“Fast, easy fat loss” is BIG business. Weight loss is a $64 billion-a-year industry in the United States, and for years this industry has been the main source of fat loss information available to women. Most of it is carefully crafted marketing that preys on women’s insecurities for profit, with little, if any interest in helping women achieve sustainable results.
They tell women they aren’t lean enough, skinny enough, or desirable enough, then offer a solution that promises to burn, chisel, tone, tighten, trim, or smooth away their problems. These “solutions” rarely work, and don’t support a healthy lifestyle or long-term success.
Sustainable fat loss is rarely quick, but there are some fundamentals that can definitely kick-start the process.
At Girls Gone Strong, we believe the best way to empower a woman is to allow her to make decisions about her body and her life without judgment—including changing her body.
We want to help you achieve the results you want with sane, sustainable, and compassionate fat loss information.
The experts on our advisory board know that fat loss is a goal for many women, and we strive to provide an evidence-based, body-positive alternative to all the misinformation flooding the Internet.
Want to know the dirty little secret about fat burning workouts for women? Almost any workout can be a fat loss workout so long as it helps you expend more more calories than you’re taking in overall. Of course, there are some workouts that better lend themselves to fat burning more than others.
For example, you may be familiar with the “fat burning zone.” According to Dr. Sue Kleiner, RD, in her article, “The 3 Biggest Fat Burning Myths For Active Women,” the “fat-burning zone” is “also known as submaximal exercise, or training at 45 to 65% of your VO2max. This moderate exercise intensity depends on a mix of about 55% fat to 45% carbs for fuel, and requires a moderate amount of total calories per minute of exercise.
On the other hand, high-intensity exercise, 70% and higher of your VO2max, requires at least 72% of the total calories burned to come from carbohydrates, meaning less than 28% of the calories burned come from fat, and the higher the intensity, the more your body depends on carbohydrates, rather than fat, for fuel.”
That said, it is theorized that high-intensity exercise can lead to an elevated post-exercise metabolic rate, also know as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or ‘after-burn.’ Dr. Sue explains, “That after-burn can last for 24-36 hours and is typically fueled mostly by fat, whereas with moderate-intensity cardio, there isn’t much of a post-exercise increase in your metabolic rate. There’s no ‘after-burn’ of calories.”
While there is no argument that EPOC can exist, the conditions required to make it come about seem to be very specific and difficult to achieve. Findings suggest that subjects need to be in energy balance (i.e. not dieting) and work at much harder efforts than are safe or even possible for most exercisers1. Even these conditions result in mixed research findings, such as found in a comprehensive review article of the effects of various intensities of training on 24-hour fat oxidation in subjects not dieting2.
The main criticism of HIIT lies in advertising it as a fat loss miracle, and suggesting people stop wasting their time with moderate intensity cardio.
Most programs advertise that you can do HIIT for a much smaller period of time, usually less than 20 minutes, rather than that typically 30-45 minutes of moderate intensity cardio. If you work intensely or moderately for the same amount of time, you will of course burn more calories working intensely. However, this isn’t how HIIT is advertised, and performing high intensity exercise for a prolonged period of time may be impossible, or potentially risky for most people. This leaves people doing a 15-20 minute circuit and wondering why their fat loss isn’t going as planned.
Several critiques have been written illustrating the negligible impact HIIT will have on overall fat loss, considering the large calorie deficit that is needed to lose even 1 lb of fat. Moreover this review and many others have proven that without energy restriction, exercise of any type or intensity makes a negligible dent in weight without very large volumes of exercise, which are unrealistic for most people.
A recent study at Duke University compared three 8-month exercise protocols to induce fat loss: aerobic exercise, resistance training of the same duration, and a combination of two (resulting in twice the total exercise time). The guidelines were based on the current ACSM recommendations for health and fitness. Every group was instructed to keep their diet consistent.
Every group lost some fat mass, but the resistance only lost the least, while the combined program, unsurprisingly lost the most. However, this was only 2.5kg (roughly 5 lbs) of fat on average over 8 months in overweight individuals. Most people trying to lose body fat would be pretty disappointed with only a 5 lb loss over 8 months. A recent meta-analysis confirmed these findings when comparing programs that are diet-only, physical activity only or a combined program, showing that diet only is superior in the short term, but combined programs are most effective for long-term fat loss or maintenance of fat loss.
Bottom line? Exercise of any type should be viewed as an enhancement, rather than a means, to fat loss. Nutrition is critical when fat loss is your goal.
When choosing what type of exercise to engage in, keep in mind you will be more likely to stick to a program for fat loss that you enjoy, that works for your schedule, and doesn’t increase your risk for injury or aggravate any existing conditions.
Finally, despite not being as effective at fat loss as nutritional adjustments, cardiovascular activity of any intensity has numerous benefits beyond fat-burning, including:
All of those benefits create conditions that more effectively support your fat loss efforts.
As mentioned above, strictly from a “calorie burn” standpoint, working at a higher intensity than a lower intensity for the same amount of time will burn more calories, but you can achieve the same calorie burn by working at a moderate level for a longer period of time.
However, we absolutely cannot ignore strength training’s in the discussion of fat loss, especially because traditionally women tend to shy away from strength training in favor of cardio.
Many women wonder about the effectiveness of strength training for fat loss or strength training for weight loss. When you strength train at the appropriate intensity, you create micro-tears in your muscle tissue, and the recovery process to repair this tissue and build it back bigger and stronger than before is a “metabolically expensive” process, meaning it increases your metabolic rate during the repair process. However, you have to challenge your muscles to the appropriate intensity for this to occur. And, as a bonus, the more muscle mass you build by strength training, the harder you can train, thus leading to greater overall calorie expenditure over time.
There are prevailing beliefs that “muscle burns more calories than fat” and that gaining muscle tissue will somehow melt fat off your body. It would be more appropriate to say that recovering muscle requires more energy than fat tissue, and certainly more energy than resting muscle tissue. Christian Finn, in his “The Myth About Muscle and Metabolism” article, researched the actual contributions of lean mass versus fat mass to overall calorie burn. He writes, “If you were to lose two pounds of fat and replace it with two pounds of muscle, your resting metabolic rate will increase by less than 10 calories per day. It would take a vast amount of muscle to substantially increase your metabolic rate — far more than most people are going to build in the gym.”
So why strength train during fat loss? When dieting alone, fat will be lost, but so will lean muscle tissue. Resistance training during fat loss promotes retention of lean muscle tissue, in a way that aerobic exercise cannot. The Duke study mentioned earlier showed a slight loss of lean body mass in the aerobic only group, and they weren’t restricting calories! Without maintaining lean mass, you may not be happy with your fat loss efforts, leaving you feeling the need to diet harder and longer, and who wants that?
Before we look at the characteristics of the best fat loss workouts for women, let’s reiterate that any exercise or workout that contributes to a calorie deficit is technically a “fat loss workout.” In addition, low and moderate intensity workouts are still a critical component of overall wellness and absolutely have their place in a fat burning program, but when it comes to workouts that burn the most calories and contribute to fat loss, in both cardio and strength training, intensity rules.
The common thread among all effective fat loss workouts:
Of course if you’re new to working out, or have been previously sedentary, jumping into a workout program and working at a perceived effort of 8-9 probably isn’t wise, so keep that in mind, and make sure you’re working at an intensity level that’s safe for your ability level.
Remember, you don’t need to do high intensity workouts to lose fat, you just need to be in a calorie deficit, and that calorie deficit can come from reducing your calorie intake, increasing your expenditure, or a combination of the two. If you’ve previously been sedentary and/or carry significant amounts of excess body fat, then you’re much better off starting with low to moderate intensity exercise program.
As mentioned above, low and moderate-intensity workouts have their place in a fat loss program, but more from a standpoint of recovery and stress management, rather than calorie burn. The extra calorie burn is just a bonus.
High-intensity cardio and strength training workouts are stressful to your body. This is a big reason why they burn so many calories—your body is recovering from the stress you’ve applied. However, if you aren’t able to recover from the stress you’re applying to your body, whether it’s work stress, marital stress, financial stress, or stress from your exercise regimen, your body will begin to break down.
When your body is desperate for a break and you don’t listen, it will find a way to make you listen.
Whether your body sends you this message through injury, hormone havoc, fatigue, or illness, in due time, it will happen. Some people can handle high stress for much longer than others before they break, but it will happen.
This is where low and moderate-intensity cardio can be helpful. These activities are more restorative in nature. Not only do they help your body recover from hard training and improve the quality of your sleep, but they improve your body’s ability to deal with stress.
Think of your body like a bank account. Some activities put money in your account and some activities take money out. If you don’t do enough of the activities to put money in your account (like low and moderate-intensity cardio), and you do too many of the activities that take money out of your account (like high-intensity cardio and strength training workouts), you’ll become physically bankrupt, and that bankruptcy takes a long time to recover from.
Of course, if you have a limited amount of time for exercise and fat loss is your main goal, your priorities should be strength training, and short bouts of high-intensity interval training. Just make sure you’re managing your life stress, getting enough sleep, and eating enough food to recover from your training. If you have more time to exercise, definitely include low and moderate-intensity workouts in your fat loss regimen.
As discussed above, almost any workout can be a “fat loss workout” as long as you are expending more calories than you’re taking in overall. Technically it’s the same with an exercise. Any exercise can be a “fat loss exercise” if it is leading you towards an overall calorie deficit. However, there are exercises that are much more conducive to fat loss than others.
According to body composition expert, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, “The metabolic cost of an exercise relates directly to the amount of muscle worked, incorporate multi-joint exercises whenever possible. Involve more muscle, and you expend more energy3.”
Note: if you’re new to working out, or have been sedentary as of late, jumping into a workout program and working at a perceived effort of 8-10 probably isn’t best, so keep that in mind, and instead work at an intensity that feels good and is safe for your ability level.
In short, doing a heavy set of Barbell Back Squats is much more conducive to fat loss than a heavy set of Barbell Curls. Compared to a Barbell Curl, a Barbell Back Squat uses more muscle groups, is more physically demanding, raises your heart rate higher, and has a much higher perceived effort.
Here is a list of some of the best strength training exercises for fat loss:
Keep in mind, if you’re using strength training for fat loss, a normal strength training program won’t maximize results. To maximize fat loss results, perform these large compound exercises for high reps (15-20), to near failure, with minimal rest. This will optimize calorie burn and keep your heart rate elevated throughout the workout. It’s also generally a good idea to alternate between upper and lower body exercises, so the muscles in your upper body can recover while you’re doing your lower body exercise, and vice versa.
In addition, make sure that you’re not following that type of program for longer than 6-8 weeks at a time as you’ll want to alternate that type of programming with strength building programs and hypertrophy programs to maximize long-term results.