When it comes to the best fat-burning exercises, slow and steady wins the race. Intense training in shorter bursts burns calories and fat, and unlike long, slow cardio sessions, intense training keeps you melting fat even after your workout is over, says Martin Rooney, director of the Parisi Speed School and author of Ultimate Warrior Workouts.
It's true: In a January 2017 Journal of Diabetes Research study, researchers argued that HIIT is a more effective weight-loss tool than steady-state cardio because of its efficiency.
But before we elaborate on the best exercises to burn fat, there's one thing you should know: To really lose weight, you'll need to do more than just exercise (yes, even if it's the absolute best exercise for fat loss).
"You can't out-train a bad diet," says David Jack, director of Teamworks Fitness, in Acton, Massachusetts. Pack your meals with fiber-rich foods, like vegetables and beans, to keep you feeling fuller, longer, and avoid packaged foods and sugary drinks like fruit juice and soda.
Now, are you ready to try the best fat-burning exercises for weight loss? You've been warned — they're all intense.
1. Interval Training
Interval training — bouts of high-intensity exercise alternated with short rest periods — not only burns more calories than traditional cardio training, but it also boosts your body's ability to fry fat through hormone production.
"[With intervals], you have an increase in growth hormone, a fat-burning hormone and adrenaline, another fat-burning hormone that also helps suppress appetite," says Craig Ballantyne, owner of TurbulenceTraining.com. Interval-training is also a great way to burn max calories in a short amount of time, he adds.
"There are two ways to increase cardiovascular fitness — by increasing the delivery of oxygen to the heart and lungs or by increasing the utilization of oxygen at the muscle level," says Ballantyne.
Steady-state works by increasing the oxygen delivery to your heart and lungs. Intervals, however, work on your muscles, helping them use oxygen more efficiently so your heart doesn't need to pump as much to make them function.
How to interval train for weight loss:
- Choose your favorite cardio machine, like a stationary bike or a treadmill.
- Warm up for five minutes.
- Pedal or run at a rate that's 20 percent harder than your normal cardio intensity.
- After 30 to 60 seconds, bring the intensity down to a rate that's half the intensity of a normal cardio workout.
- Alternate periods of 30 to 60 seconds of hard work with 30 to 60 seconds of easy pedaling (or easy running) for six to 10 intervals to complete your session.
- As this gets easier, increase the intensity of each interval: work longer during the hard portion, shorten your rest periods or add more intervals.
- Repeat three or four times per week.
The recovery interval is important. "If you don't take it down to 'easy' during the recovery, you're not doing anything different from a regular cardio workout, and you won't be able to work hard during the interval portion," says Ballantyne. "You want two extremes: hard and easy."
2. Sprints (Like Intervals, But Shorter)
If you haven't sprinted since a coach was blasting a whistle in your ear, you're missing out on a natural but effective form of interval training that can pay dividends for more than just your legs.
"You can't get more of a natural, total-body exercise," says Nick Tumminello, director of Performance University.
If you're not used to bursts like these, Tumminello says it's easy to pull a hamstring, halting your training — and your results.
He suggests following these tips to start safely.
- Sprint on a hill. The impact on your joints is lower, Tumminello says, which can help you avoid injury. "The ground basically hits your leg earlier, which forces you to open up your hips a little more," he says. "And you can't go as fast, so you're less likely to pull a muscle while still getting a high-intensity workout."
- Start slow. Live in a flat area with no hills? Instead of the drag race approach, begin your sprints by speeding up from a jog. "Most hamstring pulls start on the initial explosion," says Tumminello.
- Hit the track. Jog the curve, then sprint 10 to 20 yards of the straightaway. Continue interval sprinting in this way.
- Keep it short. Limit your sprints to 50 yards each. This will help you maintain a high intensity throughout, says Tumminello, and prevent your form from breaking down, which can lead to injury. To increase the overall results of your sprint workout, increase the number of sprints instead of going for long distances.
When you're starting out, do a sprint workout only once a week; you'll be surprised at how sore the workout makes you, even in your abdominals. Once you're used to the stimulus, Tumminello suggests bumping it up to only two sessions per week, mixed with other gym workouts. Allow at least two days of recovery between sprint workouts.
3. High-Intensity Strength Intervals
You don't need to run, bike or do other traditional cardio exercises to get high-intensity, fat-burning training. By pairing strength exercises that work opposing muscles, you can build muscle while keeping your heart rate high, maximizing fat loss.
"For example, run over and do a dumbbell reverse lunge, then do a pull-up," says Jack. Your arms and back rest during the lunges, and your legs rest during the pull-ups. See? Efficient.
Jack uses similar exercise pairings to do escalating density training, an interval protocol with a built-in challenge. "The basic concept is that you're trying to do more work in the same amount of time," he says.
Try this challenge: Choose two exercises that use opposite movements or work completely different muscles. Example: Pair a pushing exercise with a pulling exercise or a lower-body move with an upper-body move. Consider a dumbbell bench press and an inverted row.
For each exercise, choose a weight you can lift for 10 reps. Alternate between the exercises, performing just five reps of each move, with the 10-rep weight, in each set. Rest as needed between sets and pairs so that you can complete each set of five without failing.
"Your conditioning and strength-endurance will dictate your recovery time," says Jack.
As with cardio intervals, strength intervals like these won't work if your reps aren't high-intensity. "The 'off' bout needs to be long enough that the 'on' bout is effective," says Jack. That's the key to burning fat.
Continue alternating between the exercises for a set time — 10 or 15 minutes, for example — keeping track of how many total sets you can do. In following sessions, try to beat your score by finishing more sets in that time or by finishing the same number of sets but with tougher weights.
Density training sessions are great to add to the end of a traditional strength training workout, Jack says.
Other pairs he recommends include a goblet squat with a single-arm dumbbell row, a reverse lunge with push-ups or pulldowns, deadlifts with dumbbell overhead presses or split squats with a rowing exercise.
4. Countdown Workouts
Countdown workouts also use exercise pairs and are a motivating way to finish a workout, says Mike Wunsch, performance director at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California.
"They keep you engaged in what you're doing because you need to keep the count and pay attention," he says.
With each round of the exercise pair, the workout involves one fewer rep of each move — moving from sets of six to five to four, and so forth, until the count reaches zero. That finish-line mentality can keep you going.
As with density training, Wunsch recommends pairing opposing exercises but also suggests picking moves that have a rhythm. Moves like the kettlebell swing, squat thrusts and push-ups work well. Wunsch says stress-busting med ball slams and throws can add to the fun.
"I stay away from lunging and other knee-dominant moves, though," says Wunsch. Moves like these, he explains, can result in injury if your form falters while performing exercises at a fast pace. For the same reason, he also advises avoiding overhead-pressing moves like dumbbell thrusters.
Wunsch's suggested exercise pairs are:
- Kettlebell swing with squat thrust
- Medicine ball side toss with medicine ball slam
- Jumping jacks with push-up
- Squat thrust with push-up
Start by performing six reps of the first exercise, then six of the other move. Return to the first exercise and perform five reps, then do five reps of the second exercise. Continue alternating in this way until you reach zero.
In each workout after that, add one rep to every exercise, Wunsch says. If one countdown isn't enough, choose a second pair from the list of exercises or create your own pair of opposing moves.
5. Hurricane Workouts
To combat boredom and train faster and harder, Rooney designed a workout that combines lifting weights and interval training. He calls it "the hurricane," which is "brief but intense."
Each hurricane is broken into three groups of three exercises, called rounds. "Each round features an exercise that gets your heart rate up, plus other exercises in between," he says.
This design allows you to build muscle and keep your heart rate up throughout the workout, which usually lasts between 16 and 22 minutes.
Here's a sample workout: For all rounds in this workout, perform one set of each exercise, then move to the next exercise. Complete the entire round three times before moving to the next round.
- Warm up for five minutes.
- Round 1: Run on a treadmill at 10.5 mph and a 10 percent incline for 25 seconds. Perform a kettlebell Turkish get-up four times on each side of the body and 10 chin-ups. Repeat this sequence three times.
- Round 2: Run on a treadmill at 11 mph and a 10 percent incline for 25 seconds. Perform 10 dips and 15 reps of the barbell rollout. Repeat this sequence three times.
- Round 3: Run on a treadmill at 11.5 mph and a 10 percent incline for 25 seconds. Next perform 10 reps of the G.I. row. Then perform 20 reps of the knee grab. Repeat this sequence three times.