please please please stop crash dieting

What is the best exercise to lose weight?
Grow Like Oak

What is the best exercise to lose weight?


Before digging into specifics, here’s the most valuable piece of advice I could give – The best exercise to lose weight is the one you’ll do the most.  Consider this same concept when it comes to your dietary protocol too.

Consistency is everything.  So the overarching theme is to do what you will happily keep coming back for.

That being said (ahh I swear my clients are getting tired of hearing those words), there’s a way to do things, and there’s a better way to do things. Often there’s also the wrong way to do things. This depends on you and where you are right now.  Running 20 miles per week with a knee pain is a wrong way to do things. Lifting heavy weights with poor form is too.  Another nuanced one is – which we’ll dig into more here – if you have a sluggish metabolism, tons of cardio is a wrong way to do things too.


Burning Calories

Strictly speaking, the more calories you can burn relative to the calories you consume, the more weight you’ll lose. This is the basic rule of thermodynamics, and no matter what you hear in the online fitness space, this rule always rings true.

So if we’re to compare calorie burn, minute for minute, higher intensity exercise is best.  You’ll hear all sorts of things about “fat burning zones”, but none of this really matters.  If you’re breathing harder, you’re burning more calories. If you’re not breathing as hard, you’ll have to do it for longer. Conventional wisdom would suggest building fitness to a point where you can sustain higher intensity for longer durations will reap the most reward.


The table below gives you an idea of calorie burn per exercise type for 30 minutes of work. It’s only an estimate, but it lends a good insight to which what kind of calorie burn might be achieved for certain exercise types.

Calorie Expenditure of exercises types

Burning calories vs burning Fat

After looking at the above table, one might be tempted to make vigorous rowing their go to exercise choice.  For calorie burning – absolutely! For fat burning – not so much.  This is because we’re not robots, and there’s more to the story than just calories in: calories out.  Don’t worry, within the nuanced answer, you’ll discover there is a single best exercise type for fat loss.

Maximal calorie burn is not necessarily the best way to lose fat.  It’s possible that by dong a tonne of long slow cardio or a bunch of high intensity work could tap into your muscle tissue, and cause your body to hold onto fat. The opposite of what anyone really want’s to achieve.


Metabolic adaptation

If you’re trying to lose weight you’re likely dropping calories or increasing calorie output – very likely both.  A very real phenomenon that exists in the weight loss world is metabolic adaptation. This is where your body freaks out about the sudden excessive calorie deficit (less coming in and too much going out), and goes into defence mode.  This is where your body will up or down regulate physiological processes to reduce your metabolic rate and hold on to fat for dear life.

Calorie deficit, especially an extreme one – especially when intense exercise contributes – is a stress on the body. Like any stress, cortisol levels can remain elevated, affecting your body’s ability to maintain muscle mass.  What we need to remember about a caloric deficit is that our brain detects this as a threat. The greater the deficit, the greater the threat. Our brain think’s we’re starving, so it battens down the hatches to protect itself.  It much prefers to liberate muscle tissue than fat stores.  All this to say, a tonne of cardio may burn more calories TODAY, but your body will metabolically adapt and slap you in the face with a frustrating plateau.

I strongly suggest you take the time to understand metabolic adaptation and the weight loss defence system by reading:
How much weight can I lose in a month?
Please stop crash dieting

Making money while you sleep

What? Are we still reading the same article.  I always like to use this analogy to demonstrate fat burning exercise. If you had a choice, would you prefer to show up to a job every day and exchange your time for money, OR would you prefer to build a business to generate an automated income.  An automate income makes money while you sleep.

Your training program should mimic this analogy.  Tons of cardio, whether low or high intensity, is what we call manual calorie burning. You put the work in day in day out. Do more to burn more.

Resistance Training on the other hand, is what develops an automatic calorie burn.  You’ve set up your system to keep cranking away even when you’re at rest. Although the act of lifting weights doesn’t offer as much of a calorie burn in the moment, the long term fat burn is a kin to making money while you sleep.

Resistance training creates a stimulus for the body to get stronger. In order to get stronger, your body will adapt by developing more muscle tissue.  Don’t worry ladies, you won’t bulk up.  There are indeed some that do, but 99% of the time they’re the ones that do a ton of strength training because they love it.  The average person doesn’t need to do as much.

By building muscle tissue, we develop more energy factories, called mitochondria. These guys are who you thank for the increase in your metabolism.  Not only are you likely to have more energy, you’re likely to be able to eat more food with more flexibility.

How to approach your resistance training program?

Being the wet blanket I am, I always have to issue a caveat before I get to my point. Resistance training doesn’t mean flinging 2lb dumbbells around for 50 reps. It means pushing, pulling, lifting and squatting heavy(ish) loads, and working hard for it. Yes you’ll start at a lighter weight and progressively build, but in the beginning make sure you’re getting your form down.  Strength is a skill, so take the time to learn it.  And trust me you can still get strong while learning.  Work with a good coach if you have the means – it’ll be the most worthwhile money you could spend.

Ok – so As i mentioned you want to push, pull, squat ad lift weights around.  These are the main compound movements that will integrate many muscles at ones offering the most bang for your buck strength gains.  Here’s how you’ll optimize your results:

– Aim for 2-3 full body sessions per week
– Push and pull horizontally and vertically
– Squat or lunge in some way shape or form
– Perform a hinging pattern for hip and core strength
– Choose a weight that will get you in a 8-12 repetition range (work hard, but stop a couple reps short of failure)
– Peform 3 sets of each movement and rest adequately between sets (90 seconds)
– Each week progress by either small weight increase or by doing more reps. If you go beyond 12 reps, increase the weight.

Like any exercise, set up your program thats appropriate for you right now.  If flexibility is limited, maybe your squat will be impacted. Work on flexibility in parallel.  If your posture isn’t great, pushing weight over head is likely not for you right now. Work on mobilising your spine and strengthening the back with more pulling exercises.

Tying it all in

So the best exercise for weight loss is Resistance Training.  Now what do you do if you just don’t like it?  The best exercise it the one you can keep doing right?  Indeed and you should never let go of the exercise that makes you feel good. The one that helps you destress.  We also need to ensure that you’re lining up with what’s also best for you.

There’s always a way to find balance.  If you absolutely love cardio, and not so much resistance training, you can keep half of the cardio in and add a half session of weights.  Nothing is set in stone.  Maybe you’ll shift slowly from 2 cardio days and 1 strength day to the inverse of that.
Being strong is very empowering for many.  As a coach, there’s nothing more I love than watching women find their true strength, and carrying that out into the world.  Like may things, there can be a bit of lag time before starting to feel the strength training rush.  But once it comes, you’ll need someone to hold you back.

What if you can’t get access to a gym?  There are many ways to get stronger without the gym. Body weight work at home and the natural environment can get the job done. It will need a bit of out of the box thinking or a good program design, but it’s possible. You can also find versatile bits of equipment for the home to get a well balanced workout in too.

Enjoy your fitness. Enjoy being strong. Remember that movement is what your body thrives on. It doesn’t always have to be crazy intense, and sometimes it’s the last thing your body needs. Non exercise activity plays a massive role in your over all calorie expenditure too, so take the stairs, park further away, leave the car at home if you can, and take extra trips to the drink fountain.


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