I don’t know about you, but if I’m gonna spend any amount of time working out, I want to make sure that my workout gets me the results I’m after. Specifically – I don’t want to screw around with workouts that aren’t the best for fat loss. If you’re anything like me, you want efficiency. You want to know what you can do with limited time to get maximal results. Good. Me too. That’s what we’re covering today: the best exercises for fat loss so you can save time & effort, get results and not increase hunger while you’re at it.
I am all about the 80/20 of workouts. What are the 20% of things that will drive 80% of my results? I wasn’t always this way. I used to think that ‘more was more’ and I’d spend hours in the gym. That was a terrible plan, primarily because it made me ravenously hungry.
- I was tired all the time
- I was actually making fat loss more difficult because of the stress response my inefficient workouts were creating in my body
- I was ravenously hungry and often used my gym time to justify overeating
These days, I spend far less time in the gym, I workout fewer times each week and my body is leaning out faster than ever before. I work hard but I work smart. I’m loving it. (Side note: sometimes I send my workouts to the folks on my free VIP email list. Hop on it if you’re interested.)
Not So Fast
I really enjoy working out but I’m super clear on a really important point: you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. 90% (or more) of your results are going to come from what you put in your mouth. So if you’re still working on good, fat loss nutrition habits – STAY RIGHT THERE. Don’t change a thing. Don’t take on more. Master the big rocks of nutrition first as they are the primary drivers of your results. When you have those mastered, working out is a great add-on for further fat loss and general health.
No matter how much you work out, you still have to meet the two physiological requirements for fat loss:
- Consume less energy than your body needs for operations (working out can help with this as it increases your body’s energy needs)
- Hormone balance (the wrong kind of workouts can wreak havoc on your hormones!!)
What You Wanna Know
Just like some foods are better than others for achieving fat loss, some movements (or exercises) are better than others for fat loss. They challenge your body more, recruit more major muscle groups and create the kind of hormonal response that favors fat loss. Those are what make up the 20% of most impactful factors when it comes to exercise for fat loss.
These are in no particular order and I could write a post on each of them, but I’m just going to give my thoughts on why these are exceptional for fat loss.
First of all – don’t panic. You don’t need to be an olympic athlete to be able to sprint. Sprinting is completely relative. It just means all-out burst for a very short duration and/or distance. You can sprint on a bike, in a pool, on a rowing machine or you can do a traditional running sprint. It just means all-out effort so let go of that voice in your head saying, “I’m not fast enough to sprint”. That has nothing to do with it. You go at YOUR most intense pace. Who cares how fast someone else goes? That has NOTHING to do with you.
Anyways, sprinting is an exceptional exercise for fat loss because it triggers an acute stress response (as opposed to chronic) that really favors the initiation of fat burning. Plus, sprinting generates a significant after-burn. Basically, your body has to recover from the oxygen debt created during the workout and that sets you up to stay in fat burning mode potentially for hours after your quick workout is over!
Yeah, burpees suck. No doubt about it. But they work. Burpees work just about every single muscle group in your body and they combine strength and cardio (you’re moving your entire body weight quickly). They are going to send your heart rate soaring while working your legs, glutes, core, back, arms and shoulders!
As a general rule of thumb, the more muscle fibers activated in a movement, the better it is for fat loss. For example, tricep extensions really only activate your biceps and triceps. Not a bad thing, but not the most efficient for fat loss. Squats target your glutes, the largest muscle group in your body, but also activate your quads, hamstrings, calves, back and core.
The deadlift has even more muscle activation & recruitment than the squat (except maybe the front squat). There’s no question that the deadlift is a full body movement and gets just about every muscle group engaged and activated. That’s efficiency at it’s finest!
My trainer says that if he could do only 1 training movement, he’d pick the thruster. If you have to pick between the squat, deadlift or thruster – the thruster absolutely positively delivers bang for the buck! The thruster combines the front squat and overhead press and is the most comprehensive movement I can think of. More than the deadlift or squat, it’s going to get your heart rate up and generate some real change in your body!
- Kettlebell swings
I hope you’re starting to see a trend here – the best exercises for fat loss are those with the greatest amount of total muscle recruitment and/or those that really raise your heart rate while engaging multiple, large muscle groups. The kettlebell swing is no exception. The KB swing engages your glutes, quads, hamstrings, back, abdominals, biceps, triceps, shoulders…..seriously! And, doing a handful of swings will definitely get you breathing heavy! This acute physical stress and comprehensive muscle recruitment is the absolute ideal environment for fat burning!
- Slow walking
Switching it up a little bit here! Now, I’ll be honest: I don’t really think that walking counts as exercise. We were made to move and we spent faaarrrrr too much time on our butts. With that said, we absolutely MUST move more and leisurely walking is actually fantastic for fat loss! It helps to lower cortisol, a stress hormone, and it improves blood flow – both are requirements for fat loss! So, at an absolute minimum, start walking!
- Go heavy – that’s right. Your mom’s 5 lb dumbbells won’t do the trick. Your muscles need to be stressed in order to respond and generate that hormonal response for fat loss
- Go hard – if you aren’t going to push yourself you might as well not bother. Is it comfortable to get breathless? Nope, sure isn’t. But results from workouts aren’t generated within your comfort zone.
- Don’t be a moron – Safety first. Learn proper form and don’t sacrifice form so you can go heavier.
A word on lifting heavy
It’s not lost on me that many women are wary of lifting heavy for fear of “bulking up” or “getting bigger”. Let me be really, really clear: EXERCISE DOES NOT GROW MUSCLES. FOOD DOES. No matter how much you train, no matter how heavy you train – muscles get bigger only when you consume more calories than your body needs. PERIOD. If you aren’t overeating, you cannot gain ANY kind of weight – fat or muscle.
We clear on that? K, good.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that sometimes I don’t want to push hard. I’m sucking wind and it’s uncomfortable and I am exhausted. But you know what that voice is that screams for me to quit? It’s my comfort zone. Because honestly, if I push a little harder, if I do those extra 3 reps – it’s not going to kill me. I’m not going to die. I’m just going to be breathless and maybe a little sore. Change does not happen within your comfort zone. That’s just the way it is. You don’t have to push as hard as I do. You don’t have to push as hard as the person next to you. My effort and their effort have ZERO to do with your best effort. My “sprint” used to look more like a 3-legged dog’s trot. No joke. But I pushed as hard as I could and I gradually got better. If you phone it in and hold back, you won’t see the results you’re after. Nothing wonderful happens inside your comfort zone.
What If You’re a Beginner?
First, refer back to what I said up top about nutrition being the primary driver of fat loss. If you’re still mastering those principles, don’t sweat the workout stuff (literally and figuratively). Stay focused on food. There’s not reason to feel guilty about not working out. We can’t successfully develop a dozen habits all at once. Use your energy on the biggest rock – nutrition. With that said, if you’re feeling great about your food choices and you’re ready to start working out but you’re a beginner, I’ve got a few words of warning:
- Do not assume that you know how to do even the most basic movement like a squat. If no one has ever taught you great form, you don’t have great form. Improper form can very quickly lead to injury. Many gyms will offer free initial consults with a trainer and you can ask them to teach you basic form.
- Not all trainers are good trainers. Just like there are a lot of people out there giving terrible, inaccurate nutrition advice, there are a lot of people giving awful training advice. In an upcoming podcast episode I’m going to talk about how to ID a good trainer, but for now, just keep in mind that not all advice is good advice.
And obviously: if you have medical conditions, injuries or physical limitations, talk to your doctor before doing anything.
I know you probably have a million questions now. And I want to hear them!! I’m planning an upcoming podcast episode featuring my own personal trainer – what questions do you have for him? What do you want to know about fat loss and fitness?