Sets and Reps for Weight Loss

Jul 20, 2022

Edited by: Danielle Abel

Best sets and reps for weight loss

If your client is looking to lose weight, you might be wondering what type of exercise is best, but there are other variables to consider beyond just the type, volume, and intensity of exercise. 

Type of Exercise

Ultimately you'll need to decide which adaption is your primary goal for the client as it relates to weight loss in order to select the best type of exercise for their needs and goals.

  • Endurance exercise (running, biking, swimming)
    • Improve cardiopulmonary capacity (heart and lungs)
    • Improve work capacity and endurance (not getting winded when exercising)
    • Improve speed and agility for performance
  • Strength exercise (bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc.)
    • Improve muscular strength & muscular capacity (load the muscle & increase size)
    • Improve volume and load capacity (manage muscular fatigue)
    • Improve strength and power for performance

There isn't one "best" approach, it really depends upon what is most important to them when selecting your primary focus area. What is more important is helping the client select a focus area and sticking with it for a period of time (weeks and months) to improve either their speed or strength. A good question to ask them is, "do you want to get faster, or do you want to get stronger?" or maybe "do you want to get leaner, or do you want to build muscle?"

Volume of Exercise

Their work capacity (ability to tolerate different volumes of exercise) is going to depend upon their training age (the amount of time they've followed a structured resistance training program). If they're newer to training and exercise, their ability to tolerate a great deal of volume will be far less than someone who is more experienced with training. 

  • Beginner: Resistance training less than 6 months
  • Intermediate: Resistance training 6-12 months
  • Advanced: Resistance training 12 months or more

If they are looking to lose weight, it can be difficult to recover adequately from high volume work ongoingly, so it may be more helpful to train light to moderate volumes with higher intensity to manage fatigue.  

Intensity of Exercise

Intensity refers to the level and duration of effort required for a particular movement. For example, one person may feel that 3 sets of 10 reps of a goblet squat with 40lbs are extremely heavy, whereas another person may feel that the same sets and reps at 40lbs are extremely easy. 

In general, if the intensity level is high, the shorter the duration of the exercise will be. 

  • 1RM of a back squat with an extremely heavy load will be of a short duration vs. 1 set of 10 reps of a back squat with a light to moderate load will be of a longer duration

If they are newer to training, it may be best to start with light to moderate loads and work within a range that they can adequately recover from throughout the week. When you recover adequately, you will be able to train more frequently. However, moderate intensity and low volume work can be helpful if they are also in a caloric deficit with their nutrition. 

Caloric Deficit

It's easy to forget about nutrition when it comes to weight loss, but nutrition is a critical component when it comes to body recomposition.

Nutrition helps determine body fat & and their training helps to shape the way their body looks and performs. 

Ultimately if they're looking to reduce body fat %, you will need to help them create a caloric deficit. A caloric deficit simply means that they are taking in less energy from food on average than they are expending. The simple term for a caloric deficit is a "diet."

When they take in less food, their body will use fatty acids stored inside their fat cells (adipocytes) to fuel their brain, body, and movement. However, it is important to understand that they should not continue to eat in a caloric deficit ongoingly as this will cause their body to slow energy expenditure (metabolism) over time to "match" the amount of energy they're taking in, resulting in weight plateaus. 

It's also imperative to have a start and stop date for your diet to prevent unnecessary metabolic slowing, which can ultimately affect the functioning of your brain, body, exercise performance, and physique. 

Additionally, the literature also shows that it may be difficult to build & maintain lean muscle mass while in an energy deficit due the reduced availability of calories. If the body needs adequate calories to repair & build muscle tissue, it makes sense that it would be difficult to do so if inadequate energy was available. If you'd like to read more on this, check on "Energy deficiency impairs resistance training gains in lean mass but not strength: A meta-analysis and meta-regression" from Murphy & Koehler, 2021 here 

Energy Balance

Energy balance simply refers to the amount of energy you have coming in compared to the amount of energy you have going out. However, energy balance is not simple itself; it's actually quite complex and is affected by things like

  • age
  • appetite
  • hormones
  • sleep levels
  • perceived stress
  • body fat %
  • % of muscle
  • type of exercise
  • volume & intensity of exercise
  • non-exercise activity
  • thermic effect of food
  • health history
  • diet history

So performing a full assessment that includes their current exercise and nutrition can help you determine where you need to go with their training and nutrition in order to help them reach their goals. 

Practical Application

It's best to set up their training & nutrition in a way that will allow them to adhere to the schedule and process consistently. Being consistent with less is more effective than trying to do more and not being consistent. 

Case Study 1:

30+ female athlete in their off season looking to lose 15+ lbs & gain muscle

  • Type: 3x/week full body training with an emphasis on lower body and a goal to get 7-9,000 Steps per day with low intensity steady state (walking, light bike riding, etc.)
  • Volume: Add on 2 sets per week up to 5 weeks, then deload (lower the total volume)
  • Intensity: Low volume, high intensity (2-3 sets of 5-8 reps each movement)
  • Nutrition: Eat at maintenance calories or a slight deficit (15-20% for 8-16 weeks before taking a diet break) 

Case Study 2: 

20+ adult male in their off season looking to lose 5+ lbs & gain muscle 

  • Type: 3x/week full body training with an emphasis on upper body and a goal to get 7-9,000 Steps per day with low intensity steady state (walking, light bike riding, etc.)
  • Volume: Add on 2 sets per week up to 5 weeks, then deload (lower the total volume)
  • Intensity: Low volume, high intensity (2-3 sets of 5-8 reps each movement)
  • Nutrition: Eat at maintenance calories or a slight deficit (15-20% for 8-16 weeks before taking a diet break)

Notice how both of these training & nutrition recommendations are very similar? That's because the program is specific to the assessed needs of the athlete, in this case, weight loss with less of a focus on performance. Remember, it's ok to give similar recommendations to two totally different clients as long as your recommendations are based upon what you have assessed the needs of the client to be. 

Support & Courses Available

Ready for even more support? Our Program Design 101 Course teaches you exactly how to organize an annual training plan based upon an athlete's assessed needs & goals plus, it provides sport-specific examples and even includes done for you programming templates by phase. Click the link here to check it out.


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