Five Ways to Burn Fat at the Gym

There are some quick and easy ways to incinerate fat while at the gym without having to spend hours doing cardio or taking overpriced and ineffective supplements. Unfortunately there is nothing easy about how hard you have to work, though.

1) Shorten your rest time

This one is quite simple. If you are used to taking a minute or two between sets or exercises, start to superset your exercises, or combine three or four exercises into a circuit.

What a superset is – pick two exercises, and alternate doing them with minimal rest time. It will keep your heart rate elevated (burning more fat), and you will be much more time-efficient, too.

An example:

Instead of doing four sets of pull-ups with a minute break in between, and then doing lunges after, do one set of pull-ups, take a 30 second break, do your lunges, take a 30 second break, and go back to pull-ups. Try to pick opposing muscles, or at least muscles that don’t generally work together (like your back and legs). This way you get to rest your muscles while still challenging your cardiovascular system.

A circuit would be more of a full-body focus – pick a few exercises and go through each one time before repeating (generally for two or three sets or “rounds”). Circuits are very time effective. Try to get good at creating circuits with minimal or zero equipment, so you can cut down on your transition time between exercises.

2) Ditch the isolation exercises

If you are a bodybuilder trying to sculpt the ideal physique, there is room for bicep curls and triceps extensions.  However, if you are looking to burn fat, these exercises are pretty ineffective. Ditch isolation (one muscle) exercises in favor of compound (many muscles) exercises. Compound exercises are harder, but they get your heart rate up, and they involve more muscles, which requires more calories/energy. Some examples include – squats, pushups, deadlifts, and so on.

And think about this – if you are curling 20 pounds or doing chin ups (which also work your biceps), which is more effective? Let’s assume you weigh 180 pounds. Using your biceps to pull 180 pounds is a lot more effective than curling 20 pounds multiple times.

3) More effective cardio 

By now, many people have heard of HIIT – high intensity interval training. What it consists of – high effort cardio mixed in with rest times. It has been proven to be more effective and efficient at burning fat than steady state cardio. The main problem with HIIT is that most people aren’t working nearly hard enough to reap the rewards.

The second “i” stands for intensity, which means your intervals need to be intense (relative to your current fitness level, of course).

And HIIT cardio is fully customizable. Bad knees? Skip the treadmill for the elliptical or bike. Want to add some muscle too? Opt for the rowing machine. You can mix up the distance, time duration, or difficulty. Just make sure you are working really hard. By the end of your HIIT routine, you will feel very, very uncomfortable. You can even do HIIT with exercises like pushups, or jumping rope. The core principles:

  1. Work really hard for a certain duration of time (10-30 seconds typically)
  2. Rest/recover in between (usually 30-90 seconds) intervals
  3. From start to finish (including a five minute warm up and five minute cool down), HIIT shouldn’t take more than 15-25 minutes.

My typical HIIT routine:

  • Treadmill sprints for 20 seconds, rest for 40 seconds, for 10 rounds. I usually adjust the inclune or the speed up to increase the difficulty, or shorten the rest time.

4) Try fasted workouts

A recent study exemplifies this phenomenon, pitting a group of untrained, carb-fed cyclists against a group of untrained, overnight-fasted cyclists and comparing both groups’ muscle glycogen content and V02 max. Who won? The fasted group improved their V02 max by nearly 10% and their glycogen content by over 54%, while the fed group improved V02 max by just 2.5% and glycogen by a paltry 2.9%. Lesson? Don’t eat 1.5 grams/kg body weight in cereal-based carbs pre-workout, and definitely do not eat a delicious shake of waxy maize during your workout (unless you really really like cereal and corn starch slurries).

The biggest thing I find with working out on an empty stomach – more clarity. Not thinking about what I just ate or what I am going to eat after. This usually is conducive to early morning workouts. Give it a try, but don’t overanalyze or stress out – if you are hungry, eat a bit before your workout. The less thinking you are doing regarding your gym sessions, the better.

5) Work hard

No science, no numbers for this one – if you eat pretty well, go to the gym with some sort of regularity, and work hard while you are there, you are going to burn fat and gain muscle. The gym should be your time to focus on exercise and only exercise – leave your other thoughts – work, life, whatever – at the door. You can write up a great program and have sweet workout gloves (seriously, what is with workout gloves these days?), but nothing beats effort. Sweat equity goes a long way with fat loss, muscle gain, or any other sort of body composition change you are hoping to undergo.

All of the above tips being said… you can’t out-train a bad diet. I have made this point many, many times. If you eat a Subway sandwich for lunch, don’t expect to be able to “burn it off” at the gym. Many people say nutrition is 80% of the fitness puzzle (with exercise and sleep the other 20%), but I’d argue it is closer to 90%. You are what you eat – you can have the best workout program on earth designed by the smartest and most creative trainer known to mankind, but if your diet is awful, what is the point?

You will find many people who say they eat “pretty well” but they can’t seem to lose the extra weight. The real answer – they don’t eat “pretty well.” You don’t have to eat perfect – there are times for cheat meals and special occasions, but don’t forget that nutrition (and sleep) come before training. Take care of the important stuff before worrying about everything else.

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