What Type of Exercise Burns the Most Fat?

Jessica Sanders
by Jessica Sanders
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What Type of Exercise Burns the Most Fat?

To build a well-rounded exercise program that torches calories, builds muscle and improves fitness, it’s important that you include both cardiovascular (think: jogging or cycling) and strength training. But for time-strapped people who — let’s be honest — may not love working out, it can be challenging to find a fitness routine that burns the most fat efficiently.

The most effective way to make time for both training styles is to do them in the same session: strength followed by cardio or vice versa.

However, if you’re wondering whether combining the two could reduce the effectiveness of both, you’re not alone. One study of 97 participants found the most favorable results, including increased cardio-respiratory fitness, fat and weight loss, when combining cardio and strength in 30-minute routines practiced five times a week for 12 weeks.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine divided 48 male participants into different training groups: strength training, cardio only and sessions with a combination of the two. At the end of 12 weeks, the group with combined workouts had greater aerobic capacity than the men in the siloed groups. This group also improved performance in a 4K (2.5-mile) time trial run.

Which Should You Do First: Cardio or Strength?

A number of studies have attempted to answer the next logical question: Which should I do first, cardio or strength? Unfortunately, the results are mixed.

For example, an ACE-commissioned study of 24 men and women performing combined workout sessions found that heart rate was higher during cardio when participants jogged on the treadmill after strength training, meaning they had to work harder to complete the cardio portion when it immediately followed strength work.

On the other hand, participants’ rate of perceived exertion when performing strength exercises after cardio was minimal, allowing them to perform better in both parts of the workout.

Still, many experts believe that performing strength training first depletes the body of its carbohydrates, forcing you to tap into your fat stores to power the cardio portion. If this theory is correct, it would mean that doing cardio after strength training allows you to burn more fat.

Jonathan Ross, 2010 IDEA personal trainer of the year, suggests that there is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer. He says it’s best to focus on the goal of your specific workout, choosing the sequencing and exercises that allow you to put the most energy toward that goal before you’re fatigued.

For example:

  • If your goal is to improve endurance, do cardio first.
  • If your goal is to get leaner/lose weight, do strength first.
  • If your goal is to generally get fit, you can choose which one you want to do first. Switch between cardio- or strength-first sessions every time, or do the one you like least first to get it out of the way.

If one of these goals is yours, consider using metabolic strength training to maximize fat loss, build strength and beat boredom at the same time.

Metabolic Strength Training

To maximize calorie and fat burn while also building muscle, make your strength sessions more metabolically challenging with high-intensity interval training or Tabata. These efforts force your body to expend more energy (burn more calories) in less time.

The idea behind metabolic strength sessions is simple: By making simple tweaks to rest time, intensity, reps, sets and time under tension, you force your body to use different energy pathways, thus increasing metabolic demand and expending more energy. This often translates to greater weight loss and an increase in lean muscle. A review of research published in the Journal of Obesity revealed that HIIT produces significant improvements in fitness and strength while also prompting some reduction in abdominal fat in overweight individuals. All this in less time? Win-win.

Do this metabolic strength circuit once a week for the next three weeks, varying the rest time between exercises as noted below.

Complete 10 reps of each exercise. Repeat the sequence 2–3 times total.

Modify the exercises as necessary — for example, substitute a wall-assisted push-up or a push-up with bent knees.

Week 1: 30 seconds rest between each exercise
Week 2: 15 seconds rest between each exercise
Week 3: 60 seconds rest after you complete all of the exercises in the entire set

Remember that you can also change the number of reps, number of sets, intensity and weight you use (or don’t use) to make the workout more or less challenging. And, you can modify each exercise as necessary to suit your current level of fitness, strength and mobility. These types of workouts are designed to be challenging, but be sure to use caution, particularly if you’re new to this type of exercise.

About the Author

Jessica Sanders
Jessica Sanders

Jessica Sanders is an ACE-certified personal trainer and owner of Honest Body Fitness. She loves challenging her body and is continually inspired by her clients to push harder during every workout. When she’s not in the gym or writing training programs, she likes to hike, camp and spend time on the beach in sunny San Diego, where she lives. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.


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