How did you make it to the page you’re on now? Did you Google “fat burning exercises” hoping to find the secret to leaner legs, toned arms, and less belly fat?

Cool. If you used Google to get here because you want to know what the best fat burning exercises are then keep reading. But I warn you, what I’m about to tell you is going to make you eye-roll like a teenager being told to come home before curfew. 

*Clears throat:* There are no “fat burning” exercises. 

Okay that’s kind of half true. There “are” fat burning exercises. They’re just not what you think. Before I jump into what those are, though, let’s go over what fat is and clear up a few misconceptions.

What is Fat?

Fat is more than the jiggly stuff on the back of your arm or that floppy mess that laps over the top of your jeans.

fat burning

For the most part, body fat is nothing more than “potential” energy your body can use to fuel daily life (but it’s also slightly more than that). Whether your body converts stored body fat or it gets that energy through the food you digest, your cells need to convert the energy in fats and carbs and protein to keep you alive. 

Your cells only want one kind of fuel. And that fuel is ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

Are You Down with ATP? (Yea, You Know Me)

ATP does a handful of things:

  • powers your skeletal muscles and digestive muscles to contract
  • carries molecules across the membranes of your cells 
  • and produces enzymes you need for a plethora of bodily functions

Your body creates ATP by converting the carbs and fat you eat every day in your digestive system, or from stored energy via your fat cells and the glycogen in your muscles. Your body can create ATP from creatine as well.

Note: ATP can be created by breaking down protein, but your body has to first convert that protein into glucose via gluconeogenesis which is an expensive energy process and not something the body “wants” to do.

Why is this important to know? Because fats and carbs and protein alone do not actually fuel your body. They’re the potential energy sources your body can convert into ATP via one of your three energy systems.

Your body employs three energy systems:

  1. ATP/Creatine-Phospate System – Your ATP/CP system doesn’t require oxygen. This is the primary system your body uses for brief and powerful movements like sprinting away from zombies or throwing a punch. And it’s also the primary source you’ll use when you lift weights.
  2. Glycolytic System, also know as Anaerobic System: Your body uses this energy system to gain fuel from stored glycogen, which it then converts to ATP. Once you’ve exhausted your ATP, this system kicks in and can supply energy to your cells for about 2-4 minutes depending on your current glycogen storage capabilities. This is the system your body would use for an event like a 400m race. Or after you’ve hammered your legs for a few sets of squats and still have a few more exercises to complete.
  3. Aerobic System, or the Oxidative System: This one can get super complicated, and for those who love nerdy fitness stuff, this is where the Kreb Cycle kicks in. All you need to know about the Kreb Cycle is that it’s the process your body goes through where it breaks down fat, which is stored in your body as triglycerides, into free-fatty acids with the power of oxygen. This is essentially where “fat burning” takes place. And it mostly takes place when you’re at rest or engaged in low-intensity exercise like walking; but it is also still active when you’re doing higher intensity activities, albeit not at the same level as walking.

Here’s the thing: unless you’re a science nerd, you don’t really need to know how your body breaks triglycerides into usable energy that can then be converted to ATP. 

For one it’s a long process that involves a handful of steps with tons of sciencey terms. And two, understanding the chemical and biological processes isn’t a fat burning exercise you want to take part in amirite? You’d probably rather get your heart rate up than dive into all the science.

Here’s the TL;DR: your body is using its energy systems to convert carbs and fat and protein into energy all day, every day. And throughout your day, you’re tapping into those energy systems without consciously choosing to do so.

The energy your body converts into ATP from carbs or fat happens on a sliding scale. The higher up you go on the intensity scale of exercise, the more carbs you use. The lower you go on that scale, the more fat you use. 

Of course, that scale is different for every person. A seasoned marathon runner will burn energy differently than a newcomer to running. Same for a noob weightlifter vs the hulking bodybuilder staring at himself in the mirror. 

The energy scale will also be different based on the exercise you’re doing — walking down the street at your normal pace is going to primarily burn fat; but add a few flights of stairs where your breath picks up and you slide towards more carb usage.

Mobilizing Fat for Fuel

So throughout your day your body turns dials up and down on any one of the energy systems it needs at any given time. Stored body fat, though, has to be mobilized before it can be converted into ATP.

And how does your body mobilize fat for fuel?

Inside your body is a big red button labeled “fight or flight mode.” Pressing this button sends off a cascade of hormone activity, most specifically the rocket fuel we know as adrenaline. This increased adrenaline signals to your body, “yo home slice, we need some extra energy cause there’s like, I don’t know, some crazy rabid aardvark chasing us and we gotta get outta here.” 

fat burning exercise
Look at this thing. Ugly, yes. Terrifying if it were rabid and coming at you, duh!

You subconsciously hit this button and your body converts your stored fat into free-fatty acids that can then be converted into ATP.

Now, if that energy isn’t utilized to escape becoming the snack of a rabid aardvark because you’re sitting on Twitter and getting pissed off at whatever Tweet flashed across your eyeballs, then that energy eventually returns home and is never used. 

But if you do have to run away from a crazed and hungry aardvark, your body will use that released energy to fuel your escape.

You’re (likely) not running away from rabid aardvarks on the reg. But your body is still turning and twisting dials based on how you move through the day. So really, any time you go from sitting on your ass to moving, your body turns the dials of your energy system and recruits “some” fat or glycogen for fuel. 

In a way, that does mean that standing up and down repeatedly at your desk, walking up stairs, running down the hall to make a meeting on time, lifting weights, or roller skating “could” be deemed fat burning exercise.

More succinctly: All activity where your heart rate increases from rest could be considered a fat burning exercise since your energy systems tap into your reserves for fuel. 

So Are There Fat Burning Exercises or Not?

Okay, cool. But what about all that fat around your belly/arms/legs/butt? That’s really what you’re looking to accomplish when you spend half an hour Googling “what’s the best fat burning exercise.”

Exercise does help you burn more energy (aka, calories). And by exercising harder or increasing overall activity from what you are/were doing you will see an increase in calories burned; that may mean you burn more carbs or more fat depending on what you’re doing, though.

You can also increase the calories you burn by eating more protein or eating more whole foods vs ultra-processed foods

But it’s here where we need to draw the line and delineate between burning body fat and burning fat as fuel.

Burning fat as fuel: your body breaks down the fat you consume and converts it into ATP for your cells to use as energy.

Burning body fat: the fat you see in the mirror is fat your body has stored as a potential future energy resource. And if you’re eating in a calorie deficit, your body will burn that fat to fuel your daily life.

When you consume fewer calories than you burn for a sustained period of time (and I mean weeks/months not days), you’ve created a calorie deficit.

This means you’re giving your body less fuel via food. And to make up for that deficit, as long as you maintain or increase your current activity level, your cells are going to need to get fuel from somewhere.

And it gets this fuel from your body fat stores. But you can only tap those fat reserves if your energy out is more than your energy in. 

No matter what some magazine says or some other website claims about fat burning exercises: if you’re not in a calorie deficit, you will not burn excess body fat as fuel. 

You will still burn fat you ingest from food. But that thigh fat isn’t going away unless you’re eating fewer calories overall.

“But my friend says he/she/they eat keto and that they burn nothing BUT fat all day. Is that true?”:

Yes and no. This is where marketers can take advantage of people by twisting and altering aspects of nutrition to fit a narrative that they then use to convince you to buy their book/supplements.

Note: Yes, when you eat a higher fat meal your body will oxidize more fat. But it’s oxidizing the fat you just ate, not the fat on your inner thighs or around your love handles. Marketers use this confusion around oxidation and call it “fat burning,” which it technically is, but they don’t explain the full truth to you because they want you to buy their (overpriced) product.

Remember, your body is burning all types of fuel throughout the day. And that fuel (for the most part) comes from the food you guzzle down your gullet. So if you’re eating a high-fat diet, guess what type of fuel your body is going to want to use? The stuff you give it the most of, duh.

So yea, your friend is burning more fat because he/she/they are eating more fat and that’s what your body has to use for fuel. But burning fat doesn’t mean you’re burning body fat. 

Yes, getting more active in your day via exercise will convert fat into energy your body can use. But if you’re smashing down a burger, a shake, and an extra large fry after you exercise, none of those “fat burning exercises” you did working out matter.

Eating too many calories means you’ll store those extra calories as fat. (And before you ask, no, you did not burn 900 calories during your workout, your iWatch is lying to you.)

fat burning exercises

17 “Fat Burning” Options

At the end of the day, if your goal is to lose excess body fat, a calorie deficit is the ONLY “true” (body) fat burning exercise that works. 

But hey, I know why you came here.

You came here looking for some fat burning exercises you can do at the gym. Hopefully, after reading all of this you have a better understanding of the difference between fat burning and burning body fat. 

In case you forgot: 

Fat burning: your body breaks down the fat you consume and converts it into ATP for your cells to use as energy.

Burning body fat: the fat you see in the mirror is fat your body has stored as a potential future energy resource. And if you’re eating in a calorie deficit, your body will burn that fat to fuel your daily life.

The latter only happens via a calorie deficit, and the former will be done by your body when you increase activity from rest.

Of course, I don’t want you to feel like you’re going away empty handed here. Once you have nutrition on lockdown and have been eating in a consistent calorie deficit for a minimum of 6 weeks — yea, it takes time to lose fat so don’t expect it overnight — here are some ways you can increase the calories you burn in your daily life and/or workouts.

  1. Increase NEAT (activity you do that is not dedicated exercise, ex: walking, dancing around your living room, fidgeting, taking the stairs vs the elevator; riding a bike to work, etc)
  2. Finish your gym time with incline treadmill walking for 10-30 minutes
  3. Add some high-intensity style cardio 1-2x a week by doing sprints or hill sprints 
  4. Add a finisher to your workout
  5. Blast some early 2000s emo and play air guitar for 10 minutes
  6. Increase your protein intake
  7. Stand up and move away from your desk more often in the day
  8. Decrease your rest periods between exercises
  9. Use supersets (do two exercises back-to-back with little to no rest between them)
  10. Try tri-sets (do three exercises back-to-back-to-back with little to no rest between them)
  11. Or try quad-sets or giant sets (four to five exercises in a row with little to no rest between them)
  12. Do “something” during your rest periods at the gym — bust out calf raises, walk laps around the gym, do jumping jacks, anything other than scrolling Instagram
  13. Increase your water intake (cold water specifically)
  14. Get more active outside the gym — play basketball, go skating, play tag with your kids.
  15. Recreate lightsaber battles when no one’s around (again, could be counted as NEAT…or what I call Thursdays)
  16. Have more sex (yes, one study found that at a moderate pace [whatever the hell that means], sex can burn extra calories. Plus it leads to higher quality of life, and sex is awesome)
  17. Get more sleep (insufficient sleep impairs your ability to lose fat)

What You Need to Take Away from This

It’s time to wrap this up like a delicious double steak Chipotle burrito.

Are there fat burning exercises you can do in the gym that will help you torch more body fat? No. At least not on their own. So whatever exercise you’ve been told is a blistering, belly fat burning exercise — by itself — isn’t going to burn more leg/arm/chest/ass fat. To burn that extra fat you have to be in a calorie deficit. 

How do you make sure you’re in a calorie deficit so you can burn excess fat?

fat burning exercise

First, if you’re not tracking what you eat, like at all, download MyFitnessPal now and start tracking everything. And read this article after you download MFP because I’ll show you how to set-up your nutrition so you can lose body fat. 

(If tracking your food triggers any sort of disordered eating for you, you can always try The Clock Method which doesn’t involve tracking but helps you build a less calorie dense plate so that you can still lose.)

Second, be patient. Fat loss takes time. I know that’s not what you want to hear because you want fat eradicated tomorrow, but that’s not how the body works. You didn’t gain the weight you wanna lose overnight, so it won’t come off overnight.

Third, when it comes to fat loss and exercise, opt for lifting weights over cardio alone. Two different studies — one from 2008 and one from 2015 — concluded that a combination of diet and weight training allowed participants to lose body fat and maintain more muscle mass. Why? 

Well, lifting weights sends a message to your body that you need to keep your muscle(s) around. But if you only focus on cardio you’re not sending that stimulus to your muscles and, well, your body atrophies (breaks down) your unused muscles. 

Basically, the more muscle you retain, the more calories you burn in a day….and the more calories you need to eat to keep that muscle moving. 

At the end of the day, here’s what I want you to take away from this:

  • Your body is burning fat, carbs, and protein throughout the entire day
  • Fat burning does occur when you’re active, especially with low-intensity activities like walking (or playing with lightsabers)
  • Burning belly/arm/leg/ass fat isn’t happening from exercise alone. You MUST consume less energy than you burn in a day to get your body to tap its stored fat for energy.
  • TL;DR of all this: Nutrition drives fat loss; workouts support it

I hope you have a better understanding now of how your body processes the energy you give it, as well as how it breaks down your stored body fat as energy. If any of this is still confusing, shoot me your questions via email at robbie@sidequestfitness.com.

Oh, and if you loved reading this make sure you leave your email below and join my mailing list. 

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