burning machine. This is why I feel that anything below 5 reps is going too low for fat loss. You can maybe do some exercises like dumbbell snatches for sets of 3 or 4 reps, but with most exercises anything less than 5 reps is going too low.

So before you start running towards the higher side of the moderate range, i.e 10-12 reps, let me inform you that being on the lower side (5-7 reps) might actually be better for you, especially if you are new to weight training. You see when you are new to weight training you really need to pay attention to your form. And in major compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, etc it is very easy to lose track of proper form and do it in a dangerous manner when doing higher reps. On the other hand, lower rep sets like 5-7 reps give you a chance to work hard while being able to focus on learning good form. So in such cases lower rep sets are actually better for you, even if fat loss is your goal.

There is however one major factor that you need to consider when planning to do low rep sets for fat loss, and that is the rest between sets. Generally when strength athletes do sets of 5 or lesser reps, they take upto 3 and sometimes even 5 minutes between sets. While that much rest is actually needed when you are trying to gain maximum strength, for fat loss purposes such a long a rest period would be too long for best results. So in the case of fat loss, even if you do sets of 5 reps, you need to keep the rest to around 60-90 seconds, and maybe a max of 2 minutes for your heaviest exercise like squats. And since you will be taking less rest, you will also be forced to take relatively lighter weights than what you would have taken if you had rested 4 minutes between sets. I would also like to mention here that if you do low rep sets, then dont do very few sets like just one or two sets for that exercise. Do 3 or more sets if you are doing low reps. Ideally 4-5 sets would be good for fat burning in this case. Since you will not be lifting very heavy, and if you make sure that you do not hit failure in your sets, then 4-5 sets of 5 reps will not overtrain your system.

One tip that I would like to share with you, that will allow you go to go slightly heavier with less rest, is to do alternate sets instead of straight sets. So for eg instead of doing 4 straight sets of military press with 60 second rest periods, do a set of military press, rest for 60 seconds and then do a set of an exercise targeting the antagonistic pulling muscles, or the lower body. Then again after 60 seconds go back to the military press, and keep alternating between the two exercises. This way, your pressing muscles get more than 60 seconds rest, but your body is forced to keep work more frequently, which is better for your metabolism.

Now while the low reps only method will work well in your early stages, I will suggest that in the long run you should include some higher rep range work too for best results. If you look at the best strength athletes in the world, whether that be powerlifters, bodybuilders, weightlifters, etc then you will notice that they all include some degree of work in different rep ranges. This is essential to work your different types of muscle fibers for best overall results. So do include some work in the traditional 8-12 reps range, and also some in the higher 15+ range with bodyweight and kettlebell exercises to really take your fat burning to the max, and not letting your body adapt to one rep range.

And what about cardio? As I have said before that the best fat loss training programs involve a healthy mix of weight training and cardio. Relying only one method is never complete, and very few people reach their peak while relying on only one method. Of course, cardio does not have to be long and boring sessions of jogging. You can do HIIT, kettlebells, kickboxing, and other interesting methods. But do try to get atleast a couple of cardio sessions a week initially, which can be as little as 5-10 minutes long to begin with, but does push you hard.

In the end, here is a simple summary of the post to keep in mind:

  • You must first get your diet in order to lose fat
  • Yes, low (er) rep sets can work for fat loss
  • However going too low will not work, so go no less than 5 rep sets
  • Keep rest between sets to around 60-90 seconds. And maybe upto 2 minutes for your heaviest exercise 
  • Do more sets, around 4-5 for exercises done below 7 reps
  • Use alternate sets instead of straight sets to go slightly heavier
  • In the long run, employ some higher rep range work too
  • Include some cardio work to maximize fat burning

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