If you’re looking to slim down, it’s a good idea to zero in on burning body fat. Simply put, burning fat leads to weight loss because you’ll have less fat stubbornly sticking to your body. And while there are superficial benefits to having a low body fat percentage — your jeans will fit more comfortably and muscles will appear more toned and defined — it also comes with big health perks.
Having a too-high percentage of body fat can lead to obesity, which comes with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some types of cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So what’s the difference between a fat-burning exercise and other exercises? It all comes down to intensity, says Len Kravitz, PhD, coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “Exercise at a comfortable but challenging intensity for optimal fat burning,” he says.
The long-held idea is that by exercising at a lower than maximum effort, you’ll encourage your body to burn fat calories for energy, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
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Don’t get too hung up on that, though, since fat burning also occurs as a result of higher-intensity workouts, primarily because of what happens when the workout ends. That’s when the afterburn effect (exercise scientists call it “excess postexercise oxygen consumption”) comes into play. Your body’s metabolism remains spiked after a high-intensity workout and the body burns fat as a result.
The bottom line: Both higher-intensity and moderate-intensity workouts can be effective at burning fat. Which one is more effective is still a matter of debate.
A mix of cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise and strength training is ideal for burning fat, says Cat Kom, an ACE-certified personal trainer and CEO and founder of Studio Sweat in San Diego. Any type of cardio that gets your heart rate up to roughly 60 to 90 percent of your max heart rate (which is approximately 220 minus your age, according to the Mayo Clinic) will do the trick, Kom says. “When you get that heart pumping and keep it there, you’re going to burn more calories overall, which leads to increased fat loss,” she says.
Don’t skimp on strength training, though. “The simple truth is this: The more muscle you have, the more fat your body is going to burn at rest,” she says.
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According to a review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, 10 weeks of resistance training increased resting metabolic rate by 7 percent and reduced fat weight by about 4 pounds. Another study, published in October 2015 in the International Journal of Obesity, found that a combination of resistance and aerobic training led to belly fat reductions in young people with obesity.
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Finally, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has proved to be a fat blaster, too, because it results in excess postexercise oxygen consumption (that afterburn effect), Kom says. “When you reach this highly pumped state, your body uses extra oxygen to bring it back to normal, which boosts your metabolism and leads to — you guessed it — burning fat,” she says. A study published in the Journal of Obesity found that three months of HIIT led to a loss of 4.4 pounds of body fat.
A 6-Step Fat-Burning Workout
Kom helped us put together a fat-burning workout that you can complete at home or at the gym. She recommends doing each exercise for 30 seconds back to back with 30 to 60 seconds of rest in between each round. Try not to rest in between the moves — that’ll keep your heart rate up and your body burning calories and fat, Kom says. This should be done at a high intensity that leaves you breathless, though maintaining good form is more important than speed, Kom says.
How many rounds you do is up to you and your ability. Kom says the most important things are to avoid injury and to enjoy the workout. “If you don’t like how it feels, you’re less likely to do it again,” she says. Try to knock it out two or three times per week. Do one round for a quick fat-blasting break if you’re short on time, or as many rounds as you can fit into 15 to 30 minutes to reap the most benefit, she says.
1. Jumping Jacks
Start in a standing position with your arms resting at your sides. Slightly bend your knees and jump your legs out so they’re a little more than shoulder-width apart. At the same time, thrust your arms out and over your head. Then return your body to your starting position and repeat for 30 seconds of continuous jumping.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. In one fluid motion, lower your body into a squat, place your hands on the ground in front of your feet, and jump your feet back so you land in a plank position. Then jump to return your feet to near your hands and complete a powerful jump straight up into the air. Repeat. To make it more challenging, add a push-up when you’re in the plank position. If you’re a beginner, do a squat thrust instead for lower impact: The move is similar to a burpee, except you don’t complete the explosive jump at the end and simply stand up.
3. Squat Jumps
With your feet shoulder-width apart, lower your body into a squat position (back and upper body stay lifted, and hips and butt lower down to the ground as if you’re sitting in an imaginary chair). Keep your core tight and launch into an explosive jump. Land lightly on your feet and immediately lower into a squat again. Repeat.
4. Skater Jumps
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. With your right foot planted, cross your left leg behind you and out to your right side (almost as if you’re doing a curtsy lunge). Your weight should be supported by your right leg. Simultaneously, swing your right arm out to about shoulder height and your left arm across your body reaching toward your right hip. Then jump to your left and repeat the movement on your left side. Land on your left foot and swing your right leg behind you and out to your left side. (Left arm should simultaneously swing out to your left side and right arm should extend toward your left hip.) Continue leaping back and forth with arms swinging in a skating motion.
5. Plank Jacks
Begin in a plank position with your wrists in line with your shoulders and your body extended in a straight line behind you. Your feet should be planted together on the floor. Jump your legs out wide, and then jump them back together at a quick pace.
6. High Knees
From a standing position, lift your left knee into your chest. Swiftly switch your legs so your right knee is now pulled into your chest. At a nonstop pace, keep alternating your knees and move your arms in a running motion, with your left arm lifting with your right leg and right arm lifting with your left leg.
The 15-minute, Fat-burning Workout for Busy Guys
Why It Works: If you only have 15 minutes, you’ll likely want to jump right into the program—which is especially dangerous for de-conditioned guys. Dedicate just a few moments to this familiar compound yoga move that improves shoulder and spine flexibility. It’s the perfect move to ease into this routine, and to give you a breather in rounds two (and, optionally, three) of the circuit.
How to Do It: Start on all fours with hands beneath your shoulders and knees on the ground. Inhale, dropping your chest as you push your hips and shoulder blades back into cow position. Lift your chin and chest and gaze forward. For cat, exhale as you draw your belly button to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling like a cat.
Prescription: 10 reps of each
2. Squat Jumps
Why It Works: This works the hips, knees, and ankles—the so-called triple flexion response that creates power in your jump—while also providing a cardio effect. Developing triple flexion will help with your running form (if you still insist on going jogging at some point).
How to Do It: Stand with feet just outside the shoulders and hangs behind your head. Squat, keeping your knees behind your toes. After holding this position for two seconds, jump vertically. Pull your toes to your shins in midair to prepare for landing. Be sure to land softly, with the hips back and down.
Prescription: 10 reps
3. Lateral Bound
Why It Works: This builds lateral power in your legs and challenges the hamstrings while boosting your heart rate.
How to Do It: Stand on your right leg, with your left foot off the ground. Squat slightly on your right leg and use your leg and glute to jump laterally (to the left). Land on the opposite leg, maintaining balance. Hold for three seconds. Repeat to the other side.
Prescription: 10 reps per side
Why It Works: This total-body exercise gives you all the benefits of pushups while also challenging your cardiovascular system and ratcheting up the intensity of your workout.
How to Do It: From a standing position, squat, place you hands on the ground, and “jump” your feet out into a pushup position. Perform a pushup, and then jump your feet to your hands. Then jump as high as you can, throwing your hands over your head.
Prescription: 10 reps
5. Mountain Climber
Why It Works: Sure, you’re gassed from those burpees. But we’re going to stay on the ground and continue pushing the cardio with mountain climbers, which develop the hip flexors and abs.
How to Do It: This movement mimics mountain climbing. Think of the ground as your mountain. Start in pushup position, with the balls of your feet on the ground. Alternate driving your knees forward to their corresponding arms and keep your hips down for the entire motion.
Prescription: 30 reps per side
6. V-sit Crunch
Why It Works: This challenges your abs further after the mountain climbers while giving you a minor breather. Even if your abs are buried deep under that beer belly, this will help with your core strength.
How to Do It: Begin on your back with hands extended over your head. Lift your legs and crunch up at the same time, forming your body into the shape of a “V.” (Make sure you do both at the same time. By doing one ahead of the other, you sacrifice a lot of this movement’s effectiveness.) Exhale as you lift your legs, and crunch and inhale as you return to the starting position.
Prescription: 15 reps