Exercise for Fat Burn

The term "exercise" needs an exorcism.

Needing to engage in intense cardio is a myth. To really see results, you need to lift weights—heavy ones. Building muscle is the single most effective way to change your body composition and rev up your metabolism.

Forget What You Know About Fat Burning Exercises

Fat Burning Exercises & Metabolism

Let's break this down further. Your body burns energy form three sources:

  • Muscle
  • Glycogen (stored carbohydrates)
  • Fat

On our quest to lose weight, it’s critical to make sure we're not losing our biggest calorie burner: muscle. Again, the simple equation is less muscle = less calories burned. We can minimize losing muscle by doing two things: strength training and consuming enough protein at every meal (which we cover in our article on workout nutrition).

As for the other two energy sources, they're also connected to working out. When we strength train, we tap into our glycogen stores and burn carbohydrates (energy) to power our workouts. And when we add in low-end aerobic exercise, otherwise known as “zone 2 cardio” or “fat burning zone cardio,” we start to actually tap into our fat stores. This is why the combination of both strength training and zone 2 cardio is so important, as it promotes muscle maintenance during fat loss.

Is it Possible to Burn Fat Fast?

The key word here is FAST. Short answer - anything's possible. Longer answer - here are our three warnings:

  1. You cannot do this with exercise alone
  2. You cannot do this sustainably
  3. You cannot do this without simultaneously losing muscle as well

With these points in mind, our opinion is: it's not worth it. If you decide you want to lose weight/burn fat as quickly as possible by over-exercising and under-eating, do it with the knowledge that:

  1. You WILL gain some of that weight back when you stop, and
  2. You have to find a way to do it sustainably, if you want to actually maintain some of the results.

How Body Type Affects Fat Burn

Time to debunk another myth.

In general, we recommend the same types of workouts to everyone, regardless of body type. The rationale is simple: with progressive overload strength training and low-end aerobic training, you will burn fat. Simple as that. Low impact, effective workouts. There are truly no downsides.

That being said, there are a few times we recommend something more personalized and specific to you:

  • If you have never exercised before, we recommend you start with body weight exercises vs hitting the weights.
  • If you aren't actually trying to lose fat (or have less than 10 pounds to lose), exercises like yoga or Pilates can be great for toning. Just know these are not nearly as effective for fat burn as strength training.
  • If you are experiencing severe metabolic damage.) (this is rare), we recommend low-end aerobic training only (no strength training).

While we're on this topic, it is really important to note that random workouts = random results. A great example of this is “Class Pass,” an app that hit it big around 2016 that allowed users to try different "boutique" workout classes, from yoga to Pilates to strength to conditioning. While any type of exercise is wonderful and we’re always benefiting from moving our bodies, taking this approach does not necessarily build muscle. Which, again, should be our primary goal with exercise.

Instead, we recommend progressive overload training, which is a gradual increase (progressive) of weights and/or reps (overload) in a strength training program. Simply put, it is nearly impossible not to build muscle if you're always challenging them in this way. Exceptions to this rule would include lack of sleep (recovery time), under-fueling (so you’re muscles can never really repair), or hormone imbalances.

Fat Burn Workout Basics

If our recipe for losing fat is the combination of weight lifting and cardio, the next step is to find the right ingredients to see what those workouts actually look like.

As you can imagine, there are countless exercises that all accomplish the same goal. It's critical you select the workouts YOU enjoy doing. That means selecting the right intensity level (low, medium or high), and the right frequency (length of workout and how many times per week). We have recommendations based on what we've seen generate the most success overall (and some science behind it as well), but ultimately, the best path for you is the one YOU can commit to and will enjoy traveling.

How Workout Intensity Affects Fat Burn

The fitness industry has created its version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Instead of beds or porridge, it's levels of "intensity." Unlike the classic fairy tale, the middle option isn't necessarily the best. Here are the definitions:

Low-Intensity: the focus here leans towards cardio, where 50% of the calories burned are from fat. Otherwise known as "zone 2 cardio," "low end aerobic exercise," or "fat-burning cardio." We LOVE these workouts, as they increase metabolic flexibility: our bodies' ability to switch easily into fat-burning mode. You're getting your heart-rate up, but you can still carry on a conversation easily.

Moderate-Intensity: this level is defined by exercises that get your heart rate 50%-60% higher than your resting rate. You may sweat, but you are still able to carry on a conversation. You can talk, but you can't sing.

High-Intensity: otherwise known as HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), defined as short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low intensity recovery periods. It's the most time-efficient approach (5-30 minutes), which lends to its popularity. Despite the shorter length, the health benefits are double the impact of moderate-intensity workouts.

While we think HIIT is a great approach, our recommendation comes with a disclaimer: DO NOT PRIORITIZE HIIT OVER WEIGHT LIFTING. Especially if you're overstressed, undereating, and overexercising, HIIT workouts may cause weight loss RESISTANCE (we'll get into this in more detail later).

How Workout Frequency Affects Fat Burn

A common question we get asked is "how many days a week should I workout?"

The answer is as unique as your circumstances. If you're new to fitness and don't have much available time, you would receive a wildly different answer than we would give someone who is a lifelong exerciser and has time to kill. That being said, there are some guidelines:

Cardiovascular exercise: 20-45 minutes of low intensity cardio, like a brisk walk, most days of the week and one to two days of high intensity cardio per week. For the high-intensity cardio, focus on shorter, higher-intensity sessions, such as 10 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Strength training: For maximum muscle growth, we recommend you engage in strength training at least two to three days per week, but not more than five.

Beginners can start with two to three days of full-body strength training sessions each week. Intermediate trainers can increase their strength training to three to four days per week, splitting the workouts by body part or upper/lower body. Advanced trainers can aim for four to five days of strength training per week, with a structured schedule of three days on and one day off.

For all fitness levels, an important component to consider is the "after-burn" (the body's process of restoring itself back to a pre-workout state). For example, an hour-long moderate-intensity run might burn the most calories in a single session. A low-intensity brisk walk for that same length of time walk can tap into more fat burning. A 10-minute high intensity interval training session may yield a higher calorie burn over the course of the day, as well as burn fat while preserving muscle. So combining the TYPE of workout with the FREQUENCY and LENGTH of the workout is critical for optimal results.

Our Favorite Fat Burning Workouts

The fact is, all types of exercise have benefits.

We should not only be exercising for weight loss, but for cardiovascular health, mobility, flexibility, and balance as well. But when a person has a significant amount of weight to lose, focusing on flexibility and “toning” the booty at Pure Barre is like buying a greens powder as your weight loss nutrition plan. It’s certainly not harmful, but certainly not giving us the best "bang for the buck." Why do something that's only going to result in a small improvement?

Exercises to Lose Belly Fat

When it comes to significant weight loss, we focus on two primary types of exercise:

  • Progressive overload strength training
  • Low-intensity aerobic exercise or Zone 2 cardio

Progressive overload because random workouts = random results. This is a type of training that involves increasing weight - or reps - over time. We can get results by doing random workouts, but it’s certainly not the most efficient way to do it. The point of progressive overload is to get stronger and gain muscle over time and this is important because muscle = metabolic money. The more muscle we have on our bodies, the more calories we burn, and the higher our carbohydrate tolerance.

Low-aerobic exercise or zone 2 cardio because this is the “fat-burning” cardio zone. This is the level at which you're stimulating your cells’ mitochondrial function the most. You’ll know if you’re in “zone 2” if you can nose breathe and speak in complete sentences without struggling. And even though zone 2 can be considered “easy,” it still improves cardiovascular function! Win-win!

Anyway, you asked about belly fat. Well, while it’s difficult to spot reduce fat on the body, the most effective ways to “burn belly fat” are as follows:

  • Control blood sugar and lift weights - this is a lethal combination for burning any type of fat. Period.
  • Manage your stress - belly fat has more cortisol receptors than anywhere else on the body. If your body is stuck in stress response mode, and cortisol is being constantly released, it’s likely that you’ll begin to accumulate more belly fat.
  • Somatic therapy - we store trauma and emotions in the body in general, and in the hip area in particular. Releasing that stored trauma can help drip inches around the hips and waist. This type of therapy is unique due to its incorporation of body-oriented techniques, in addition to traditional talk therapy. We have A LOT of testimonials to back this up this approach. Women suddenly losing inches and up to 10 pounds overnight after practicing somatic therapy.
  • Switching up exercise regularly - yes, there are only two types of exercise we recommend for fat loss (progressive overload strength training and low-intensity aerobics). That being said, it’s important to not “adapt” the body to any one workout. New patterns of exercise stimulate fat pads in the body, which can be effective at burning more stubborn fat. This includes progressive overload workouts as you're continuing to challenge yourself in different ways (hence "progressive"). Or this may mean occasionally swapping out low-intensity aerobics for a few HIIT sessions for a couple of weeks. Go swimming or bike riding instead of walking, or even just changing up the pattern of your walk (hills, walking on gravel, walking on sand).
  • Variety is the spice of life. Just be intentional and stay within the framework. Because (say it with me now): random workouts = random results.

Cardio For Weight Loss, or Nah?

Most people hear the word "cardio" and immediately associate it with burning calories.

Why else would we run for miles in a circle, only to end up where we started? But this word association is rather misleading. We like to look at how cardio impacts metabolic health rather than how many calories it burns.

Cardio, in general, does an awesome job at burning carbs, but it doesn’t always do an awesome job at burning fat. If we’re doing cardio for fat loss, isn’t burning fat the point?

Does Cardio Burn Fat?

Quick science lesson:

Our mitochondria burns both glucose and fat, making it a key player in our metabolic health. When we have healthy mitochondria, we can easily switch between fat burning and carb burning. When we have unhealthy mitochondria, we have a really difficult time switching to fat burning mode. This is one reason why you’ll see people who are overweight with poor metabolic health struggle with weight loss, even if they’re doing “all the right things." They may be burning the hell out of carbs (and then consequently getting REALLY hungry once they burn through them), but not touching fat.

So, how do we fix this?

The Best Cardio For Fat Loss

Zone 2 cardio, which we have discussed in detail, is the most powerful and effective type of exercise to improve metabolic health, by both strengthening and increasing the mitochondria in the body.

Let’s take a moment to talk about moderate-intensity cardio and its impact on fat burn.

Moderate-intensity cardio is good for burning calories during the session, but it doesn't increase our overall metabolic threshold. It’s not helping us burn more calories while at rest AND it often makes us significantly more hungry (especially if we aren't metabolically flexible and we’re burning carbs all day). In the end, we’re not helping our bodies burn more calories and we’re probably eating a little bit more food than we should. Is this helpful for weight loss? The answer is probably "no."

If someone says that they lost weight because of cardio, we can bet it was a situation where they lost weight initially because they put their body in a calorie deficit. That type of weight loss is temporary and the results will fluctuate. Doing cardio constantly throughout the week and maintaining your weight loss just doesn't happen. The body eventually burns out.

How Long Should You Do Cardio to Lose Weight?

150-180 minutes per week of Zone 2 cardio is the goal.

This can look like a daily 20-minute walk or 4-45 minute walks per week. Pace yourself, even just a couple of short walks each week when starting out helps. Any amount of Zone 2 cardio has benefits!

Everything we said about moderate-intensity cardio also applies to high-intensity cardio, when overdone. While we recommend 1 or 2 short (5-20 minutes) high-intensity cardio sessions per week for those really wanting to improve their cardiovascular health, what we really recommend is prioritizing strength and Zone 2 cardio if the primary goal is weight loss.

We have countless clients who have backed off on moderate and high-intensity cardio with incredible results. Many of them who had been suffering from weight loss resistance for a long time started to drop weight once they pulled back on cardio. This is likely attributed to two factors: a drop in inflammation, coupled with putting the body in a state where it’s actually building and hanging on to muscle (our biggest calorie burner).

One thing that cannot be overstated: exercise should be fun. Imagine the joy we can have in our lives when we’re not exhausting ourselves with exercise that we hate every day - we're looking at you, treadmill.

What is Fasted Cardio?

Simply put, this is doing cardio workouts while in a fasted state.

As to our stance towards this approach, it really depends the person. Some people feel great doing this, others not so much. If it's not something that makes you feel good, you're probably not going to stick with it, and you'll sabotage your entire workout plan. Something we DO recommend more frequently is fasted NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) movement (walking, yard work, etc.). It’s non-stressful to the body and almost everyone can do this without worrying about adding stress to the body.

Weight Lifting For Weight Loss

What do you say to the woman to who does 5-6 days/week of cardio?

STOP!! And START prioritizing strength training instead.

When people do this, even without changing their diet, they see changes. Their bodies aren’t as stressed and inflamed. The body is able to get better rest. The body is able to actually increase muscle mass and increase metabolic rate. This is the way.

Does Muscle Burn Fat?

Not really.

Muscle tissue metabolizes at a higher rate than other tissues, meaning the more muscle we have in our bodies, the more calories we burn at rest. But even more advantageous than burning fat or calories, is the carbohydrate burning. Muscle tissue is the largest site of glucose disposal in the body, which means the more healthy muscle you have, the more carbohydrates your body can tolerate without an unhealthy insulin spike (our friendly neighborhood fat storing hormone) - keeping you firmly off the blood sugar rollercoaster.

How Many Calories Do You Burn Lifting Weights?

Body Recomposition: Lose Fat; Gain Muscle

Alright, this is one we hear all the time. Women tell us all the time they're worried about hitting the weights and looking like a bodybuilder. But let's put that to bed right now: Lifting weights will NOT turn you into She-Hulk!

Without Marvel comic gamma radiation exposure, it’s very difficult to bulk up. Don’t be afraid of lifting heavy weights, it’s the best thing you can do to burn fat. When it comes to body recomposition, it is VITAL that you're consuming enough protein so that fat loss can occur with zero to minimal muscle loss. We recommend 0.8-1.0g protein per pound of body weight.

Lifting 5 and 10 pound dumbbells for all your strength workouts is not heavy enough - especially for your lower body! The goal is to reach 1-2 reps from total failure. Challenge the muscles! You’re training the body to grow more muscle because it needs more muscle to lift more weight or complete more reps/sets (aka progressive overload).

The Best Supplements to Burn Fat and Build Muscle

There is one supplements that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to fat burn: Creatine.

That being said, supplements are meant to supplement a healthy diet and exercise routine - they're not the main event. Muscle creatine and phosphocreatine enhances the body's ability to regenerate ATP, which provides more energy for muscle contraction. In other words, it can improve high-intensity workout performance, and aid in a quicker recovery. So for our recommended low-intensity workouts, the impact will be minimal.

HIIT For Weight Loss

HIIT is a great tool when properly fueled and also done in the right amount. BUT...

Here's the reality beyond the hype: HIIT is a pretty big stress to the body, so if you’re already stressed to the max, adding HIIT to your routine is probably a bad idea. When we have clients struggling with weight loss resistance, we ALWAYS have them remove HIIT. It's an easy stressor to remove and weight loss resistance is typically rooted in some type of stress.

HIIT Workouts For Weight Loss

If you decide you want to venture down the HIIT trail to fat burning, here are some workouts that will introduce you to that world. We don’t recommend HIIT more than 2 times a week, 5-30 min max. Tread lightly.

For general HIIT exercises try this one or this one.

If you want to try a more specific course, here are some options:

I’m Working Out but Not Losing Weight: What Am I Doing Wrong?

It could be one of so many things...

Just because you go to the gym or do the workouts, doesn't mean you'll see the results you expect. In fact, it's very rare that that's the case. You have to think of all the pillars of metabolic health (see below). The truth is, we can lose weight without working out. Exercise is what helps to build muscle (improving body composition, which is different than losing weight) and upgrades your health (especially heart health).

Here's a quick and fun quiz to help pinpoint the right types of exercises for your goals.

Reasons Why Your Workout Isn’t Working

We don’t give things enough time.

How long have you been doing your workout routine? How consistent have you been? Has strength training been the priority? Have you pulled back on cardio? Enough rest days?

Also (stop me if you've heard this before): RANDOM WORKOUTS = RANDOM RESULTS.

Hormonal imbalances, inflammation, medication side effects, and hypothyroidism are all examples of things that can be happening in the body to inhibit weight loss in general - whether you’re exercising or not. Also, alcohol ruins everything...

Finally, just because you kick ass in the gym doesn't earn you the right to eat whatever you want. Just throwing it out there... you know who you are...

Success (or lack of) will be dependent on your adherence to the Six Pillars of Metabolic Health. If your workout isn't working, the almost certainly culprit lies in one (or more) of these pillars:

  1. Food/Nutrition/Blood Sugar Balance: Take a BALANCED approach to your diet. It's not all about reducing calories, focus on healthier choices. Eat the right foods at the right times of the day.
  2. Muscle: Progressive strength training and -
  3. Movement: low-intensity aerobics. Nuff said.
  4. Sleep: Rest is critical for weight loss. Not just rest days, but actual sleep. If you're not getting 7-9 hours of restful sleep per night, you could be sabotaging your progress.
  5. Stress Management/Emotional Health: Stress and emotional triggers directly impact metabolic health. Look after your mental world and avoid workouts that add to your stress (high-intensity aerobics, for example).
  6. A Healthy Gut: Seems like a wild card, but an unhealthy gut is a primary culprit for chronic inflammation and weight loss resistance.

How Long Does it Take to See Results From Working Out?

This is the first question everyone wants to ask the Oracle who lives on the top of that mountain.

Of course, the answer this Oracle would give to me would likely be very different from the answer they'd give to you. The truth is, results can vary greatly, because we're all in different bodies, with different fitness levels, and different diets. But I'm not going to totally cop out of giving an answer:

After a few weeks, following our plan, most people should see some noticeable change in their body composition.

That being said, seeing progress too quickly can sometimes backfire because we think it was easy to get to that point. If you want to keep the weight off, the key is routine and progressive growth.

Devising a Kickass Weight Loss Workout Plan

The best plan is to not have a plan at all - at least not one you can fit on a calendar.

The mindset has to shift away from a beginning-and-end program. Everything about a healthy metabolism is a lifestyle change. There is no ending. You are always going to want to try to build and maintain muscle mass as you age. This is isn’t a temporary thing so that you can look ripped in a bikini. We don’t care about that mindset. We want people to feel good for the long term and that takes longer than 4, 6, or 12 weeks to accomplish - despite what you might have heard elsewhere.

Something we ask our audience is “what if you give yourself a year to change your life?” “Just give us a year.” Now this isn’t to say that after a year, everything is done. Rather, it’s about adjusting to that mindset as a lifestyle change for the long haul.

A kick ass weight loss workout plan doesn’t exist - because if this is a lifestyle change and regular movement and strength training are a part of your life, things are going to ebb and flow. The most important thing is being consistent. Things are never going to be perfect. Maybe for a few months you can prioritize 4 strength sessions a week, but then the school year starts again and you can only commit to 2-3 sessions. But the entire year, you still strength train because that's just part of your routine and lifestyle now. It’s not all or nothing. No on or off the plan. And this mindset is ultimately going to achieve long term successful weight loss. Not stressing about finding the perfect workout plan.

That being said, a really successful structure for our clients includes prioritizing strength training and walking and mixing in the other types of movement they truly enjoy. With 1-2 rest days per week!

“What about Pilates? What about barre? What about kickboxing?”

Do it! Doing the things you love helps to create consistency and we should find joy in movement.

However, we know that strength training with heavy weights is what builds muscle, increases our metabolism and helps us age gracefully. If your primary goal is weight loss, strength training WILL be the most effective exercise for you. Once you begin seeing those results, we love adding in core and stability exercises to help with balance and stability while aging. This is SUPER important as lack of stability is what leads to injuries and falls later in life. Pilates, barre, and yoga are great for that.

Some clients feel overwhelmed by strength training because they think it has to be 45-60 minute sessions, so start with 15-20 minutes.

Something is better than nothing.

Summary & Next Steps

We don't lose weight by working out. The way we lose weight (fat) is by gaining muscle. It's science. Muscle, by its existence in your body, will burn calories faster than anything else, even when you're not actively working out. The best way to build muscle is through progressive overload strength training and low-intensity cardio (zone 2 fat burning) workouts.

But it doesn't happen on it's own. There are six pillars of metabolic health that you need to focus on if you want to a) overcome weight loss resistance and b) maximize your body's fat burning potential:

  1. Nutrition/Blood Sugar Control
  2. Muscle
  3. Movement
  4. Sleep
  5. Stress Management/Emotional Health
  6. Gut Health

Ready to get to work (but the fun kind, not the work kind)? Then it's time to join us on Metabolism Makeover.

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