How often have we read an article or seen an ad that told us there’s a single best exercise to lose fat? Or maybe there’s a “secret” food you’re not eating or a specific exercise you’re not doing that magically makes the pounds disappear. The product being promoted in those cases could indeed be very effective, but the claims made in their sales pitch stretches the truth just a little bit (okay, a lot) at times (fine, most of the time).
It’s no secret that regular exercise is one of the cornerstones of staying healthy. And staying healthy involves being in our optimal body fat range. Believe it or not, the reason people go to commercial gyms aren’t just to look good, at least some of them are there to get healthier. And some are there to lose those stubborn pounds.
Given all that’s out there however, are there really any tried and proven methods to shedding the unwanted fat? How do I know if an exercise really works or not? Why is it that certain exercises work better than others when it comes to cutting fat? Do they have anything in common that could help me decide on what other exercises to use for the same purpose?
That’s the exact aim of this article, to show you the top 3 exercises for losing fat and explaining why and how they work.
3 Best Exercise to Losing Fat
Hate it or love it, running is the #1 exercise when it comes to losing fat. There really is no replacement for running, although certain exercises come close. Why is it that running is so effective at cutting fat? Let’s consider some of the scientific studies done on this age-old exercise.
It has been repeated over and over in the fitness industry that calories in = calories out. That theory is actually false and the public is starting to catch on to that fact. An article will be published later explaining why and how that is false. But just a prelude to disproving that theory, consider a study conducted in 2012 on the effects of running on adipose tissue and its “exchangeability” with other exercises¹.
The “exchangeability” in this case refers to running being substituted by another exercise given that both are performed to expend the same amount of energy. The study reviewed the exercises that 33,374 different runners had performed over a period of time. Using fancy calculations and the results provided by the participants, the researchers compiled a list of exercises and the effect each had on body mass index (BMI) and body circumference.
I personally feel that BMIs can be very misleading for athletes and muscular individuals but in this case, the participants were all distance runners. From my experience with researching BMI data and different body types, a typical distance runners’ physique is better suited for BMI results than more muscular athletes. And with all the participants in the same sport, the relative BMI values are much more reliable than if a mixture of different athletes were involved.
In this study, the BMI and body circumference were used to indicate adipose tissue of the participant. The results? Those that used running as their exercise saw a waist circumference decrease 4 to 6 times greater than those that used alternate exercises. Keep in mind, the time and intensity of these alternate exercise were the same as that of running. The energy expenditure were calculated to be similar as well.
The participants’ BMI saw even greater differences, with the runners’ values dropping 12 times more than that of the non-runners.
There are obviously other factors when it comes to fat loss and exercise is only one of them. But given that all others factors are equal, this study shows that there really is no other exercise that slims us down like running does.
So… No Other Exercise Required?
Before we jump to the conclusion that running can substitute all other exercises, we need to look at the purpose of why we’re exercising. The topic of interest here is fat loss. There’s no consideration given to muscle building, strength building, type of muscle fiber recruitment, etc. Keep this in mind when considering what you’re exercising for.
Matter of fact, alternate exercises are a necessity for achieving the most effective fat loss possible. There may be a variety of reasons why some of us cannot use running as the exercise of choice. Rather it’s a past injury, inherited abnormalities, etc. running just may not be feasible. In this case, substitute exercises are your best friend for fat loss.
Check out this study conducted on 47,691 runners on the effects of vigorous physical activity related to risk of inherited obesity². This study showed that as long as an exercise equivalent to running in terms of energy expenditure is performed, the inherited risk of obesity is decreased.
Basically, we have alternate exercises for different reasons and different goals. Even if it’s just because we’re sick and tired of running, those other exercises are still beneficial. If we find ourselves getting bored with running, there are variations we can do to change it up and make it more challenging.
Two of my favorite running variations are the prowler push and sled pulls. These are basically running while pushing or dragging a weight. It engages your entire body a whole lot more than just regular running. The heart rate gets spiked extremely quick with these variations and they can easily wipe out even the most conditioned athletes. As far as fat loss, I can’t think of any other exercise that can even hold a candle to these variations of running.
Also, if you remember from the HIIT article Part 1 and Part 2, we discussed that the intensity we perform exercise under has a huge effect on not only our endurance, but also fat loss. So running using the HIIT protocol is a sure-fire way to get burn off that fat. If you have not checked them out yet, click on those links to get the scoop.
Enough about running, let’s consider what our #2 best exercise is for fat loss.
The next exercise in line is the squat. Some of us may have read about all the benefits of the squat exercise. They include:
- Increased Flexibility
- Increased Core Strength
- Release of Growth Hormones
- Increased Muscle Growth
These are just a few of the benefits from squatting. Before we get into why it’s so good for fat loss, I want to get one thing out of the way.
The benefits listed above are NOT exclusive to squatting only. Any compound exercises that involves multiple muscle group will illicit the same hormonal responses and provide the same benefits when done with the same intensity and duration. This is not to downplay the benefits of squats, I myself am a big proponent of squatting. But I feel it should be made clear that those benefits that makes the squat sound majestic and the be-all and end-all can be apply to other exercises as well.
So why is the squat so good for fat loss? Let’s take a look at a study done in Japan on the effects of squat-training.
A group of 13 and 14 year old teenage boys were placed into a study that researched the effects of squatting as an exercise. Less than half of the participants were to placed into a 8 week training program involving only body-weight squats. They were to maintain their normal routine of physical and mental activities. The rest of the participants were placed into the study as a control group. The squats were performed around the same time each day and were done at a rate of one squat every two seconds for three minutes. This amounted to approximately ninety daily body-weight squats for 8 weeks.
The post training parameter that were tested for included sprint velocity, muscle thickness, knee extension strength, vertical jump height, etc. But the parameter that we’re most concerned about here is body composition.
Results show that the BMI of the participants that underwent the training program was the same as when they had started. However, the body mass of the program participants increased by an average of 1.6%. Before we lose our minds about how squats make people heavier, the results also showed that the percentage of body fat loss was an average of 4.2%! Both lean body mass and thigh circumference showed an increase as well³.
So what does all this mean?
It means that when we do squats, we may get heavier and the number on the scale will go up. But the amount of fat that we have is actually less after undergoing a squat training program. So where did the weight come from? The obvious answer is that it did not come from an increase in body fat, but mostly likely muscle mass and possibly glycogen (depending on hydration levels during pre- and post-training testing).
You may know of other exercises that can provide similar results (besides running since we already established that). But the squat is not the #2 best exercise for fat loss only based on its results.
Advantages of Squats
Besides just the fat loss component, squats is a very versatile exercise. It can be done anywhere as long as you can stand up right. Some prefer to do squats on a bosu ball or other wobbly surfaces. That supposedly strengthens the stabilizer muscles involved in keeping you stable while squatting. I personally am not a big fan of those variations and don’t feel it’s necessary for fat loss. I think the potential risk of injury outweighs any benefit that those variations may provide.
I am in favor of at least one other variation of the squat however. Welcome the One-Legged Pistol Squat. If you’ve never seen this exercise before, check out the video below:
Remember those benefits I listed for squats at the beginning of this section? The pistol squat provides those same benefits but on a much higher level. And when it comes to intensity, just your body-weight alone will be enough to have you sweating if you’re trying this for the first time. Although there’s no study that focuses on the fat loss from pistol squat compared to regular squats, the extra energy expenditure with the pistol leads me to believe that it promotes more fat loss than the regular squat.
Another advantage of the regular squat is that you can add weight into the exercise. You’d want to make sure you’re healthy enough to squat your body-weight first before putting weight on your back. And once you’re comfortable squatting with a barbell, then it’s a matter of progressive overload, adding weight as you get stronger.
I won’t be getting into the other popular squat variations here (front squats, overhead squats). That really deserves to be an article on its own. Be on the lookout for that.
Spot #3 goes to the burpee. A dreaded exercise for some, a beloved must-have for others. The burpee got its name from an American physiologist name Royal H. Burpee. The original intent of this exercise was to be used as a benchmark for agility, strength, and overall fitness. Nowadays, we see this being performed anywhere ranging from obstacle course (think Spartan Race) to military physical training.
Before we get into the technical data and results, let’s look at what the burpee consists of. Simply put, a single repetition of a burpee is getting into a pushup position, then into a squatting position, then jumping up in the air. A more detailed step-by-step process goes like this:
- Squat down so our hands are flat on the ground in front of our torso.
- Kick both our feet back simultaneously and land in the pushup position.
- Kick our feet towards the front so we end up in Position 1.
- Jump up into the air, making sure both feet leave the ground.
I personally do burpees with a pushup at the bottom position. It just makes the exercise more challenging and more fun. Now onto the clinical data.
A study performed in 2015 aimed to compare the human metabolic response to 13 different exercises, including the burpee. Free-weight exercises were also used and the participants performed them for 3 sets of 10 reps at 70% of their max lift. The resting period between sets were 2 minutes for all exercises.
Results show that the burpee promoted the second greatest mean oxygen consumption in the participants, falling behind just slightly to the battle-rope exercise4. If you recall from the article on HIIT Part 1 and Part 2, the amount of oxygen consumed has a direct relationship with the amount of calories burned. Even when other exercises like pushups were performed for 3 sets of 20 reps, the burpee was still ahead in terms of fat loss.
It’s noteworthy that the squat was one of the free weight exercises performed in this study. It was first in terms of mean oxygen consumption within the free weights group, however, it still fell behind the burpee.
So why did I put the burpee behind the squat? The only reason is that with a squat, we can add weight to the exercise to promote even a bigger metabolic response. And from personal experience, I can last longer performing the squat than the burpee. This may be because the glutes and quads are the biggest and strongest muscles of the human body (or should be). In addition, squats build the glutes and quads a lot more than burpees do. And with more muscle mass, we also get more calories burned at rest.
Sure we can wear a weight vest while performing burpees, and that would definitely add to the challenge. But I feel the squat just edges out the burpee in terms of overall fat loss.
Variation of the Burpee
As far as variation of the burpee, the sky is really the limit. There are more variations out there for this exercise than any other that I’ve came across. We have the box-jump burpee, pull-up burpee, superman pushup burpee, backflip burpee, handstand pushup burpee… They are all performed exactly the way they sound. Feel free to look these up and have fun with them.
That’s It For Fat Loss?
As we all may be aware already, exercise is only one of the cornerstones of fat loss. There are other factors involved that require our attention as well. A very popular topic for fat loss is nutrition. I had written a 2 Part article about the optimal meal frequency for our individual needs. Go ahead and read up on both Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already. In addition to these 3 best exercises, I have an article on the 3 best foods for fat loss as well.
And when it comes to fat loss, general food type is a BIG deal. Matter of fact, meal frequency for fat loss can be a whole new article on its own as well. Stick around for those topics being covered in the near future.
I hope you enjoyed this article. How has your experience been with fat loss? Have you tried using these exercises as part of your fat loss program? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
- “Non-exchangeability of running vs. other exercise in their association with adiposity, and its implications for public health recommendations.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 09 June 2016.
- “Attenuating effect of vigorous physical activity on the risk for inherited obesity: a study of 47,691 runners.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 09 June 2016.
- “Body Fat In Adolescent Boys.” Nutrition Reviews 22.3 (2009): 72-74. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. National Institute of Fitness and Sp Orts in Kanoya, Kagoshima, Japan, 2013. Web. 9 June 2016.
- “Comparison of the acute metabolic responses to traditional resistance, body-weight, and battling rope exercises.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 09 June 2016.