Sometimes, questions that seem fairly simple are actually a bit more complicated than they appear. “What workout burns the most fat?” is one of those tricky ones, because it really depends on whether we are strictly considering the immediate calorie burn or also considering the long-lasting effects of the exercise. As always, the difference is in the details.
So let’s start with the basics. The energy our bodies use to power our activities and functions is measured in calories. All movement burns calories, whether we are walking to the car or hiking up a mountain. But, we also burn calories when we are stationary, like when we are reading a book or sleeping at night. That’s because breathing, digesting food, pumping blood, and even maintaining core body temperature all require energy in the form of calories.
A pound of fat stores 3500 calories. That means, in order to lose a pound of fat, we either need to consume 3500 less calories than we burn, or burn 3500 more calories than we consume. That seems like a pretty straightforward calculation on the surface, but there are a couple of other things that come into play when choosing the best fat-burning workout.
People who are on a high protein/fat and low carbohydrate diet tend to maintain a state of ketosis – a metabolic state where the body actively burns fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. But in a normal state, our bodies actively seek out glucose for energy first, then they fall back on our fat reserves when those easy-access sources are depleted.
This comes into play when exercising, because the less glucose we have readily available, the more fat our body will burn to fuel our bodies. For those of us who practice intermittent fasting, exercising in the morning before we break our fast means burning more fat calories than we would doing the same workout later in the day when glucose is more accessible as an energy source.
Another thing to factor in is that a pound of fat burns less calories than a pound of muscle. That is because muscle is metabolically active, unlike fat, and therefore it continues to burn calories when at rest. Think about what that means for a minute. At the same weight, we burn less calories if our weight comes from fat than we do if it comes from muscle. In other words, anytime we gain muscle tone, we also increase our metabolism – even when we aren’t working out!
Keeping those things in mind, let’s consider the difference between doing cardio and developing lean muscle. A high-intensity cardio workout typically burns calories faster than a basic body-sculpting workout, with or without the inclusion of light weights. But an intense muscle toning workout will burn fat, increase muscle, and boost long-term metabolism. It will literally help us continue to burn fat when we aren’t exercising.
Obviously, both cardio workouts and muscle-focused workouts can both be beneficial for burning fat. Cardio makes the most fat-burning splash in the shortest amount of time, but lean muscle building makes the biggest difference over the long term. A combination of both is ideal for replacing fat with lean muscle! (And don’t worry about “building” too much muscle. A pound of muscle takes up less physical space than a pound of fat, so you can actually be smaller at the same weight!
Some people recommend starting with cardio to prime the pump before moving into a muscle-toning session. Others find it easier to push through the body sculpting when they are fresh and feeling fully charged, and then wrap up with cardio almost like a warm-down. I switch it up depending on the day, but I do tend to find the cardio easier to push through when I’m already tired than the other way around. What’s important is that you find what works best for you.
Ultimately, the workout that burns the most fat over time is the one that builds the most muscle tone. For that reason, target toning and body sculpting is the easiest and most effective workout. Fortunately, it isn’t an either/or proposition. Used in combination, cardio and muscle strengthening are a powerful pair for pairing down.