One of the most commonly asked questions from your feedback in VFT’s survey has been, “What exercise is best for burning fat from my _____?” People asked about their abs, thighs, butt, arms, and more, so this is an issue that is definitely of interest for many of you. As with most things in health and fitness, there is no simple answer to these questions, but there is some information that can help you out.
Before going any further, there is one thing we need to get out of the way and it is something people never want to hear and frequently like to ignore, but is very important to understand:
You cannot make your body lose fat from specific areas by performing exercises for those areas. Your body loses fat from wherever it wants, regardless of what exercises you perform or what body parts you work. Exercises can tighten muscles and change the shape of specific body parts, but they do not target specific fat stores. In other words, exercises for your abs do not make you lose abdominal fat.
When you lose enough total fat, you will lose fat from the places you want. It just may not happen in the order you would like. 🙂
Therefore, the real question becomes, “What exercises are best for burning body fat?” It would be nice to say here is this list of secret exercises that burn body fat better than everything else, but of course it is not that simple. If it was, everyone would be doing the same exercises and getting great results.
In truth, any properly designed workout routine can make you lose fat. This is clearly displayed in everyday life, because you can see people with low amounts of body fat participating in almost any sport or activity. People who run, bike, swim, lift weights, play tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball, etc. can all have trim physiques, even though they have very different training programs.
The real difference is that people who train for various sports or activities have different body shapes and abilities. Your body shape (muscle size, etc.) and physical abilities (strength, endurance, etc.) are directly affected by the exercises you perform and the way you train.
I do not want to imply that all training programs are equally effective at fat burning, because some are still better than others and this Q&A looks at some important aspects for fat burning.
Here are 3 requirements for a good fat burning routine:
Requirement 1 – Your muscles must be challenged during workouts
For optimal fat burning, you need to push your body hard enough to create a stimulus for physical change and improvement. This does not mean you have to push yourself as hard as possible all the time, but you should feel like you have done something at the end of your workout.
If a workout is too easy or the activity/exercises are things your body is already used to doing, then there is no stimulus for improvement. Even though the workout does burn some calories, it is a very inefficient way to stimulate fat loss.
Action Step: Make your exercise challenging without being too difficult and always allow your body enough time to recuperate between difficult workouts. It is also important to keep a lot of variety in your workouts, because the more your body has to adapt to new exercises, activities, or styles of workouts, the more likely you will experience positive improvements.
Requirement 2 – Focus on your larger muscle groups
From a physiological standpoint, exercises and activities that work more/larger muscles also burn more calories. In simplistic terms, fat burning does not happen without calorie burning, so exercises that burn more calories are technically better fat burning exercises.
For instance, a bench press uses a lot of upper body pushing muscles, especially the chest, shoulder, and triceps. Compare that to a bicep curl, which is one of the most popular upper body exercises, but it only works the biceps (when done correctly). As a result, a challenging set of bench presses burns significantly more calories than a challenging set of bicep curls and is therefore a better fat burning exercise.
For a cardio example, you could compare walking to running. Both activities are similar, but running is more challenging and requires stronger contractions, so it works your leg muscles more than walking. Therefore, it is also more efficient at fat burning. To go a step further, cross country skiing is even better, because it involves similar leg movements with the addition of upper body muscles for even more calorie burning.
While it is obvious that some types of exercise burn more calories than others, it is important to keep things in perspective. Just because running is technically a better fat burning exercise than walking, it doesn’t mean that everyone should run and walking is necessarily bad. The first priority is to make sure that each exercise is appropriate for your current ability level.
If walking provides a challenging workout for you at this point, then running might be too stressful for your body and walking would be the better activity. In addition, many people do not like walking or running and that is fine too. Just choose a different type of exercise and make it appropriate for you.
This requirement is really one of efficiency, especially when it comes to time. People doing easier types of cardio exercise or exercising small muscle groups in the gym can still end up with a similar level of fat burning, but they may have to exercise twice as long or more to burn the same number of calories as someone who focuses on challenging workouts for their larger muscle groups.
Action Step: Focus on exercises for your larger muscle groups for faster results, but keep things in perspective. Even though large muscles exercises are more efficient, it does not mean you should never perform exercises for smaller muscle groups. It is always important to work all your muscles equally to maintain optimal health and prevent muscle imbalances.
Requirement 3 – Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition
I know this is a Q&A about exercise, but when it comes to fat loss, the simple truth is nothing is more important than nutrition. Even a great workout routine will not overcome poor nutrition or frequent overeating. The bottom line is you have to burn more calories than you consume if you want to burn fat.
While exercise does burn calories, unless you are Michael Phelps or another athlete who exercises for hours every day, your metabolism burns a lot more calories than exercising ever will. If your eating habits are bad, you could be suppressing your metabolism or eating so much that exercise is not going to be to get you to lose fat.
Good nutrition is also important for recovery, so even if you are training hard enough to burn fat, if your body does not get enough nutrients, you will not be able to maintain that routine because your body will eventually break down. Furthermore, poor nutrition can make your body resist losing fat even if you are technically burning enough calories to promote fat loss.
Experts disagree about exactly how important nutrition is for fat loss, but everyone agrees that nutrition is at least 50% responsible for fat loss and most health and fitness professionals estimate that nutrition is responsible for around 80 or 90% of fat loss success.
Action Step: If fat loss is your main priority, really focus on putting together a solid nutritional plan and sticking to it. Include exercise too, but good nutrition is the most important thing when it comes to fat loss.
While there is no question that exercise plays a role in fat loss, my advice is not to associate exercises/workouts with fat loss. Instead, focus on the direct effects that different types of training have on your fitness improvements. Exercise alters the way your muscles look and improves fitness in a variety of ways, depending on how you train. Those changes are what matter most when it comes to exercising.
The best thing to do is figure out what you really want to get out of your training program (besides losing fat). Some common examples are gaining muscle, increasing strength, improving muscular endurance, improving cardiovascular endurance, becoming more powerful/explosive, improving balance/stability, and getting better at a particular sport or activity.
Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can design a training program that is effective for the improvements you want to make. For example, if you want to become more powerful, but don’t want big muscles, you could include things like low rep & low volume strength training, plyometrics, and SAQ (speed, agility, quickness) training.
If you have a foundation of good eating habits, then you are well on your way to losing fat. Exercise then provides an extra boost to help you burn fat faster. While, some exercises are better fat burners than others, exercises should not be chosen solely by their ability to burn calories. Always keep the big picture in mind and choose the exercises that are best for all your health and fitness goals.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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