I overheard a conversation at the gym yesterday that I wanted to share with you, since it perfectly illustrates a point that I see many guys getting wrong.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to record the conversation, so you’ll have to rely on my memory here, along with a tasteful degree of dramatization (not too much, I promise).
Guy 1: “Hey bro, now that I got myself all swole and shit, I want to get ripped for summer so I can have dem abs.”
Guy 2: “I hear ya bro. So what are you gonna do for your workouts now then?”
Guy 1: “Ummm, I was just gonna do what I’ve been doing. You know, focusing on lifting as much weight as I can – low reps heavy weight baby!”
Guy 2: “Nah, you can’t do that shit bro! Don’t you know when you’re cutting, you need to focus on doing light weights for high reps? That is you how get dem shredz in.”
Guy 1: “No shit, thanks bro! I didn’t know that – glad that I talked to you first.”
Guy 1 then goes over, picks up the 20 pounds dumbbells, and starts banging out 20 rep sets of bicep curls with the ferocity of an unburdened mind.
Now, back to reality for a moment.
Does this conversation sound at all familiar to you?
Well, it definitely wasn’t the first time that I’ve heard that advice espoused by someone who clearly doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, and I’m sure it won’t be the last…
How The Myth Of High Rep Workouts For Cutting Started
This myth goes back a long way…
I first came across it over 12 years ago when I had just begun weight lifting, and it doesn’t seem to have been sufficiently debunked in the years that followed.
Basically, it goes something like this:
If you want to get big, and pack on muscle, then you should focus on lifting heavy weights for low repetitions.
If, on the other hand, you are focusing on losing fat (known as ‘cutting’, in gym parlance), you should instead be lifting lighter weights for high repetitions.
And while I don’t have definitive proof of exactly how this bogus nonsense made its way into the broscience bible, I do have some theories.
“The Pros Do It”
Ah, yes, the pros.
Those heavily tanned, ridiculously vascular behemoths who routinely grace the covers of your favorite fitness magazines.
Well, their workouts seem to consist of pumping out endless repetitions – and they’re huge AND ripped – so it must be good for you, right?
In fact, some of these monsters play a role in actively perpetuating the myth themselves, claiming that they do high reps specifically to cut up.
And these guys are like 2% body fat, so they must be right, huh?
You see, these guys have a unique perspective on the whole situation…
That is, the perspective of a steroid-user!
These guys have the luxury of being able to get really huge, and then cut down their fat while maintaining virtually all of their muscle mass (if not gaining some muscle while losing the fat).
For guys that aren’t on the juice, however, it doesn’t quite work like that – but we’ll get into that in a second…
The point here is that 1000s of guys are taking this crap to be true, and following the same workout protocol themselves – sans the steroids, of course, which is unfortunately a necessary ingredient to be successful with such an approach.
Take a look at this post from a guy on Bodybuilding.com, who wants to start losing some fat.
“is high reps good for losing fats? i know that recent studies shows that u can lose fat without doing high reps but i see pros doing 15 reps per each set so does this make u lose fat faster or some thing?”
See, this poor, misguided fellow thinks that he should be working out like this to lose fat.
And yes, he may lose fat with such an approach – but he is also almost guaranteed to lose a good amount of his hard-earned muscle in the process.
But let’s move on to the next potential reason.
“It Burns More Fat”
When you pound out lots of reps of relatively light weight, you can bet your ass that you’re gonna ‘feel the burn’.
You know, that coveted gym pump feeling that Arnie was particularly enamored with.
And since it feels like it’s burning, one could easily think that you are somehow burning more fat like this – as if the sheer volume of reps is igniting a localized fat-burning furnace around that muscle, helping it to get visibly defined.
However, the reality is that that burning feeling is simply lactic acid buildup in the muscle.
It doesn’t mean that the muscle is getting stronger – and it certainly doesn’t mean that more fat is being burned, or that you are getting more cut.
Sorry to say, but it is all just an illusion.
Why Following This Approach Can Destroy Your Muscle Gains
Now that we have a sense of why this myth has gained such prominence in the first place, let’s take a look at why it is an absolutely terrible idea for you to train like this.
But first, an important caveat. I am going to assume that you want to maintain your muscle mass and strength while stripping away fat.
If that doesn’t sound like you, and you really don’t care if you lose a whole lot of muscle along with the fat, then this doesn’t really apply as much to your situation.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s examine what would typically happen to Guy 1 (from our initial example) if he decided to switch to high rep, low weight workouts while trying to lose fat.
Well, it is very, very likely that he would lose a ton of strength in the process.
You see, when you are cutting – and assuming you are natural, not on ‘roids – it is difficult to retain strength/muscle even under the best of circumstances.
Most guys that cut down a lot of fat will also lose some strength. It is just how it goes.
The trick when cutting, then, is mitigating any strength/muscle loss as much as possible, while simultaneously maximizing fat loss.
And you know what doesn’t make this happen?
Working your muscles out with comparatively tiny amounts of weight to what you were lifting before – you know, those heavy weights that actually made you stronger and allowed you to put on muscle in the first place.
Instead, if you put your muscles through these endurance-based, lactic acid burning workouts, then they will respond by losing strength and muscle size.
Sadly, this means that even after you’ve lost all of that body fat, you’ll then have to focus on regaining all of the muscle you lost through your high rep foolishness – with, you guessed it, lower rep, heavy weight workouts again.
And so the vicious cycle of frustration continues…endlessly oscillating between periods of gaining fat and gaining muscle, and then losing fat and losing muscle.
So, what is a better approach then?
Well, the first thing you need to realize is that when you want to cut fat, it is going to be a primarily diet-driven process.
Sure, you can add in some more cardio (preferably HIIT), but that is about it as far as changes to your workouts go.
The bottom line is your ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’ phases will be mostly controlled by how many calories you are taking in, and in what specific macronutrient ratios.
This means that you can get super shredded while sticking to lower reps, heavier weights, as long as you are eating accordingly.
It also means that you won’t start burning through a ton of additional body fat just by jacking up the number of reps you do.
So, what is my specific recommendation for your workouts while cutting?
Simple – you should stick to low reps and lifting heavy weight.
In fact, during this period you should try to lift the same amount of weight that you did before you started cutting.
The operative word here, of course, is try.
In all likelihood, you’ll lose some strength – but trust me on this, you will lose far less strength (and muscle) than if you completely shifted your workouts to a high rep, light weight approach.
How do you like to work out when you’re cutting? Have you experienced muscle/strength losses when following a high rep, low weight approach?