Can You Train Your Body to Burn More Fat?

Aleisha Fetters
by Aleisha Fetters
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Can You Train Your Body to Burn More Fat?

When you’re exercising for weight loss, what you’re really doing is exercising for fat loss. Seems pretty simple, right?

So wouldn’t it be great if you could train your body to burn more fat during your workouts, making yourself into a fat-burning machine? That’s the promise of a whole slew of strategies, from low-carb diets and fasted exercise to making sure that your cardio equipment says you’re in the “fat-burning zone.”

But can you really train your body to torch more fat? Yes, but it’s not that simple.

First, a quick and painless (we promise!) biology lesson: Your body can run on three different fuel sources: carbs, fat and protein. At any single moment, you’re burning calories from a combination of those three macronutrients. However, what percentage of calories comes from each source depends on a ton of different factors, explains Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson.

INTENSITY MATTERS

The main one is how hard you exercise. You burn the greatest percentage of calories from carbs when performing high-intensity exercise like heavy weightlifting, HIIT workouts and sprinting. Meanwhile, you burn very minimal calories from fat and protein, he says.

On the flip side, the lower your exercise intensity, the greater the percentage of your calories burned come from fat, explains Nancy Fudacz, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified trainer and master performance training coach at the East Bank Club in Chicago.

But you can train your body to burn the majority of its calories from fat during all exercise. How? By making sure your body doesn’t have carbs on board and available to use during exercise. After all, if your body doesn’t have any carbs to burn, it will be forced to burn more fat.

THE STRATEGY

To make sure that your body doesn’t have carbs available, you have a couple of good options: follow an extremely low-carb diet (we don’t necessarily recommend this) or perform a high-intensity workout in the morning that burns a ton of carbs and then, before eating carbs, exercise again, Nelson explains.

Over the long term (anywhere from a month to a year or more, according to studies), following these strategies can cause your body to become “fat adapted,” says Nelson — meaning your body defaults to burning a higher percentage of its calories from carbs than it would otherwise.

THE RISKS

But besides the potentially long timeline, there are other costs. “It’s a brutal and horrible process,” explains Nelson, noting that without available carbs, the central nervous system gets fatigued, energy levels drop and, typically, exercise performance suffers. Additionally, says Fudacz, your mile times get longer, how much you can lift gets lighter and your exercise intensity generally declines, even if you’re pushing yourself to your absolute limit.

The result: You potentially burn fewer calories during your workout, including those from fat, than you would by working out at a higher intensity with the help of carbs. After all, if you manage to burn 90% of your calories from fat, but you only burn 100 calories total during your workout, that’s not so impressive.” If you only burn 20% of your calories from fat, but you burn 600 calories total, you’re burning six times the calories and 33% more fat.

So, yes, you can train your body to burn “more” fat — but “more” is misleading and can actually backfire for those trying to lose weight. A better fat-loss strategy for most gym-goers is to focus on performing high-intensity workouts like heavy weightlifting, body-weight circuits and sprints on the treadmill, elliptical or another fitness apparatus — and by fueling those workouts with the carbs your body craves.


READ MORE

> The 4-Week HIIT Plan for Beginners
> Why Strength Training Is the Workout You Need If You’re Trying to Lose Weight
> 9 Foods to Avoid Before a Workout


About the Author

Aleisha Fetters
Aleisha Fetters

Aleisha is a health and fitness writer, contributing to online and print publications including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, TIME, USNews.com, MensFitness.com and Shape.com. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she concentrated on health and science reporting. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA. You can read more from Aleisha at kaleishafetters.com, or follow her on Twitter @kafetters.

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13 responses to “Can You Train Your Body to Burn More Fat?”

  1. Avatar Aaron says:

    Your body will break down muscle and burn that before it will ever burn fat. Any high intensity workout will look for carbs first if none are present it will go to muscle before going to fat. It is hard for the body to convert fat to energy.

    • Avatar DaBoss says:

      Please include a link for the proof for this assertion Aaaron.

    • Avatar miketnelson says:

      It is actually not that hard to break down fat for energy – although how well you do it will vary from one person to the next. Unless you are really really training hard or in a starvation condition, the body does not want to use protein for fuel since it is very inefficient plus it is a much longer / more involved process.

      Think of it this way – I could heat my house in the MN winters by burning down the walls, but long term that is a horrible idea. I am much better served to add more fuel to the furnace. Your body has plenty of fat to use, even in lean individuals.

  2. Avatar Sophia says:

    That was a pointless article. It’s misleading to tell people to skip carbs before workout and then say nevermind. I know you’re not supposed to, but if I didn’t I might have stopped reading after the skipping carbs part.

  3. Avatar Rob says:

    Pretty sure Nachos is the 4th source of energy your body can use during workouts. Limit Nachos before intense workouts to get ripped

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  4. Avatar miketnelson says:

    Thanks for doing the article Aleisha and having me in it.

  5. Avatar Bill says:

    I think the point on the No Carbs before a workout is a good one. I hear way to many people say they are Carbo Loading so that they can do an intense workout or ride or run, his myth has to go. Carbs are of course essential and are good for you when taken in moderation, but we as a society eat way to many and need to understand that if we want to loss weight we need to rethink our diets and make some LIFE STYLE changes.

  6. Avatar Special K says:

    This article sort of misses the point.

    First off, “Your body can run on three different fuel sources: carbs, fat and protein,” is an oversimplification at best and wrong at worst. The body can run off one fuel source – glucose. Those macronutrients can be broken down in to glucose, but they themselves are not fuel sources.

    Second, very few trainers worth their fees ever recommend high intensity exercise on an empty stomach or while devoid of an accessible fuel source. What tiny amount of additional fat you might burn will be made up in poorer workout quality and other biological reactions that will be overall detrimental to your progress (as the article mentions). However, your actual workout burns a small amount of calories in comparison to your normal daily activity and the “afterburn” that occurs while your body repairs itself post workout (often thought of as a “boost in metabolism”), so the calories burned *during* a workout should rarely be the target for high intensity exercise, but rather the adaptations that take place as a result.

    Additionally, the idea that a carb depleted workout might burn 100 calories vs. a carbed burning 600 is an extremely misleading example. Even depleted the workout quality is not likely to suffer *that* much, and honestly, burning 600 calories in a single workout is not feasible or reasonable for most trainers, particularly beginners (we’re talking about running 6 miles or really intense lifting/HIIT for a longer-than-reaosnable amount of time). It’s more likely your depleted workouts will burn 200 and your carbed will burn something like 265, depending on the type of training you engage in.

    Honestly, don’t take any of the advice in this article. Neither option is at as extreme of an end as the author makes it sound.

  7. Avatar Marybeth says:

    This was a super confusing blog post–is this method being promoted by myfitnesspal or not?? It seems a lot more explanation and science would be needed to help readers understand the method and the stance that mfp is taking. Thumbs down on this one.

  8. Avatar Johnnymac says:

    Great article!!! I definitely will benefit from this article. I’m 53 and my goal is to burn fat and tone up. I’ve been doing cardio ahead of strength training. I think I will lift weights first and then do cardio.

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