Let me start by saying that this isn’t one of those mainstream “lose fat fast” articles making outlandish promises you see floating around on the internet. I’m not going to tell you “this one weird trick” or “my secret formula” for fat loss and I’m not promising you are going to “lose 50 pounds of belly fat in three days” by taking a “magic pill”. Most of these types of articles are bullshit aimed at weak minded people looking for an easy way out. They don’t want to put in the work, so they look for quick fixes for problems that took years to develop. You didn’t get that beer belly overnight, what makes you think you will lose it overnight?
There are no secrets and there are no tricks when it comes to fat loss. It is actually pretty simple: just expend more energy than you consume. This a simple idea, yet it can be challenging to execute. The most important factors when it comes to fat loss are diet and exercise. The main focus of this article will be exercise, but keep in mind, most of your results will come from diet. So what is the best exercise to lose body fat? Well, simple answer, there is none. There is no one exercise that’s going to make you lose weight, but there are certain types of exercise that can make the process easier. These include full body, dynamic exercises that use large muscle groups. I will outline a few, so you can choose one that works best for you.
I cringe as I type this word, contemplating if I should even mention it. Being a powerlifter, this is somewhat of a sin within the strength training community, but I feel that it does have its place in certain programs. Cardio comes in many forms but the basic idea is to get the heart rate up. Cardio is one of those things that everyone hates but does anyway because they think it’s good for them. And they’re not necessarily wrong, but whether it’s good for you or not depends on where you’re at and what your goals are. It can increase aerobic capacity, promote heart health, and improve recovery ability. And hey, it’s better than sitting on the couch eating bonbons.
But what if you’re a powerlifter or other strength athlete? You might not want to to do steady state cardio because it could negatively effect your performance. In this case, cardio should be done in a way that is specific yet doesn’t negatively affect your training. One of the best ways would be to do High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. This is a form of cardiovascular training that utilizes short bouts of high intensity, all out effort, interspersed with low intensity, recovery periods. This type of cardio is specific because it uses the same anaerobic energy systems and fast twitch muscle fibers that are used in strength training.
For strength athletes, I recommend using a stationary bike with a work to rest ratio of 1:2. This would look something like 20-40 seconds of high intensity, all out sprint, followed by 40-80 seconds of medium intensity recovery or until your heart rate goes down. A good place to start would be 6 rounds for 2-4 sessions a week. This is just a general guideline, but if you want a more in depth explanation check out this article about Conditioning for Strength Athletes by Chad Wesley Smith. It is also important to do your cardio work after training or on off days so it does not interfere with training.
Another problem with cardio is that most people want to lose fat and look good too, i.e. get a bigger butt, get abs, bigger chest, whatever. Cardio is not going to help you reach those goals. A lot of people want to get “toned” but cardio is not the way to do it. Many people fail to realize that getting “toned” is not just about losing fat, but it’s also about building muscle to improve overall body composition.
Resistance training can be classified as free weight exercise, resistance machines, body weight exercises, resistance bands, basically anything that is weight baring, and anaerobic in nature. There are so many benefits to resistance training that there’s no way I will be able to list them all, but here are a few of the benefits:
- improved muscle strength and tone
- weight management
- increased muscle-to-fat ratio
- prevention or control of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, back pain, depression and obesity
- improved mobility and balance
- pain management
- increased self-esteem
Aside from the fact that resistance training can improve body composition, it may be a better use of time than cardio. According to NutriBase.com a 150 pound person jogging for thirty minutes at 5 mph will burn roughly 278 kcal, whereas that same person could weight train with low rest between sets and burn 382 kcal in the same time frame. How many calories you burn for a given exercise depends on a number of factors and is highly individualized but it is well known that high intensity weight training can help you burn more calories than low intensity cardio. The best types of resistance training exercises for fat loss are ones that use large muscle groups such as the squat and deadlift. In the case of the deadlift, it uses almost every muscle in your body, which can lead to more calories burned while also increasing strength and improving body composition. This is why I believe everyone should be deadlifting and especially if you need to lose weight.
Another reason resistance training can burn more fat than cardio is due to an increase in metabolism following exercise. Strength training induces what is known as Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC. This just means that your metabolism is elevated after exercise. It has been shown that EPOC can last up to 38 hours following exercise, which means you continue to burn an elevated amount of calories long after you are done with your weight training session. With cardio, EPOC may only last a couple hours, if at all. High intensity interval training and sprinting are a little different, as they produce similar EPOC effects as resistance training. When you weight train, the muscle fibers are damaged and in order to repair them, the body needs to expend excess calories. 1
So with resistance training you get improved body composition and strength, more calories expended during exercise, more calories burned after exercise and number of other health benefits. With cardio you get reduced strength and a fair amount of calories burned during exercise but not following. You tell me which one is better for fat loss.
Bringing It All Together
So what does all this mean if you want to lose body fat? If you want to lose fat, you should prioritize in this order: diet -> resistance training -> cardio. I didn’t discuss diet in this article because there are many ways to optimize your diet for weight loss and it is outside the scope of this article. However, it is the most important factor and without paying attention to it, fat loss will be much much harder. Once you have a grasp on your diet, your next priority needs to be resistance training. There are many ways to go about it but you want a program where you are utilizing dynamic movements that use large muscle groups. The squat and deadlift are a couple exercises that are perfect for fat loss along with many other benefits. (If you would like more information about how to program deadlifts into your training routine click here.)
I recommend weight training two days a week at the bare minimum but 3-5 would be ideal. Start the workout with a warm up, then move on to resistance training, then do cardio at the end or on off days. How much cardio you need to do and the intensity depends on how much you need to lose and your current health status. A blanket recommendation I can make is to start with 3-5 days a week at moderate – high intensity for 20-60 minutes, unless you are a strength athlete. Some people may not even need to do cardio in order to lose weight, if resistance training can get the job done.
Remember there is no one exercise that is the magic answer, but there are some that are better than others. If you are trying to lose weight, I hope you learned something from this article and good luck on your journey. Please comment below with any questions or if you have any fat loss tips!
- Greer, B. K., Sirithienthad, P., Moffatt, R. J., Marcello, R. T., & Panton, L. B. (2015). EPOC Comparison Between Isocaloric Bouts of Steady-State Aerobic, Intermittent Aerobic, and Resistance Training. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, (86), 190-195. Retrieved March 18, 2016. ↩