Whether you’re looking to lose a lot or a little weight, exercise is an important component of any weight-loss plan. But not all workouts are created equal when the goal is shedding pounds. Ahead, trainers rank their favorite research-backed workouts for weight loss.
But before we dive in, there are a few important facts to note.
- Weight loss and fat loss are different: Many people say they want to lose weight, but most of the time, what they really mean is that they want to lose fat. This is an important distinction, because some workouts that help with fat loss — like strength training — may cause weight gain in the form of muscle. That might seem like it defeats the purpose of trying to lose weight, but the opposite is actually true. Adding muscle mass to your frame increases metabolism, which can help you lose fat and keep it off long-term.
- Exercise isn’t the only factor in fat loss: Working out is important for your health, and it can help with fat loss. But ultimately, fat loss is determined by whether or not you’re in a calorie deficit. In other words, your “calories in” needs to be less than your “calories out.” This means that if you’re working out but not paying attention to what you eat, exercise alone may not be enough to achieve results.
- Consistency is key: While some forms of exercise burn more calories than others and some may offer post-workout calorie burn, the best workout for weight loss for each individual person depends on what they’re able to do consistently.“You might have the best workout in the world, but if you only do it once every two weeks, you won’t get the results you’re looking for,” says Grady Bridges, a certified personal trainer. At a minimum, he recommends working out three times per week if your goal is fat loss. It’s key to find something you truly like doing: “It’s better to do something you enjoy regularly — even if it’s suboptimal for your goal.”
Bodyweight exercises can be used to do both cardio and strength training. “If your body allows, I suggest bodyweight cardio exercises like burpees, high knees, jumping jacks, butt kicks, alternating boxing punches in a low squat, squat jacks, plank jacks and squat jumps,” says Heidi Schmidt, a certified personal trainer at West Kept Secret.
While you might think you need equipment to do strength training, there are several ways to make bodyweight exercises more challenging, which creates a similar effect to getting stronger by using heavier weights over time.
If you’ve ever done a heavy bag or shadow boxing class, you know boxing is one of the sweatiest, most intense workouts. One study looked at adults with higher levels of belly fat and found that a high-intensity boxing regimen four days per week was more effective at helping to reduce belly fat than a brisk walking workout routine.
“My top workout for weight loss and cardiovascular health is a high-intensity, steady-state circuit workout,” says Andrea Levine, a certified group fitness instructor. This is slightly different from HIIT, since there’s minimal rest involved. Levine’s go-to method: Performing 6–10 exercises for 1 minute each without rest. “I recommend doing this circuit three times, then resting about 1 minute in between sets.” According to an article published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, this type of workout can provide maximum benefits with a small time commitment, especially when you alternate between upper- and lower-body exercises within the circuit.
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Whether on a spin bike, road bike or cruiser, cycling can also be a great workout for weight loss. Research has consistently shown riding a bike is associated with health improvements. A recent study even found bike commuting can be as effective for fat loss as working out in your free time.
HIIT is one of the most well-known weight-loss workouts, and it’s a great way to lose body fat, says Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning coach. “HIIT exercise has been shown to be more effective than steady-state exercise for fat loss.” While it’s not clear why this is, HIIT does seem to work better than other forms of cardio for some people.
To get started, Matthew Brenner, founder of High 5 Fitness & Nutrition, recommends an “every minute on the minute” (EMOM) workout. “These workouts are a great way to squeeze in a ton of exercise when you’re in a time crunch,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Pick an exercise or a set of exercises that will take you less than 30 seconds to complete. Every minute on the minute, complete the set of exercises, then rest until the next minute starts. The faster you complete the exercises, the higher the intensity — and the more time you get to rest. “Just make sure to save some time for warming up and cooling down,” Brenner adds.
“I love jump roping because it’s a full-body calorie burner you can do anywhere,” says Meghan Kennihan, a NASM personal trainer and USA Track & Field coach. “Jumping rope can burn anywhere from 600–800 calories an hour. Obviously, you won’t be jumping for a whole hour, but it’s a great way to get your heart rate up and can easily be combined with bodyweight strength exercises for a fun circuit.”
Another great low-impact, full-body workout, rowing is also highly effective for weight loss. What’s more, it’s accessible for people with various levels of physical ability. Research published in the Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine found people with impaired vision (who often have lower levels of physical fitness) were able to decrease their fat mass by adding rowing to their routine five days a week for six weeks.
Running can be extremely effective for weight loss, provided you’re not overcompensating for the calories you burned when you refuel post-run. One way to boost your calorie burn with running, according to Kennihan, is to add sprints to the mix. “I recommend starting with 5 minutes of easy running with 30-second sprints for 5 rounds.”
Lifting weights helps with weight loss by improving your metabolic rate and helping you continue to burn calories post-workout.
While any type of weightlifting or strength training can be beneficial, experts recommend heavy weightlifting in particular. “Engaging in heavy lifting is fantastic for increasing muscle and bone density, and has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to burn maximum amounts of calories during and after the session,” explains Chris Edwards, owner of TriCore Wellness and a Trainerize trainer. “Pair heavy lifting with a caloric deficit and you have a recipe for success.”
“Swimming is a great low-impact workout,” says Javier Robles, a health coach and trainer. Because it’s easy on joints, it’s a good pick for people who find other forms of cardio too harsh. Other pros of swimming workouts, according to Robles, include a low risk of injury and the fact that it’s a full-body workout. One study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found swimming for 60 minutes three times per week was an effective method of improving body composition in middle-aged women.
Believe it or not, boosting your step count is a solid strategy for fat loss, according to Edwards. Walking counts as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, which is another way of saying the calories you burn during your daily activity outside of working out, sleeping and eating. “NEAT accounts for about 15% of your total daily energy expenditure, and increasing it can significantly improve blood pressure, blood sugar and digestion — and burn calories at the same time,” Edwards explains. A simple way to get started: “Many times, I recommend a 10-minute walk after meals to help with digestion and reduce stress.”
“I recommend all my clients attend regular yoga classes to help work on strength and flexibility, destress and burn calories — up to 200 in 30 minutes,” Bridges says. A large-scale review in Preventative Medicine concluded that yoga is a safe, effective method of managing body weight. Apart from calorie burn, yoga also supports several other factors that can make weight loss easier, such as decreasing stress and improving social connections.
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