I recently had a reader question, and rather than respond directly I have decided to post the response here to help anyone in the same situation.
I’ve split my answer into five parts as it became rather long. This post is part three.
Q. I’m getting married soon and I’d like to lose weight for my wedding. I’ve been going to the gym now regularly since January.
My goal is to lose about 10lbs and move more because I have a sedentary job.
I do 20 min of bike or elliptical then usually do rowing for 10 15 min. Then I do some planks and some mat workout, abs, then stretch. Once in a while, I will finish with 5 minutes on the stairs.
That’s on average what I do, with some variation.
I’d like to use more weights but don’t know what to target to get lean and not bulky.
I have toned up nicely using the rowing machine and I do HIIT workouts at home, but I don’t have a schedule. I work out randomly.
I’m going to break these questions down and answer them independently in each of this five part blog series.
From the initial question, I will cover the following topics:
- Achieving Weight Loss – (part 1)
- Moving More – (part 2)
- The best exercises to Lose Weight – (part 3)
- How Not to Get Bulky – (part 4)
- Getting the schedule right – (part 5)
The best Exercises to Lose Weight
As we’ve already discussed in part one and two, burning calories is not just about planned exercise, but your movement outside the gym too, which is referred to as NEAT. We’ve also gone over the fact that to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. If you’re simply eating too much, no amount of exercise is going to help you lose weight. The 2 minute video below will help explain more why that is.
Cardio based Exercise
Cardiovascular exercise is anything that our body does aerobically, which ranges from sitting to running. The only difference between those two things is the intensity. As the intensity of exercise increases, we burn calories faster. This means that you will burn say 300 Calories a lot faster by running than by sitting. As the intensity increases, the body also becomes less efficient at using energy, so more calories are burned per unit of energy created.
However it’s important to understand that 300 Calories burnt are the same whether you do it walking or running. It will just take you longer to burn 300 Calories walking.
People get caught up on which exercises burn fat instead of sugar and which exercises burn the most fat, however this is the wrong way to think about it. In the grand picture of your day, individual exercises don’t work like that.
What matters most is your calorie balance at the end of the day (of even the end of the week).
Why is this so?…
Whether the exercise you do burns sugar or fat, if you are consuming less calories than you need, your body is going to have to use body fat as fuel during some part of the day. It doesn’t matter what type of fuel you burn during the actual exercise – if you burn sugar during exercise instead of fat and you’re in a calorie deficit, your body will burn fat later on to replace that sugar.
In fact, higher intensity exercises that burn more energy prefer to burn a greater percentage of sugar than fat. Choosing exercises than “burn more fat” will be disadvantageous to you because they burn less energy overall.
Therefore, during planned exercise, I tend to suggest doing higher intensity exercises to burn the most energy overall.
It always depends though. Again, you need to think of the bigger picture. How are you feeling that day? how are your stress levels? Would doing high intensity exercise make you want to eat more? Would doing something a little less intense be better for your recovery?
When someone starts a fat loss diet, the stereotypical image is running on a treadmill. It’s fine to do this, plus also the bike, the elliptical and rowing machine which were mentioned in the original question, HOWEVER usually only if you need to burn some extra calories to quickly get your step count up for the day (post 2).
Cardio is NOT the best use of our time in the gym for several reasons.
As we do more cardio, the body gets more efficient at it, so we need to do more exercise to burn the same amount of calories – that’s not fun!
When trying to lose weight, we are actually aiming for fat loss. Our bodies can sometimes burn muscle instead, which makes you weigh less but doesn’t make you look any smaller. In fact, it also has other negative consequences as well.
As your muscle mass drops, you’ll get weaker and feel more tired. This will give you less energy to move around and exercise, meaning you’ll end up burning fewer calories during your day, and so your weight loss will slow or plateau. Also, as body fat is a measure relative to your lean mass, if your muscle mass drops, then your body fat percentage will automatically be higher. This means that you can drop weight but actually end up fatter!
Muscle mass is also what gives the body shape, and is what many people mean when they refer to the “toned” look.
Because muscle mass is so important, your time in the gym is best used trying to maintain or increase it rather than burning calories doing cardio. Your calorie deficit (which will get you losing fat) is best achieved by manipulating your diet and increasing your NEAT outside the gym. Your gym time is best used doing higher intensity/resistance exercises which work your muscles more.
A higher intensity exercise can be defined as one that you wouldn’t be able to continue for an extended amount of time (unlike sitting or running at slow speeds). When you lift weights for example, you quickly get to a point where you have to rest in order to be able to continue again. The same goes for running at higher intensities. When you run at maximum speed, you’ll quickly get tired and not be able to continue – you’ll have to rest before starting again.
Two types of higher intensity training that I recommend are:
- Resistance training (some kind of weight lifting program).
- High Intensity Interval or circuit style training.
I’ll cover resistance training in the next part of this series.
Number 2, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is an excellent swap for those still doing traditional cardio exercise in the gym. It has several benefits over lower intensity exercise but using the same equipment:
- You burn more calories for less time worked out.
- You don’t adapt to it so well like you would with lower intensity exercise, so continue burning the same amount of energy every time.
- It’s muscle sparing, so helps you burn fat instead of muscle.
Because of this, I’d recommend swapping one of the cardio exercises from the original question with a HIIT training session. You could do the following for example.
Instead of rowing for 15 minutes, row at max effort for 30 seconds (note down your total distance rowed so that you can match it on your next effort).
Then rest for 60 seconds and repeat. Do this for 5 to 10 intervals. Make sure you decide beforehand how many you’ll do as it’s very easy to give up while you’re doing harder workouts like these. I’d start with 5 and increase it every week until you are able to do 10 intervals at the same intensity.
In summary, there are no real best exercises to lose weight. Looking at what we want to achieve, the best thing to do is “move” as much as possible throughout your day to burn calories. This will increase your NEAT and help push you into a calorie deficit. Then we want to make sure the body is burning fat rather than muscle, so use your gym time to do muscle-stimulating exercise like HIIT and resistance training. Finally, if you haven’t moved much during the day, it’s ok to do some traditional cardio exercise sometimes. Don’t overdo it though as you will often feel tired and hungry which is the last thing you want when on a diet!