So you just started or have recommitted yourself to getting back into a workout routine. Valuing your time, and looking to stay committed, you ask yourself “what’s the best or most efficient weight loss exercise routine?”
This question has been presented to me hundreds of times over the last three decades. My first response is always “exercise control of your dietary intake.”
I know you already know the latter and are looking for exercises that contribute the most to weight loss (though you probably mean fat loss). So let’s start by taking a look at the overall effectiveness for weight loss of different types of exercise.
If you just want the quick summary, skip down to the “All other variables being equal, what is the most efficient method or scenario?”
Weight Loss and Exercise Efficiency
There is definitely validity to how a particular type of exercise effects us during and after a workout. To better understand, we need to look at the way our body burns a particular fuel source (stored glucose, fats and protein) to understand its application.
There are a lot of different ways to exercise. However, there are only three relevant fuel systems that our body utilizes during exercises of varied intensity. A general knowledge of these systems will help you choose the best scenario for your needs. They are listed and explained in the next section.
But, please remember that food intake is the most important aspect of weight loss. Not to beat a dead horse (where did that phrase come from anyway), but please prioritize food over exercise if you want to see dramatic changes.
Some types of exercises burn more calories overall. Some use fat more as a fuel source. While still other burn more calories afterward more than other. So what’s best?
Ah, but not so fast amigos. What about the long-term effects of adding muscle to increase our caloric needs? Is it superior to creating an oxygen deficit? Hmmm… let’s review the types of exercise, the systems taxed and then examine adding muscle further.
Then we can put it together for the perfect scenario.
Different Types of Exercise
Exercises are grouped by variables that determine the results you will get.
High intensity intermittent exercise (HIIE) or high intensity interval training (HIIT)
An example would be sprinting for 30 seconds followed by walking for 1 minute and repeat for X number of cycles. This style lowers insulin resistance, and enhances fat oxidation in skeletal muscle.
Lifting weights, machines, bands or moving against any type of resistance. This also lowers insulin resistance, and enhances fat oxidation in skeletal muscle. The additional metabolically active tissue also increases energy utilization at rest.
Continuously moving from one exercise to the next without rest until a fixed number of exercises are executed.
An example is running long distance.
Long slow duration
An example is a slow paced two hour hike or walk.
A basic understanding of the fuel systems used for specific training (skip if you don’t like the science behind methodology)
Different Types of Fuel Systems
Let’s do a brief review of the fuel systems our body uses during exercise of varied intensity and how it applies to a specific style of exercise:
The Phosphagen System
Is heavily taxed by sprinting, powerlifting or interval training (<10 seconds).
Training the phosphagen system improves overall power, speed, and maximal oxygen uptake. This system supplies the body with the energy needed for short-term, high-intensity activity and lasts only a few seconds and relies heavily on ATP (a fuel source that’s exhausted very fast).
This is good for athletes who incorporate explosive movements in their sport or one who wants to create a large oxygen deficit (see nerd box). Applicable to the following styles:
- Strength training
The glycolytic system
Is heavily taxed in the fifteen second to three-minute duration with interval training, circuit training (weights), heavy cycling, etc. Glycolysis is the breakdown of carbohydrates and has two stages, fast and slow.
Fast glycolysis occurs when the intensity is too high and minimal oxygen is available. Slow glycolysis occurs when there is sufficient oxygen present and leads into the oxidative system.
Both stages of glycolysis occur between 30 seconds and 3 minutes upon initiation of exercise. Training the glycolytic system improves blood lactate threshold (see nerd box) levels and is good for high-intensity endurance.
- HIIT for longer durations (up to 3 minutes in the intense cycle)
- Circuit training
The oxidative system
Is heavily taxed during a long duration of exercise (20-75% maximum capacity) such as step, moderate intensity on cardiovascular equipment, jogging, walking, etc.
The oxidative system can burn carbohydrates, fats or protein in the presence of oxygen to “fire-up” the Krebs cycle (TCA). You can think of the Krebs cycle as this big machine that gobbles up amino acids, fatty acids, and carbohydrate byproducts and spits out usable energy.
As carbohydrate sources are exhausted, the ratio of fat utilized increases in the oxidative system. Training the oxidative system improves aerobic endurance, cardiovascular and pulmonary tissue, and maximal oxygen uptake. It relies on
- Endurance training
- Long slow duration
How Exercises Types and Fuel Systems Interact
It’s important to note that all the fuel systems are active at a given time. However, the level of involvement depends on the intensity of the exercise.
Low-intensity aerobic exercise does not heavily tax any of the fuel systems but does rely on fat as a primary fuel source. Don’t get excited yet!
Training the phosphagen, glycolytic and oxidative system at a moderately high intensity increases the post-exercise oxygen deficit. This stimulates the metabolism for many hours after exercise, which equates to a larger percentage of fat burned overall. Is your head spinning yet???
If your goal is to improve your sport, train the fuel system that best resembles your sport. If your goal is fat loss, train all three systems equally. If the goal is [for] cardiovascular improvement, train all three, but spend more time training the oxidative system at a moderately high-intensity level.
Can we rank the different exercise types in order for the fattest burning?
Well, that’s a mixed bag. And here’s why… Your level of conditioning makes a difference on how fats are utilized during and after exercise. As well as what you’ve eaten prior to the exercise bout.
For example, a conditioned marathon runner can more efficiently mobilize fats during recovery than a novice runner. So, when ranking, we have to consider those variables.
I believe it’s more appropriate to assume you are interested in what’s going to give you the best “bang for the buck” regardless of your conditioning level.
Is there a difference in types of weight loss exercise for women vs men?
I don’t like to differentiate between sexes, but I have experienced different outcomes from specific styles of training for both men and women. But the discrepancy is related to individual hormone levels, quality of sleep, and an individual’s gut microbiota makeup to name just a few.
There’s no doubt that the higher testosterone level in men makes it easier to eliminate fat stores via exercise. So weight loss exercise for women is more difficult. However, that has less to do with exercise types, and more to do with hormones.
But genetics and hormones are not the points of this article so let’s move on.
Let’s talk about adding muscle to burn fat
This was a hot topic in the 90’s and has real merit.
The idea of adding metabolically active tissue (muscle) to your frame to “burn” more energy throughout the day is real, but it’s not as much as once believed. That said, I’m a firm believer that the addition of more muscle puts our hormones in a state allowing for more efficient utilization of stored fat.
It is still why I rank strength training so high on the list for the best weight loss exercise.
By adding muscle through strength training, will you burn more calories while watching Netflix, than you would without? Yes, but please don’t assume you can increase your caloric intake if your goal is fat loss.
You don’t have to get “bulky” either to enjoy this benefit.
Not to mention the overall improvement of postural muscles, skeletal improvements, and blood chemistry improvements.
Some finer details about some of the exercise types
High intensity interval exercise
HIIE three times per week for 15 weeks compared to the same frequency of steady-state exercise, i.e., jogging was associated with significant reductions in total body fat, subcutaneous leg and trunk fat, and insulin resistance in young women.
Additional metabolically active tissue (adding muscle) requires more energy at rest resulting in a lower body fat percentage and more efficient utilization of all energy sources.
Significant reductions in intra-abdominal adipose tissue and an increase in strength and muscle area were observed after a strength-training program in healthy older women.
These changes may be important in preventing the negative health outcomes associated with the age-related increase in intra-abdominal obesity.
Long slow duration
If you have the time, the percentage of fat burned during this method of exercise is higher, but the ongoing oxygen deficit is not substantial.
Do it early in the morning on an empty stomach (drink water first) and you’ll get a better bang for the buck.
- Endurance training: This is more efficient for well trained individuals and less for newbies to endurance training.
- Circuit training: You can turn this into interval training and strength training combined with great results.
So, can you exercise yourself to weight loss?
To a small degree, yes, but the results will not be as profound as you’re hoping.
Here’s my thought on this and a bit of experience on the issue. Overuse injuries are common with excessive exercise. This is something I see a lot in my position. Especially, with the Olympic figure skaters with whom I spent so much time working with. More is not always better, period.
So, it’s worthwhile to plan accordingly. The synergism of a well-balanced exercise regimen and a healthy meal plan cannot be overstated.
Again, a well-balanced exercise regimen AND a healthy meal plan are key!
What are some specific exercises for high intensity interval training?
I need not cover strength training, circuit training, endurance training and long slow duration since the examples were mentioned previously. But here are a few great examples of HIIT exercises you can do anywhere.
- Hill sprints: sprint up, walk down and repeat
- Jog/run walk: jog for 30 seconds, walk for 1 minute and repeat
- Burpees cycled with walking (please execute the burpee properly): do 15 burpees followed by walking for 1 minute.
With these examples you can get creative and follow the same pattern with different movements.
All other variables being equal, what is the most efficient method or scenario?
Here’s the part that really matters… the perfect routine!
- 2-3 days a week of strength training,
- 2 days a week of interval training and
- 2 morning walks before breakfast combined with a clean meal plan.
This will result in the most weight loss, minimize overuse injuries and is a realistic schedule in today’s busy world. Do the intervals right after strength training and you maximize your time management.
This is why for the last twenty years in my studio (Paradigm Fitness), we have combined strength training with interval training with superior results.
Does gut microbiota have an influence
This is a valid question.
During my time in grad school, this wasn’t even a topic. Even ten years ago, it was in its infancy and we didn’t know enough. We definitely know more now and I’ve had to go back and learn a lot of new material.
Yes, it has an influence, but I cannot speak at length since the research is still so young. And I have a lot more to learn.
The Conclusion on Weight Loss Exercise
So, is a particular type of exercise a game changer to weight loss? Yes, the right combination of HIIT, strength training and long slow duration really does make a difference in your overall health and weight loss.
That said, remember the effects of exercise alone when compared to the effects of a well-regulated food intake are not as profound. You can lose more weight simply by cleaning up your meal plan than by executing the perfect exercise scenario while eating poorly.
If you follow the above “most efficient scenario” and clean up your food intake by cutting sugar, regulating your starches, incorporating healthy fats and getting a good night sleep, you’ll be well on your way to being leaner with more energy.
Since we all respond a little differently, what particular exercise method has worked the best for you? Let me know and I’ll reply.
Blood lactate threshold:
the exercise intensity at which blood lactate (the buffer for a low pH) begins an abrupt increase above the baseline concentration. It generally begins at 50-60% of maximal oxygen uptake in untrained individuals and at 70-80% in trained individuals.
can be viewed quantitatively as the difference between the total oxygen actually consumed during exercise and the total that would have been consumed had the oxygen uptake reached a steady rate immediately
Research and Resources on Weight Loss Exercises
Boutcher, S; High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss, Journal of Obesity, Volume 2011, Article ID 868305, 10 pages.
F. Crampes, M. Beauville, D. Riviere, and M. Garrigues, “Effect of physical training in humans on the responses of isolated fat cells to epinephrine,” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 25–29, 1986.
G. C. Gaitanos, C. Williams, L. H. Boobis, and S. Brooks, “Human muscle metabolism during intermittent maximal exercise,” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 75, no. 2, pp. 712– 719, 1993
E G Trapp, D J Chisholm, J Freund & S H Boutcher, The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women, International Journal of Obesity, 2008; 32: 684-691.
A. Tremblay, J.-A. Simoneau, and C. Bouchard, “Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism,” Metabolism, vol. 43, no. 7, pp. 814–818, 1994
M. S. Treuth, G. R. Hunter, T. Kekes-Szabo, R. L. Weinsier, M. I. Goran, and L. Berland, “Reduction in intra-abdominal adipose tissue after strength training in older women,” Journal of Applied Physiology Vol. 78, No. 4, 1995
Williams, Melvin H. 1995. Nutrition for Fitness and Sport Dubuque, IA. WC Brown.
Great article! As a trainer myself I believe that is easily in the top 3 questions I get from the general public, “what the best way to lose weight?!” It’s the age old question few really want to hear the answer to. I say that because most want to hear “oh just run” or “drink this magical beverage!”. Only the motivated really take the advice given here that, to greatly paraphrase, “abs are made in he kitchen” and “simply running long distances isn’t generally the BEST way”. Anyway, love the site, keep up the good work!
Thank you Josh! I genuinely appreciate your feedback.