When someone decides to burn fat, they often think it means surviving on a carrot and three lettuce leaves each day while jogging to and from work. Fortunately, neither of those is necessary. While you need to pay close attention to nutrition and implement a consistent, focused training plan for fat loss, you’ll get much better results when you avoid burning the fat loss candle too hot on either end.
Here’s how to set up an effective and efficient plan to burn fat without burning yourself out.
How to Burn Fat
One of the most important details to keep in mind when working to burn fat is a central theme that will determine the right and wrong plan. To drastically change and improve your physique, your focus needs to be on “fat loss”, not “weight loss”.
While the difference may seem like mere semantics, it’s the type of detail that influences your approach to nutrition, your workout routine, your rate of progress, and other factors that dictate results.
Weight loss is simply changing the number on the scale. Bodyweight most commonly and most quickly decreases from basic fluid loss (anyone who’s gotten sweaty on a hot day or had a run-in with bad seafood has experienced the effect). This type of change is only temporary and often self-correcting, with the body re-gaining any “lost” weight as soon as fluids are replaced.
“Weight loss” also doesn’t distinguish fat loss from muscle loss. Catabolism, or burning muscle tissue, will decrease strength, performance, and energy, and it also changes your physique to appear less muscular. Weight loss with a high degree of muscle loss creates a soft and un-toned appearance.
Fat loss, specifically, is when your body burns adipose tissue — body fat. This is the type of loss that can remain indefinitely unless the fat itself is regained (which it won’t be, unless it was lost with an unsustainable plan and you crank the calories back up).
Fat loss can only occur when your caloric intake is less than your caloric output. (1) Regardless of the diet details, if you’re taking in too many calories, your body cannot lose fat. However, because the goal is to burn fat, certain steps need to be taken to preserve lean muscle tissue. That comes from balancing just enough calories being eaten (diet) with just enough calories being burned (exercise).
Understanding Your Metabolism
Your metabolism is the way your body processes, burns, or stores calories. An improved metabolism makes fat loss that much more likely. One surefire way to boost your metabolism is to focus on building and preserving lean muscle mass.
Muscle is one key factor in setting your body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR), or the amount of calories your body burns without you even trying to burn calories. People who talk about having “a slow metabolism” or “a super-fast metabolism” sometimes have actual genetic factors at work, but their lean muscle tissue is also a significant influence on their resting metabolic rate.
A coordinated plan with a specific approach to nutrition and training has been shown to be optimally effective for preserving lean muscle while burning fat, improving RMR. (2)
Insulin Sensitivity and Insulin Resistance
Many people think insulin is synonymous with blood sugar levels or managing diabetes. That’s only one part of the insulin story. It’s an incredibly influential hormone that your body uses in a variety of processes.
Insulin is released in response to eating carbohydrates (like sugar) and it can determine if those calories are used for fuel or put into storage as body fat. Insulin also plays an important role shuttling amino acids into cells to build new muscle. (3)
Because insulin plays so many critical roles, the body’s response to insulin is also critical. The body can either be “insulin sensitive”, which encourages insulin to choose calorie burning and muscle building, or the body can be “insulin resistant”, which encourages insulin to prioritize calorie storage (fat gain).
Several factors can determine the body’s level of resistance or sensitivity, including some genetic components. However, a combination of diet and exercise has been shown to reduce insulin resistance and lead to improved body composition. (4)(5)
When you think of training for fat loss, you probably think of countless hours on the treadmill daily or light weight, high-repetition exercises to “carve detail” into muscles. You can skip right over those two extremes, but you will have to do some cardio in addition to some weight training to get the best results.
Resistance Training for More Muscle and Less Fat
Your training and nutrition need to be aligned properly for optimal results. That means, when your goal is burning fat, you can’t reduce calories while also following a lifting program designed to squat 600 pounds. Your nutrition will be insufficient to allow recovery and the training sessions will be, essentially, wasted.
With that said, weight training combined with a fat loss diet has been shown to improve results compared to dieting alone. However, weight training combined with cardiovascular training and a fat loss diet has been shown to be even more effective. (6)(7)
To accommodate cardio training and overall recovery, a weight training workout should be performed three or four days per week. This requires either training the whole body in each workout, alternating upper body and lower body workouts each day, or following a push/pull/legs split (training the pushing muscles of the chest, shoulders, and triceps in one session; the pulling muscles of the back and biceps in the next; and all of the leg muscles in another workout).
Prioritizing two to four sets of six to 12 reps for most exercises will allow sufficient training stimulus without excessive overall stress, and will help to preserve muscle mass during a calorie-restricted fat loss plan.
Cardio Training is Essential
Aerobic training like walking, running, or biking is typically associated with fat loss training. The popular thinking is, if you want to burn fat, you have to do some kind of cardio. And that’s fundamentally correct.
An abundance of research has shown multiple benefits to using cardiovascular exercise (in a variety of intensities) as part of a fat loss plan, ranging from straightforward calorie burning during the workout to reduced hunger after training — a welcomed side effect when calories are reduced. (8)
Cardio training, when combined with weight training, has also been shown to produce greater health benefits than either method on its own. (9)
Training (weights and cardio together) for a total of four to seven hours per week has been shown to provide significant fat loss and health benefits. (10) The exact number being dependent on a few factors, most notably the training intensity. High-intensity training cannot be performed for the same duration as lower intensity training, but the net effect is comparable.
Performing cardio exercise for 20 to 60 minutes, three or four days per week, is an effective approach when combined with weight training. Sessions can be either low to moderate intensity, like walking or biking, for longer durations or higher intensity workouts, like sprints, for shorter durations.
For overall recovery and optimal performance in each workout, either alternate days of only weight training with only cardio, or perform a cardio session immediately after lifting weights (to avoid negatively affecting the weight training stimulus).
Performing cardio on an empty stomach first thing in the morning is one popular, though mildly controversial, approach. Some lifters believe exercising without a prior meal may lead to muscle loss, but this has shown to be inaccurate and not a significant concern. (11)
The phrase “eating for fat loss” could just as easily be “not eating for fat loss”, but rather than focus on the restrictive part of a nutrition plan designed to burn fat, let’s focus on what you can have.
Calories: Not Too Many, Not Too Few
The quintessential aspect of a fat loss diet is reduced calories. People switch to “diet food” like zero-calorie beverages, plenty of vegetables, and none of the decadent desserts that might’ve become too familiar.
While some degree of calorie restriction is unavoidable, cutting too many can be counterproductive. For sustainable, efficient fat loss, reducing your intake by 500 to 700 calories per day has been repeatedly shown to be an ideal target. (14)(15)
Dieting with a larger deficit is a short-term, relatively short-sighted approach which may initially seem like a great idea as pounds are shed rapidly before the body quickly rebels, progress grinds to a halt, and weight begins to return despite a drastic calorie deficit and consistent training routine. (16)(17)
The previously recommended training guidelines should be compatible with a 500 to 700 calorie deficit. If excessive fatigue or poor recovery become limiting factors, adjust the training routine to reduce volume (removing exercises or sets) before adjusting calorie intake.
Protein Intake is Key
For burning fat, as with building muscle, protein may be the most crucial macronutrient. It’s not only essential for muscle preservation, but it’s also been shown to improve satiety (curb hunger) and increase thermogenesis (calorie-burning).
As a critical and versatile nutrient, protein intake should always be kept relatively high, anywhere from 30% to 60% of total daily calories. (18) A similar, if simplified, approach to calculate total daily intake is to aim for approximately one gram per pound of bodyweight. That continues to be a reliable, multi-purpose guideline regardless of the goal.
Ideal food sources will be predominantly animal-based proteins (beef, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, etc.), although vegetarian alternatives have been shown to be comparable when other macronutrients and total calories are accounted for.
One potential issue to be aware of is the inherent fat content of animal proteins and the fat or carbohydrate content of vegetarian proteins. To reduce overall calories, either opt for lower fat/lower carb protein sources or be sure to incorporate the food’s entire calorie into your daily plan.
Don’t Be Confused By Carbs
Many lifters believe that cutting carbs — an energy source for your body — is the single most effective way to reduce body fat. While they can certainly deliver results, low-carb diets have been repeatedly shown to be as effective, not necessarily more effective, compared to other plans (like a low-fat diet, for example). (19)
One benefit of a fat loss plan which includes sufficient carbs is generally higher energy levels which can be channeled into harder workouts, which can translate to more calories burned per session and a greater overall training stimulus.
On the flip side, one big benefit of a lower carb diet is the simplicity. Carbs are relatively easy to spot in a kitchen or on a menu — grains, bread, rice, potatoes, sugar-coated anything. This makes it much more simple to adhere to, compared to protein and fat combinations which may be less obvious — butter in a sauce, oil in a salad dressing, fat in a piece of steak, etc.
“Low carbs” is typically considered anywhere from 5% to 30% of daily calories from carb sources, or up to one-half (0.5) gram per pound of bodyweight per day.
Optimal carb sources, regardless of total daily carb intake, are ideally relatively fiber-dense and relatively low sugar to increase overall satiety without excessive calories. High sugar, low fiber foods are often unsatisfying and considered “empty calories.” Whole grains, legumes, potatoes, rice, fruit, and vegetables are preferred options.
Fats Don’t Make You Fat
If going low-carb is simple because they’re easy to find, going low-fat is simple because they’re so calorie-dense. In a comparable serving, fats deliver more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates, making them an extremely efficient way to reduce total daily calories. (There are four calories in a gram of carbs and protein and nine calories in a gram of fat.)
Reducing fat intake delivers more “bang for the buck” in terms of affecting total daily calories, making it an appealing choice for dieters looking to focus on a single dietary change.
An added benefit of a lower fat approach is improved cardiovascular health and comparable fat loss relative to a higher dietary fat intake. (20)
Maintaining fat intake to 20% to 35% total daily calories or roughly one-third (0.3) gram per pound of bodyweight per day is sufficient to encourage optimal hormonal and cardiovascular health while allowing fat loss. (21)
Food sources should include both animal fats (naturally occurring in protein sources) and minimally processed plant sources including avocado, olive oil, or coconut oil.
Everyone Wants a Cheat Meal
Some people become eager for a cheat meal or cheat day before completing their first full week on a fat loss plan. This type of lax dietary adherence might not seem like a good omen for significant results but, when used strategically, cheat meals may actually be beneficial.
During a calorie restricted diet, several hormones in the body try to adapt to the new physiological environment. One of the hormones, leptin, is responsible for controlling hunger. The longer or more intense the dieting, the less leptin your body produces.
By sporadically and deliberately spiking calorie intake above normal (no longer in a deficit), leptin level may be temporarily boosted, which may help adherence to the fat loss plan. (22)
If that sounds too good to be true, it’s because it might be. Research has also shown that cheat meals may actually lessen adherence to the initial diet plan and encourage poor nutritional behaviors. (23)
So, if hearing the phrase “cheat meal” gets you more riled up than Roger Rabbit hearing “shave and a haircut,” you’re probably not going to handle it well. You should stick with your well-designed plan and save the strategic cheating for another time. Focus on making the foods that responsibly fit into your daily macros taste better. You don’t have to eat bland food, you just need to eat lower-calorie foods.
How Many Meals Per Day?
One popular technique to burn fat is to increase meal frequency, eating multiple smaller-sized meals throughout the day rather than fewer, relatively larger meals.
Because insulin can be spiked during a meal and dropped low between meals, the intention is to maintain stable insulin levels throughout the day by minimizing the highs, lows, and duration between spikes. Increased calorie-burning and satiety are also expected due to eating more often.
Research has shown that, while there may be some potential benefits to having a meal roughly every two to three hours, there is no conclusive, significant benefit. (24) Eating anywhere from one to six times per day has been shown to deliver comparable results. Choose an approach that suits your schedule and overall nutrition plan.
Recovery is as important for burning fat as it is for building muscle, especially since your body is operating with reduced fuel sources. Here’s how to make sure you’re avoiding burnout and maximizing results.
Plan Your Rest Days
Considering the weekly training time split between weights and cardio, you’re likely performing some type of exercise nearly every day. While the activity is different each session, cumulative fatigue can become too much to recover from without a day or two off unless the training program is extremely well-planned.
One effective approach, especially when alternating weight training days with cardio-only days, is to deliberately incorporate lower intensity cardio exercise into your cardio exercise programming. This serves as a type of “active recovery” and encourages results without significantly tapping into recovery resources. (25)
Less Sleep, More Fat
Getting enough sleep is important under ideal conditions. When training intensely with restricted calories, getting enough quality sleep becomes even more important.
Research has shown that impaired sleep can reduce metabolism, increase cravings, affect hormone levels, and impact cognitive ability. (26) Aim to get as close as possible to the time-tested eight hours per night.
There are countless ways to design a training plan to burn fat. As long as the general guidelines for weight training, cardio, volume (sets and reps), duration, and recovery are followed, it’s hard to go wrong. Here’s one way to set up a week in the gym. The plan in the kitchen is all up to you.
Low-intensity cardio exercise (walk or bike), 60 minutes.
- Front Squat: 4 x 6-8
- Barbell Row: 4 x 8-10
- Incline Bench Press: 4 x 10-12
- Triceps Pressdown: 3 x 10-12
- Barbell Curl: 3 x 10-12
High-intensity cardio exercise (run or bike), 20 minutes.
- Pull-Up: 4 x 6-8
- Dip: 4 x 8-10
- Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 10-12
- Lateral Raise: 3 x 10-12
High-intensity cardio exercise (run or bike), 20 minutes.
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 4 x 6-8
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 x 8-10
- Reverse Lunge: 3 x 8-10
- Hanging Knee Raise: 4 x 10-12
Low-intensity cardio exercise (walk or bike), 60 minutes.
A plan to burn fat is only successful when you know, without a doubt, that you’re actually burning fat. For the most comprehensive data, use a variety of methods.
A once-per-week weigh-in is an excellent starting point. Even though you don’t want to focus specifically on “weight loss,” fat loss is a specific form of weight loss. If the scale isn’t dropping one to two pounds per week (an ideal and sustainable rate of progress), your daily calories are likely too high. (27) Be sure to weigh-in under identical conditions each week. Something as simple as slight dehydration, a large recent meal, or a change of clothing can skew the results.
Weekly progress pictures can be more objective than simply looking in the mirror, especially when comparing a timeline of progress with several weeks worth of selfies. Again, repeat the same conditions (same outfit, same lighting, same pose) to maintain consistency and make progress easier to monitor.
The last objective measure is, literally, tape measurements. Tracking points may include your neck, upper arm, torso or mid-chest, navel, hips, upper thighs, and calves. It’s not uncommon for certain areas to lose fat at different rates. Like photos, collecting several weeks of data and comparing them in hindsight can help to showcase results.
Body fat percentages, while seemingly useful, are too inaccurate, complicated, or inconvenient to repeat on a regular basis. If your bodyweight is slowly decreasing, and your pictures/measurements are steadily improving, and your performance in the gym is improving or holding relatively steady, your body composition is on the right track.
Fat Loss Wrap-Up
Whether it’s a ramp-up to summer, an upcoming vacation, or if it’s just finally time to crackdown and make a serious push to burn fat, you’re armed with all the info to get results. The good news is that there are plenty of different paths all leading to the same goal. The only thing left is to choose a plan and put in the work.
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