Losing weight is great. Burning fat is even better. The number on the scale gives you a great idea of what is happening in your body, but how do you know whether you have lost more fat than muscle? Everything you do during your workout has some effect on whether you burn fat, muscle, or both. Your ultimate goal is to maximize fat loss, while minimizing muscle loss. While it’s impossible to completely avoid some muscle loss when you lose weight, there are some really great strategies to minimize it, and burn as much fat as possible.
Let’s talk about four of the best ways to do it.
Stay in the fat burning zone during cardio
Your body gets most of its energy from carbs and fats (protein offers a little, but not as much). Carbs are a much easier and efficient energy burn, so your body will go after that first, then the fat. So, one strategy is to limit your carbs severely and your body will have no choice but to use fat for energy. Yes, your workout will suck and you’ll be very tired.
Another less taxing option is to stay in the “fat burning zone”. Your body takes from different energy stores based on it is working, and less intense cardio actually burns more fat. Basically, when you’re running pretty fast or doing more intense cardio, your body burns more carbs and when you’re doing something less intense, it burns more fat. So for most of us, the point on a treadmill or elliptical where we can still have a comfortable conversation, but get a little tired, is likely the fat burning zone. The point in our cardio where we will be exhausted at the end and can only manage inaudible grunts is the carb burning zone. If you’re a more intense exerciser, it will be hard to scale yourself back to the fat burning zone and feel like you had a good workout, but you can assure yourself that you’re burning fat more efficiently.
This is a controversial topic because you burn more calories with more intense exercise so it’s usually better for you in the long run. Also this fat burning zone situation sounds sooo counter intuitive. However, scientifically the fat burning zone has been proven to exist. So, why not give it a try?
Here’s the typical chart you see on a piece of cardio equipment. Take it with a grain of salt, but there is some truth the fat burning vs. cardio zone.
Build muscle through strength training
A huge key to less fat is more muscle. If you were to do nothing but cardio, and you lose weight, you’re going to lose a lot of muscle along with the weight. For some people this isn’t a major issue. Skinny fat is still skinny (not the best way to look at it, but it’s an option). However, it’s a harder road to travel since you have to rely on losing weight alone to see results, opposed to using your natural muscle to help define your shape. It also makes the future more difficult, because your metabolism won’t be as high and it will be harder to lose weight down the road. There’s also a flabby factor. So, lesson here: strength train and make your life and body a whole lot better.
Add it to your cardio routine, and you can lose little to no muscle as you lose weight. (If you actually want to gain muscle, that’s a bit of a different goal, as it’s hard to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time). Add a simple strength training routine to your cardio and target fat loss opposed to muscle loss. I really like this beginner’s guide from Bodybuilding.com.
Do HIIT workouts and coast on EPOC
Crazy acronyms there – I’ll explain. If you’re not familiar with High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), you definitely want to be. HIIT workouts are quick workouts – typically anywhere from 5 – 30 minutes that alternate between high and medium intensity exercises. The main difference between HIIT and steady state cardio is that the exercises are typically more intense (which is why the workouts are shorter) and you don’t typically do the same exercises during the entire workout. So, for example, a one minute run during traditional cardio might be a 30 second sprint, then a 15 second jog, and 15 second walk during HIIT. Research has found that HIIT workouts have led to 2% higher loss in body fat in test subjects when compared to steady state cardio. Part of this fat loss is a result of excess post-oxygen consumption (EPOC). This basically means that your body continues to breathe in more oxygen and work harder even after the workout, so you burn more calories. That’s like a free calorie burn. You may as well take it, so add some HIIT to your exercise routine.
On the SweshFit website, you can find a full calendar of HIIT workouts with videos. Workouts include a mix of cardio and strength training for lots of EPOC!
Do something drastically different
If you think about the role of the fat in your body, the purpose is to provide an energy reserve when we need it. Your body stores it for a rainy day. It’s typically not the immediate form of energy, and it’s not always needed, which is why it’s stored. So, think of anything that you tap into on an irregular basis: an emergency fund, a favor from someone you don’t approach often, canned goods that you keep in the pantry. The only way these things are going to get tapped is if something unique (and often unplanned) happens. Fat stores are no different. If they wanted to move simply because you had a good workout or skipped a meal, they would have done it by now. Who knows exactly what they’re thinking, but we know we have to change something to get that fat out of there!
Try eliminating dairy for a month. Try going gluten free. Do a group fitness class that you would hardly ever do. Sleep for a full 8 hours at night. Try one or more of the things I mentioned earlier in this post. The possibilities are endless so no need to overthink this one. Try something different for 30 days and you can really land on a goldmine for burning the fat in your body.
Guest blogger: Markita Staples is the author of this article. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and an awesome blogger over at Sweshfit.
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