I want to start by saying that there is no specific exercise or combination of exercises that will make you lose fat automatically.
If such an exercise existed, it would be the only thing people did every January 1st and personal trainers would be out of a job.
The #1 key to burning fat and losing weight is to consume fewer calories than you expend.
NFL offensive linemen do a lot of “conditioning” work that might be thought of as “fat burning” exercises, yet I guarantee they have more fat on their bodies than you do.
Conversely, we all know that super skinny guy at the office who never works out but has a visible six pack because he eats like a bird. Again, I’ll say, you must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight!
Furthermore, only about 5% of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) comes from exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT), i.e. energy expended during a workout.
This makes your workouts in and of themselves fairly negligible and not nearly as important as consuming fewer calories when it comes to burning fat.
That being said, what exercise is really good at is increasing your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which burns up to 70% of your TDEE . But that can take a lot longer than just a 6-week weight loss challenge.
Now that we’ve got that sorted, there are a few things you should or could change within your workouts to help you reach your weight loss goals.
These minor tweaks, when used in tandem, can help you enter into a greater calorie deficit, as well as maintain your existing muscle mass as you lose weight.
1. Increase Training Frequency
Training frequency can be defined as how often you train. If you are only training three days a week right now, and you increase your workouts to four days a week, you have increased your training frequency.
It should come as no surprise that if you work out more, you burn more calories. If you are maintaining your weight right now, and you start working out an extra day per week, burning an additional 300 calories that you wouldn’t have normally burned, that can add onto the calorie deficit necessary to lose weight.
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2. Work Out the Same Muscles Multiple Times Per Week
A good strategy while you’re in a calorie deficit is to maintain the muscle you have while you burn fat. How do we do this? By training the same muscles multiple times per week.
For example, if we only use our chest muscles once a week, we are not sending very strong signals to our body that these chest muscles are important. But, if we train our chest two or three times per week, it is a much stronger signal that we should keep that muscle around.
Burning fat and building muscle at the same time is kind of like dating two girls at the same time. You might be able to do it, but not forever.
The body actually has a tough time burning fat and putting on muscle at the same time, especially if you’ve been training for a long time.
One of the main reasons you want to keep your muscle, in addition to making you look good naked, is that higher muscle mass means higher BMR, which means a higher capacity to burn fat.
When trying to build muscle, you want to spend more time recovering than damaging muscle tissue. However, if you are in a calorie deficit, your body doesn’t want to spend what little calories it has on building new muscle. In fact, if you are in a severe enough deficit, or if you are in a deficit for too long, you’ll begin to lose muscle mass.
That said, if you want to maintain muscle and lose weight, train more. If you want to maintain muscle and gain weight, train less.
3. Increase Training Density
The formula for training density is workload divided by time.
Think of it like this:
Last week you benched 225 lbs for 3 sets of 10, and it took you 15 minutes.
This week you bench 225 lbs for 3 sets of 10, and it takes you 12 minutes. Boom, you increased your training density!
This is a rare scenario in which being dense in the gym is a good thing.
This concept can be applied to your whole workout as well. If you did the same workout two weeks in a row, but you finished the second week quicker, you increased your training density.
If you did the same workout in the same amount of time but were able to add weight or sets or reps, you also increased your density.
4. Increase Training Volume
The definition of training volume is sets x reps x weight.
One key training strategy is to make sure you’re overloading your body in some way to trigger an adaptation, i.e. getting your muscles used to increased sets, reps and/or weight.
A simple way to do this is to increase volume every week of your regimen. How do you increase volume? By increasing any of the three variables listed above: sets, reps, or weight.
Increasing the amount of volume you’re putting on your body will naturally cause you to burn more calories, while also stimulating the desired adaptation. Basically, go harder today than yesterday.
5. Focus On Strength Over Hypertrophy
Believe it or not, there is a difference between muscle size, and muscle strength —sorry, bodybuilders.
Bigger doesn’t always mean stronger, and stronger doesn’t always mean bigger.
When we’re in weight loss mode and we don’t care as much about building muscle, we can shift our priority from growing them to getting them stronger or more efficient. Efficient meaning the same amount of muscle can lift more weight or do more work.
To obtain hypertrophy, a fancy word for muscle growth, you typically need a range of about 6 to 15 reps, although it varies from muscle group to muscle group.
If you know you are going to be entering into a cut, it might make sense to enter into a strength block in your programming and try to get your muscle efficiency up.
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6. Incorporate Cardio
This one is pretty intuitive. If you want to lose fat, it helps to hop on the treadmill every now and then. But incorporating it into your planned program can be an important tipping point in whether or not you lose that weight.
Adding a mere 20 minutes of light cardio to the end of your workout three days a week can be enough to push you into that necessary deficit required to lose weight.
It doesn’t really matter what cardio you do, so long as you’re moving, so pick a form of cardio that you enjoy doing, or at least something you don’t totally hate with all your soul.
Looking at you, burpees.
7. Use Supersets
You can do more work during your workouts if you don’t waste all that down time in between sets.
Incorporating supersets, which means doing one exercise then immediately doing another one before repeating the first, is a good strategy to become efficient on time, thus increasing density, and burning extra calories during your workout.
Pairing up opposite or different muscle groups is a good strategy to use when using supersets.
For example, doing a back exercise then immediately following it up with a chest exercise allows you to rest one group while the other one works, and vice versa.
You can also do giant sets, i.e. three exercises, or circuit training, i.e. four or more exercises, to achieve a similar effect.
Just don’t be that guy who hogs all the equipment during rush hour at the gym.
8. Split Up Your Workout
Instead of only working out once a day, you might find it beneficial to have multiple workout sessions throughout the day.
For example, doing weights in the morning, and cardio at night. Or maybe you do upper body work in the morning and lower body work at night.
There are a few benefits to this style of training. If you think about doing all your work at once, you are probably much more fatigued during the second half of the workout. By giving yourself a lot of time in between bouts of exercise, you give your body time to recover and thus work harder overall.
If you split up your workout, and that causes you to lift more weight overall, then that will, in turn, burn more calories and trigger better adaptations, thus getting you closer to your goal.
Again, there is no magic exercise or program that will make your fat disappear. If there was I guarantee there would be many more people showing off their six-packs at the beach.
However, the above tricks can help push you over the edge to get you closer towards being one of those people on the beach with washboard abs and lats you could land a plane on.
Trexler, Eric & Smith-Ryan, Abbie & Norton, Layne. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: Implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 11. 7. 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7.