The Best Set and Rep Schemes for Getting Lean

The Best Set and Rep Schemes for Getting Lean

I ran into a buddy at the gym one day last week and casually commented that he looked like he had trimmed up a bit. This quick, innocent comment catapulted us into a conversation about how to lose body fat while staying strong and muscular.

My friend stated that he had begun to use less resistance and increased reps in order to get lean. I explained that many people attempted the “light weight, high reps” method of getting lean, however, it’s actually not the best way to go about achieving that goal.

First, lets define “getting lean” (also see “leaning up,” “getting toned,” and “getting ripped”). In this context, getting lean means not to just lose bodyweight, rather, it means to specifically burn body fat while holding onto as much lean muscle mass as possible. If your goal is simply to lose as much weight as possible then high doses of steady-state cardio, moderate weight lifting, and a strict diet will probably do the trick.

Maybe you could even try body wraps, apparently, it works (they should define works). But if you’re like most people who want to lose some weight but still want a defined, athletic physique, then simply dropping as many pounds as possible, regardless of whether it’s muscle or fat, isn’t the goal.

Let's create a custom workout plan with these goals in mind.

First, we need to determine what constitutes “high” repetitions.

Rep ranges are typically defined by the results that they are intended to produce; power, strength, hypertrophy, and endurance are the common ranges.

Powerset and rep schemes typically feature moderately heavy weight and low (2-4) reps per set, with long (2-4 min.) rest periods.

Strength set and rep schemes are usually comprised of heavyweight, relatively low reps (4-6), and medium to long rest periods (90 seconds – 4 min.).

Hypertrophy (muscle building) set and rep schemes require moderately heavy weight that can be used to complete 8 to 12 reps with 1 to 2 minutes of rest between sets.

Lastly, endurance set and rep schemes feature light resistance that can be completed for 12 or more reps. Anything in the endurance category (or more than 12 consecutive reps without rest) is considered “high” reps.

Performing a resistance exercise while using a weight that allows you to complete 12, 15, or 20 reps is simply training the muscle cells that are active in performing that movement to become better able to continue performing that movement over a longer period of time at that given resistance.

That sentence is wordy and may be a bit confusing, but the important take-home point has more to do with what muscular endurance training is not doing: burning more fat or making your muscle more “toned.” There is no such thing as “toning” a muscle; there is only building a muscle and burning fat. 

Performing high reps with low weight for any given exercise does not elicit enough of a hormonal response to build the muscle. Therefore…

If you want to build or maintain muscle while you lose body fat, you need to be lifting in the hypertrophic set/rep range.

That’s right, you need to be using a weight that allows you to complete 3 – 5 sets of 8 – 12 reps with 60 – 120 seconds rest between sets.

You should supplement the hypertrophic set and rep schemes with strength building ones, especially if remaining at a certain strength level is a goal of yours.

Additionally, rather than only focusing on steady state cardio, throw in higher intensity exercises such as sprints on the treadmill, track, or rower.

If you’re looking to build or maintain strength and size while trying to lose body fat, you can structure your workout to look like the one below, made using GymCloud:


This custom workout plan calls for heavier sets with lower reps and longer rest periods at the beginning for strength building, then progressively moves through the ranges of hypertrophy and ends in some endurance.

Only try this workout plan if you are an experienced lifter and in good, healthy condition.

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Matthew Johnson is a fitness writer, personal trainer, strength coach, as well as a former gym owner. Matthew holds an MBA from The University of Memphis and a Master’s in Exercise Science from Middle Tennessee State University. Matthew has also earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential from the NSCA. Matthew recently published his first book, 300 30 Minute Workouts for Busy People, and lives in Memphis, TN with his wife, Anna, and their dog Henderson, and cat, Sox.

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