What Is The Best Fitness Workout for Weight Loss?

All too often we get asked “what is the best workout?” or “what exercise is best for weight loss?” and in all honesty, as much as some sites, books, DVD’s and gym instructors may tell you, there is not really a best way to exercise. All exercise is good.

There is still a bit of a debate surrounded the weight training or cardio argument too. Both sides believe that their method of weight loss is the best of course.

Cardiovascular Exercise for Weight Loss

The cardio camp will tell you all about the increased fat burning that occurs when you are doing high intensity exercise and then the “after burn” effect that lasts for around 24 hours after you exercise which helps to burn off more fat. This all sounds great and scientific studies have shown that this process does occur. So surely this is the best method to lose fat?

Well, that is not what the weight training camp tell us.

Weight Training and Muscle Building for Fat Loss

Not that we have suddenly decided to call it “fat loss” and not “weight loss”. Generally when people talk about losing weight they are talking about losing fat. With bodybuilding and strength training it is important to be more specific, as weight loss could indicate a breakdown of muscle tissue and this is not good!

The argument for weight training as being a better way to lose fat is that although the act of weight training does not burn as many calories as cardio workouts do in the early days of training, by weight training you build more muscle tissue and this increases your metabolism. You may have seen people describe this as developing your own “fat burning furnace”.

However, again studies have indicated that this does not really happen. Studies have shown that within a few days of finishing a weight training or a cardio workout program fat burning reverts to normal levels, that is metabolism reduces. The extra muscle tissue does not have a massive effect on fat burning after all.

It seems most likely that both methods work equally well but with some people weight training provides clearer and more attainable goals. For example, a 35 year old guy may be more motivated to develop big biceps and strong shoulders than to improve his fitness levels to be able to run 10 km.

A similar amount of training, whether it be purely cardiovascular, purely strength training or a combination of the two seems to have similar effects.

EPOC is a small number

In 2004 Runners World magazine discussed the role of metabolism and weight loss. There are 4 types of metabolism which affect how fast we burn fat:

  • BMR – Basal Metabolic Rate is the amount of calories that you burn while at rest. BMR is determined by genetics and total body weight.
  • TEF – Thermic effect of feeding. Yes, when we eat we burn energy to digest. This accounts for around 10% of all calories burned each day. You can increase it a little with more regular meals, hot and spicy food and extra protein.
  • PAEE – Physical-activity energy expenditure. This is the amount of calories you burn when exercising. This is the easiest way to increase the amount of energy you burn each day.
  • EPOC – Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, more commonly known as the after-burn effect. Exercising only increases this by a very small amount.

Now, Runners World go on to criticise the claim by Adam Zickerman in his book Power of 10: The Once-a-Week Slow Motion Fitness Revolution that “Three extra pounds of lean muscle burns about 10,000 extra calories a month, just sitting around” and that this is achievable with a 20 minute weight training session once a week.

It is often quoted that for every pound of muscle you gain your body will burn an additional 50 to 100 Calories per day. This appears to be one of those fitness myths though. It has been quoted in so many fitness magazines and websites that everyone thinks that it must be true.

The thing is, resting muscle has a low metabolic rate. It is only when it is being used that it quickly raises metabolism. More muscular people will burn more energy when exercising because their muscles require more fuel, just like a 5 liter engine burns more gas than a 2 liter engine.

But generally once you get fitter you can do more cardio exercise and also perform workouts to training the muscles too. For example, Michael Phelps burns around 12,000 Calories a day. Although huge bodybuilders do also burn a lot of calories they have to go through various phases of bulking up to build muscle, and this invariably leads to fat accumulation.

Eat Fewer Calories

The American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine both state that to burn more fat it is more important to reduce calories than try to exercise more to lose weight. The best option really is to reduce calories and then do more cardio workouts. Strength training is great for building more muscle, but cardio is best for losing weight.

So, we have managed to contradict ourselves. The best way to lose weight is to do more cardiovascular exercise. What is great is that this form of exercise is good for your heart too, thus the name!


Can You Really Boost Your Metabolism? Burn calories–even while you sleep!–with a little strength training. Sounds great. But does it work?” By Amby Burfoot. From the August 2004 issue of Runner’s World. Accessed online on 23 August 2011..

Mentioned in the Runners World article:

“Power of 10: The Once-A-Week Slow Motion Fitness Revolution” by Adam Zickermam. ISBN-10: 006000889X

Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Health and Exercise” by Gina Kolata. ISBN-10: 0312423225

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