If you’ve ever researched "how to lose fat," then you’ve probably heard of the fat-burning zone. If you haven’t, the claim is basically that 50% to 60% of your max heart rate (to figure yours out, deduct your age from 220) fjdslfajl. See, for our bodies to effectively burn fat while we are exercising, oxygen needs to be present. “The nuts and bolts are that more intense exercise burns less fat because we need oxygen to burn fat and as exercise intensity increases the anaerobic contribution increases (energy provision without oxygen),” explains James King, lecturer in exercise physiology at Loughborough University.
If an effective fat-burning workout is what you're looking for, we're here to help. The first step is figuring out if your usual workout is the most efficient at helping you reach whatever goals you may have. We’re busy people leading hectic lives, so it makes sense we'd want the most fat-burning bang for our buck. So, we asked various trainers in London, “What are the best fat-burning workouts?” The answers may surprise you.
Keep scrolling for some of the best expert-approved exercises to burn fat.
Okay, so when you’re in that HIIT class, you might not be burning much fat. But after is a totally different story: “A HIIT workout can elevate EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) to a level which can allow you to burn fat for up to 24 hours afterward, even longer in some cases,” explains Sophie Everard, Another Space HIIT instructor. This will depend on ensuring you reach the anaerobic threshold (around 85% of your maximal heart rate) during your session.
The trouble with HIIT is that it’s exhausting and puts a lot of strain on the body, which can lead to DOMS, aka delayed onset muscle soreness. “Fatigue kills HIIT,” says Luke Barnsley, personal trainer at Third Space. which is why he recommends cross-training your HIIT sessions with some LISS on what he describes as an active recovery day. “On these days, you should focus on stretching, mobility drills, and steady-state cardio (heart rate below 140 bpm). This will aid your recovery, meaning you’ll be able to go harder in your next HIIT session, and yes, it will help top up the amount of fat burned,” he adds.
The Tabata protocol is a common — and quick — form of HIIT training. To try it, do eight 20-second rounds of exercise at an all-out intensity, and take just 10 seconds of rest between rounds. Pick an exercise that will get your heart rate up in a flash (e.g., sprints, kettlebell swings, squat jumps, burpees).
A favorite with Kayla Itsines, LISS is any cardio that is done at low intensity in a steady state (hence the abbreviation). You can jog, swim, row or cycle, but you should be able to hold a conversation. “You should be working for 30 minutes minimum and at 60% of your maximum heart rate,” explains Simon Stacks, personal trainer at FitMiBody. “The theory is that your body stops using glycogen (today’s food energy) and switches to an older source (stored energy, aka the fat from last week’s pizza),” he adds.
As you will be going for at least 30 minutes, you want to find the type of cardio you enjoy. And since you want your body to tap into old energy stores, King recommends you do your LISS in a fasted state. However, if you’re going to try fasted training (exercise on an empty stomach), then you want to ensure that you refuel with a balanced meal of carbohydrate, protein and some good fats afterward.
So why not just choose LISS as your fat-burning method of choice all the time? The answer is that you still burn some fat calories during HIIT and keep burning them after: “The downside of [LISS] is that with lower intensities the absolute energy expenditure will be less (if the duration is matched), which is what actually matters for weight control, not fat oxidation per se,” says King. In essence, a short, sharp HIIT session is more time-efficient than a longer LISS one.
LISS is, however, a great way to get some fat burning in on your active recovery days. Unless you’re a complete machine, your body just won’t be able to take a daily HIIT session, and if you are hitting those hard-and-fast sessions every day, you may not be working to the optimum, so you won't get the results you crave.
Fat burning doesn’t just happen as a result of HIIT or LISS; weight training plays a crucial part in revving up your fat burn too. When I asked Stacks what the best fat-burning workout was, he said this: “It depends on a few factors, but the first one is this: What causes the greatest physiological adaption? In plain English, that means what makes your body go, ‘Oh crap, this is stressing me out; I need to change to deal with it.’”
Weight training does just that: If you are lifting heavy weights to failure (where you can’t lift that dumbbell for another rep), then you are causing micro-tears in the muscle, the muscle then repairs and grows to adapt so that next time you lift that weight your body is better prepared, so “you burn energy during training and during recovery,” says Stacks. “Not only that, but this adaption to your physiology (bigger muscles) has now upped your metabolism.”
The more you lift weights, as long as you are doing a progressive overload plan (working towards lifting heavier weights over a period of time), you will increase your muscle mass, which in turn may speed up your metabolism, meaning you’ll become a more efficient fat- and calorie-burning machine.
Some experts estimate that a pound of muscle burns almost 3 times as many calories as a pound of fat.
Cardio may burn more calories during the workout than resistance training (a 30-minute run at 6 miles per hour burns roughly 372 calories for a 155-pound person, while a vigorous weight session burns 223 calories), but resistance training builds muscle. That muscle then helps you burn more calories at rest (known as your basal metabolic rate), and if the strength session is intense enough, you’ll see greater EPOC, according to Briney.
Sample workout: Shoot for 2–4 strength sessions per week. In general, circuit-style strength sessions (i.e., moving right from one exercise to the next with little to no rest in between) likely burns more calories than taking regular breaks, as will pairing an upper-body exercise with a lower-body exercise, according to Briney. To save time, tack a quick HIIT session onto the end of your strength routine 2–3 times per week.
You might not readily associate mind-body exercises like yoga and Pilates with fat loss, but these kind of activities are key for creating balance and easing stress. “Stress often limits people from fat loss, from physical stress like old injuries and lack of mobility, to mental stress,” Briney says.
Whether you go for yoga, Pilates or a mix of the two depends on your goals and preferences. In general, Pilates helps you build core strength and improves posture and alignment, whereas yoga helps improve flexibility and balance. That said, there are many different types of yoga, from vigorous and fast-paced to slow and stretch-focused.
In general, yoga and Pilates can help ease mental and physical stress, but the best form of mind-body exercise for you is the one you enjoy.
Sample workout: “Like low- to moderate-intensity cardio, you could do yoga and Pilates more often without too much stress,” Briney says. At a minimum, though, try to do yoga and/or Pilates at least once a week.
Another advantage of swimming is its low-impact nature, meaning that it’s easier on your joints. This makes it a great option for people who have injuries or joint pain.
If fat loss is your focus, then try factoring in two or three weight-training sessions per week, two or three HIIT and one LISS. Ensure you have one rest day too. It could look like this:
Tuesday: weight training
Friday: weight training
Saturday: rest day
Wiewelhove T, Fernandez-Fernandez J, Raeder C, et al. Acute responses and muscle damage in different high-intensity interval running protocols. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2016;56(5):606-615.
Cleveland Clinic. Want to lose weight? Build muscle. Updated August 6, 2020.