Our list of the best fat burning exercises are the holy grail of workouts. Workouts that are directed at burning fat combine compound movements, cardiovascular intensity, and full body strength training. They also need to be simple enough to be completed with decent form, even under fatigue. If your goal is to burn fat while getting fitter and stronger, here’s how to create the most powerful workout.
What Makes a Great Fat Burning Exercise
- Compound Movements: If you want to burn fat, you need to use as much of your body as possible. Simple movements, like bicep curls or sit-ups, just won’t get you there. Add in compound movements to work every major muscle group. Instead of bicep curls, try walking lunges with a curl. Med ball crunches or med ball crunch throws replace sit-ups. The best fat burning exercises are going to be functional movements that increase your capacity to do work. When done with good form, they will strengthen your entire body and send your fat burning capacity through the roof.
- Cardiovascular Intensity: To burn fat in your workout, you need to get your heart rate up. While workouts that keep the heart rate at or below an aerobic level will draw a greater percentage of calories from fat, the overall calorie burn and metabolic impact of these workouts is much lower. The best fat burning exercises will elevate your heart rate to intense levels of 80-100% of your maximum heart rate. The high intensity of these exercises means big metabolic lifts in a shorter period of time. Using the best fat burning exercises in intense cardiovascular workouts will increase your metabolism for the next 24-48 hours. It also promotes muscle development and stimulates human growth hormone while decreasing insulin resistance and cardiovascular risks. Pretty powerful, right?
- Full Body Strength Training: Even at rest, muscle burns more energy than fat. Keep building muscle and your body will burn a higher number of calories. Exercises that involve as much of your body as possible will have the greatest impact on burning fat and calories while you work out. Pick movements that you can complete without cheating. Include strength training in your calorie burn, to force your muscles to recover after your workout. This leads to fat burning during the workout and maximizes the post workout burn. Workouts can range from running to weightlifting, while targeting the entire body for the greatest fat burning effect.
The Best Fat Burning Exercises
Here are my picks when it comes to the best fat burning exercises that will work at home or on the road. These exercises involve limited weightlifting equipment and can be done with good form and at a high intensity by most exercisers. They also involve strength and compound movements to increase metabolism following your workout.
- Running: Running is a powerful weapon in your fat burning arsenal. Running uses your entire body, including your core. This makes running burn the most calories of any exercise. The trick to burning fat is to keep your effort level sufficiently intense. Rather than long slow runs, include work periods of 20 minutes or more at your lactate threshold. This should be approximately your 10K pace, or about 85% of your maximum heart rate. You’ll know that you’re too fast if you cannot maintain for more than 3 minutes. Complement your running workouts with strength focused training during your week to keep your fat burning high.
- Rowing: You don’t have to be a runner to torch fat through cardiovascular exercise. Rowing provides a similar calorie burn to running and tends to be easier on the joints. Rowing also provides a greater strength training emphasis than running. It targets the largest muscle groups in the body, namely the core, legs and back. This makes it a big fat burning exercise for hours after you’ve completed your workout. Try a rowing for distance workout. Set a timer for 2.5 minutes. Row as far as possible in that time. Rest for an equal amount of time. Try to beat your previous distance. Complete five rounds.
- Goblet Squat (to box): Squats are the fundamental compound movement. They target the body’s largest muscle groups, the quads and glutes, for incredible fat burning potential. Performed well, squats will also train your core and back. Think you can’t squat? This variation trains an upright position, good form, and is easier on your knees and low back. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest at collarbone height, perform a squat to the depth of a box, Dynamax ball, or low chair. Stand up from that position to full height, extending through the hips. Complete four rounds of 90 seconds each following a running or cycling workout. Rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets.
- Biking: Like rowing, biking provides a low impact calorie burn that is similar to running. Biking can be used for HIIT training. With good form, it is an effective and time efficient workout that will increase post workout calorie burn for 24 to 48 hours after your workout. Try Sprint 8 and take the guesswork out of HIIT training with its patented, individualized 20 minute workout.
- Stepping Lunge: Like squats, lunges provide a compound movement that targets the big workhorses of the body (core, quads, and glutes). Add in bicep curls, tricep extensions, or a weighted bar on your back completing 4 sets of 20. Use Stepping Lunges as a warm up before running or squatting to charge up your fat burning and give a serious lift to your backside.
- Bear Crawl: More than just a fun animal name, the bear crawl is a functional primal movement that integrates the posterior chain. It strengthens the back, stabilizes the shoulders, and engages the core. This complements both lifting and cardiovascular workouts through increasing muscular recruitment. Greater muscular recruitment equals greater fat burning during and after your workout. Use bear crawls in circuit training, combined with Box Squat Jump Ups, Ice Skaters, and Dumbbell Farmers Walk (listed below). Each station is 1 minute with 30 seconds to transition between stations. Following the full round, rest for 1 minute. Repeat the circuit four to six times for a fat blasting workout of 30 minutes or less.
- Box Squat Jump Ups: Similar to the goblet or front squat above, you’ll use a plyo box or sturdy bench as a foundation for your squat. Starting seated on the box, jump up. Return to seated for each repetition. You can include these in the circuit described above for a full body workout. You can also use them as a dynamic warm-up before running to increase explosiveness, or as a complement to other lower body exercises on leg day.
- Banded Ice Skater: Ice Skaters become even more effective when you add a band for resistance. Anchor a band at waist height. Facing away from the anchor point, complete Ice Skaters as either a jump or low step. You will train areas that are harder to engage through this lateral movement. The take home? Better stabilization for your hips, knees, and low back. Like Box Squat Jump Ups, include these in a full body circuit, as a running warm-up, or as a powerful leg-day add on.
- Weighted Farmers Walk: What could be more functional than lifting and carrying a heavy load. By adding weight to your walk, you will engage more muscles to increase your overall fat burn. You can carry a dumbbell or kettlebell at your side in one or both hands or place them at shoulder height. Sandbags or a weighted bar overhead are more advanced variations that will challenge posture and core engagement. You can go beyond the circuit above by adding Weighted Farmers Walks (and even runs) to the end of your strength and running workouts. Include rounds of three minutes, focusing on maintaining a pace that keeps your heart rate jacked.
In choosing the best fat burning exercises, keep in mind the rules of compound movements, cardiovascular challenge, and full body strength work. There are endless variations but I would recommend starting with the suggestions above for the best fat burning exercises. Vary them over time with other movements, using HIIT circuits, Velocity Training, or as greater intensity warm-ups for cardio workouts. If you really want to burn fat, include plenty of strength work performed at a level that challenges your cardiovascular system.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.