All gym rats have the same primary goals: Build muscle and burn fat. But melting away that pudgy layer to reveal the six pack you’ve worked so hard for requires more than logging time on a cardio machine—a helluva lot more, in fact.
The prevailing formula for a long time on how much fat you’re going to burn was calories in minus calories out, based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and exercise efforts, explains strength and performance specialist Joel Seedman, Ph.D., owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta. But with all the different biochemical reactions in the body, hormonal response, and endocrine function, there are an infinite number of factors that can affect how your body is storing and breaking down calories.
Optimizing what you’re eating, how you’re working out, and every choice of your lifestyle can help boost your metabolism and control your hormones in a way that’ll set fire to fat. Here’s how.
The best workout modes to burn fat
At its core, burning fat comes down to the process of lipolysis—the breaking down of fat lipids, explains Seedman. This happens in the mitochondria of the muscles, or the powerhouses of the cells, responsible for generating the energy our cells need to do their jobs. Exercise has been shown to improve mitochondria function, which then promotes fat breakdown, Seedman adds. Plus, working out helps regulate pretty much all the hormones that optimize fat loss.
Build more muscle: Cardio gets all the glory for melting fat, but it’s actually far more important to focus on building muscle. It’s pretty simple: Lipolysis happens in the mitochondria of the muscles, so the more muscle you have, the more mitochondria, and the more potential to burn. Plus, the more muscle mass you carry, the more your BMR is burning calories at rest. Strength training is also one of the strongest ways to spark production of testosterone and growth hormone, which both help to break down fat, Seedman adds.
Recruit the most muscle groups with these multi-joint compound lifts, suggests personal trainer Adam Rosante, CSCS, C9 Champion brand ambassador and author of The 30 Second Body: Eat Clean, Train Dirty & Live Hard.
Stand in front of the bar, shins touching metal, feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Squat down and grab the bar overhand, hands slightly wider than shoulder width and elbows straight. Draw your shoulders back, push your chest out, and tense your lats. Taking a deep breath, begin standing up, pushing heels into the ground and pulling your chest up. Keep the bar as close to your legs as possible. As soon as the bar passes your knees, push your hips forward with power, ending standing tall and straight with the bar in front of your groin. Slowly reverse the motion, making sure to keep your abs braced, and lower the bar to the floor.
2. Box Squat
Set up a box behind you and then lower your body until your glutes touch it. Touching the box requires you to "sit back" as you squat, as if you were lowering yourself into a chair, and this action gets the glutes and hamstrings maximally involved in the lift. It also helps you to perfect your squat form. You can start with a higher box and gradually move to smaller boxes as you improve, ultimately training your body to squat below parallel with no box at all. Better still, the box squat places no strain on the knees, so even people with knee problems can attempt it safely.
3. Bench Press
Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and lift it off the supports of a power rack. Lower the bar until it touches the middle of your chest. Now press it back to the starting position.
Standing with feet hip-width apart, hold the barbell at chest height with palms facing up and your elbows extended out in front of you. Keeping the barbell rested at your chest, squat deep. In one explosive movement, push up into standing, tilting head back slightly to surge the barbell straight overhead so knees and elbows are both locked straight. Lower barbell back down to shoulders and repeat.
Don’t overdo it on cardio: Burning too many calories actually causes your body to go into a high-stress state, causing your cortisol levels to surge and your body to start clinging onto fat, he explains. Plus, studies show high levels of cardio increase your body’s production of estrogen, which causes you to store more fat.
Do more HIIT: High intensity interval training (HIIT) is as close to a magic pill as we have (except it involves a whole lot more work than just swallowing a capsule—sorry). Not only does it surge your body to max intensity during the workout, but because you're working so hard, your body can't deliver enough oxygen in the moment, explains personal trainer Jeremey DuVall. Your muscles accumulate a "debt" of oxygen that then has to be repaid post-workout. This throws your body into a phase of fat burning for hours after you're done sweating, known as post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Plus, super intense circuits like this activate muscle-building hormones like growth hormone and IGF-1, he adds.
Try these HIIT routines from Rosante:
1. Sprint Intervals: After a dynamic warm-up, hop on either a bike or the treadmill. Jog 2 minutes at a moderate pace, then sprint full out for 30 seconds. Recover at a moderately paced jog for 30 seconds. Repeat with 30 seconds of sprinting, 30 seconds of recovery for 6 to 10 rounds.
2. 10-minute AMRAP: Set a timer for 10-minutes and complete the moves below back-to-back as a circuit, resting only when necessary. Once you've finished all 4 moves, that's 1 round. Aim to get as many rounds as possible in 10-minutes:
Push-ups x 10 reps
Mountain Climbers x 10 reps
Burpees x 10 reps
V Ups x 10 reps
3. Thrusters and Burpees: Perform 21 dumbbell thrusters, then 21 burpees. Repeat in reps of 15/15, 9/9, 5/5, then 1/1, trying to complete the round as quickly as possible.
4. Slam + Tap: Perform 21 medicine ball slams, then leave the ball on the floor and immediately perform med ball toe taps for 21 reps (sprinting in place, tapping your right toes, then left on the top of the medicine ball. One tap on each side is one rep). Then repeat for reps of 15/15, 9/9, then back up at 15/15 and 21/21.
5. Wind Markers: Mark a starting line on the round, then mark four points out in front of that line, each approximately 10 yards apart, for a total of 40 yards (an approximation is fine). Start in a sprinting position at the starting line. Sprint out as fast as you can to the first marker, then turn and sprint back to start. Repeat this out and back pattern to each line. After you've returned from the fourth line, perform 4 burpees, then 4 push-ups. That's 1 round. Complete 7 rounds as fast as possible.
How to eat to burn fat
1. Don’t starve yourself: Cortisol—that stress hormone that causes your body to store more fat—is elevated from circumstances of high stress, including extreme dieting, Seedman says. “If you start dropping calories excessively, your body goes into starvation mode and it becomes stressed. You’re in caloric deprivation, but that elevated cortisol causes you to gain body fat in your stomach—it’s a vicious cycle,” he adds.
2. Eat smaller meals more frequently: “Insulin is probably the single most important factor that contributes to fat storage,” Seedman explains. This hormone is activated when you eat and responsible for shuttling nutrients into cells, either fat or muscle. A quick biology lesson: Every time you eat a meal, your blood glucose spikes, and when this goes up, so do your insulin levels. More calories at once means a larger spike in both. When these levels are sky high, it signals to your body to put nutrients into fat cells instead of muscle, causing an accumulation of fat, Seedman explains. The same thing happens when your insulin stays elevated for a prolonged period of time, which is why it’s important to let yourself become hungry before eating again, he adds. Aim for five to six meals throughout the day.
3. Eat spicy food: Research from the Netherlands shows that capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers their heat, can increase your metabolism in the hours after eating it as well as increase fat oxidation. (Check out these 10 Insanely Hot But Healthy Recipes To Help You Lose Weight.)
4. Eat more protein: Upping your protein is crucial for shedding fat. For starters, the macronutrient helps keep you full, preventing overeating and extraneous calories. And without adequate amounts of the macronutrient, muscle protein synthesis is diminished, your muscles can’t rebuild bigger and stronger, and your resting metabolism is lowered, says nutrition specialist and exercise physiologist, Marta Montenegro, CSCS, adjunct professor in Exercise & Sports Sciences at Florida International University. Plus, it gives your calorie burn a little boost since protein takes more energy for your body to process than carbs or fat.
Seedman recommends eating at least 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and scoring it from quality sources like lean meats, eggs, fish, and protein powders. And when in doubt, eat more protein. “Of all the macronutrients to overdo it on, protein is it because excessive amounts are more difficult for your body to turn into fat compared to carbs or fat,” he adds.
5. Learn to cook: You don’t have to be ready for top chef, but knowing how to whip up the basics can save you from consuming secret calories and fat-fueling ingredients. Here’s three recipes
Recipe: 20-minute baked salmon
Place one 8-oz salmon fillet in a baking dish. Season well with salt and pepper. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 400˚F. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and half a sliced garlic clove in a skillet. Add 3 ounces of baby spinach and toss to cook until spinach is wilted. Stir in half a teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Serve salmon atop spinach.
Recipe: Perfect baked chicken
Season one chicken breast with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat 1 tablespoon coconut oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat. When it starts to smoke, remove pan from heat and add chicken to hot pan. Add pan back to flame, reducing heat to medium-high. Cook for 2-3 minutes without moving to sear the chicken. Flip breast over and cook uncovered for an additional 2-3 minutes. Place the entire pan into a 350˚F oven for 8 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit in pan for 2-3 minutes before serving.
No-cook peanut butter granola bites
Mix together 1/3 cup natural creamy peanut butter, 1 cup instant oats, 1/3 cup honey, and 1 tablespoon chia seeds. Refrigerate mixture for 30 minutes. Form roughly 1 tablespoon of mixture into small balls by rolling between fingertips. One ball is 100 calories. Store in refrigerator.
Eat more fat: The idea that eating fat makes you fat has been dethroned hard in recent years. And in fact, dietary fat can help you burn more off your body—as long as you’re eating the right kinds. Healthy polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats—like salmon, trout, avocado, sunflower oils, olive oil, and nuts—can decrease appetite, improve heart health, and stabilize glucose levels which can help trim body fat, Montenegro explains.
“If fat intake is proper, you’re maximizing hormone production in the body, and it digests very slow so you don’t have a very big spike in insulin,” Seedman adds. Aim for at least 25 percent of your calories to be from good sources of fat, but if you’re going to go for a high-fat, low-carb diet, that number should jump up to 50 percent.
Cut back on carbs: Remember how insulin has the biggest impact on fat storage? Well, carbs have the biggest impact on insulin. ”Too many carbohydrates leads to a spike in the hormone and then to more fat storage,” Seedman explains. Not only should you cut back on carbs, but your insulin will spike even more from processed ones, so cut any carb that’s not a whole grain or from real produce completely. And don’t worry: Carbs are traditionally thought of as your body’s main source of energy, but your body also has the ability to fuel from fat, so if you’re increasing your fat and protein intake, your body doesn’t need as many carbs to run. You still need some amount of carbohydrates to regulate certain biological processes, like your muscles’ ability to stay hydrated and maintain structural integrity, so don’t cut the macronutrient completely, Seedman warns. For a high-fat, low-carb diet, aim for at least .5 of your bodyweight (so a 200 lb person would eat at least 100 grams of carbs per day), he suggests. For a more balanced calorie-restricted diet, that number jumps to .75 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Drink cold water: Staying hydrated period is important to keep your systems sharp, but adding ice to your water can help give your fat-burning potential a boost. German researchers found that drinking six cups of cold water can raise your BMR—that’s your resting metabolism—by roughly 50 calories a day because your body has to work to heat the H2O to body temperature.
The best supplements for burning fat
Speed your shed with capsules that help catapult your metabolism. Always be sure to talk to your doctor or registered dietician before starting a new supplement, especially if you are planning to pop more than one at a time.
1. Thermogenic fat loss supplements: These capsules are typically loaded with ingredients that help build heat in the body and increase your fat burning abilities. In a new study in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, guys who took supps like this saw their resting metabolic rate increase by 7 to 9 percent compared to taking a placebo.
2. Beta-alanine: This one doesn't directly burn fat, but it does help you work out harder and longer, which in turn lets you melt that extra layer. The non-essential amino acid converts to carnosine, which is one of the strongest buffers against your muscles getting fatigued. Because carnosine keeps your muscles from calling it quits, studies have found beta-alanine can help your performance during HIIT, increase strength, and even help you gain more muscle to then reap all those metabolism boosts.
3. Caffeine: Coffee is good for more than just a jolt in the morning. A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that consuming caffeine an hour before you hit the gym can help you burn about 15 percent more calories than normal. What’s more, other research has found that sipping on the stimulant before the gym can help you eat fewer calories afterward.
4. Great tea extract: Green tea has become a widely popular weight loss supplement in the past few years—and rightly so. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low doses of the tea's key phytochemical, epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC), can increase fat oxidation by 33 percent.
5. Hydroxycitric Acid (HCA): The name sounds scary, but this supplement is derived from a salt in a Southeast Asian fruit plant. And the perks are real: HCA can help decrease the amount of visceral, subcutaneous, and total fat on your body, according to a study in the Journal of Obesity. It works by suppressing your appetite, reducing the amount of fat your body absorbs from your diet, and increasing your metabolism.
6. Selenium: This mineral is crucial to regulating your thyroid, the gland in your neck that regulates your metabolism. What's more, the thyroid is responsible for producing hormones crucial to an efficient and balanced metabolism. Since selenium is commonly found in seafood like tuna and oysters, most land-locked folks could benefit from a supplement of the stuff.
How to optimize your lifestyle to burn fat
1. Boost your metabolism throughout the day: Your BMR regulates how many calories you burn at rest and the more you move, the higher your BMR, and the more you’ll burn when standing still. Small efforts like taking the stairs, walking to pick up lunch, even playing pool with the guys during happy hour can all jumpstart your metabolism. (Check out these 30 Easy Ways to Burn Fat in 30 Minutes Without the Gym.)
2. Go to sleep earlier: A study in BMC Public Health found that people who racked up insufficient sleep on the reg were more likely to have a higher BMI. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Chicago found that sleep loss causes decreased glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity (those processes that cause your body to shuttle nutrients into fat cells instead of muscle cells) as well as elevated levels of ghrelin—the hunger hormone—and cortisol, the stress hormone that encourages your body to store fat. What’s more, the less you sleep, the less testosterone your body is able to produce. In short, skimping on sleep messes with all the hormones that help extra fat off your body—so hit the hay already. Shoot for at least 7 hours a night, more if you’re training hard because your body needs more time to repair and rest.
3. Stand up more: By now, we all know sitting for too long increases your risk for most diseases, including obesity. But it also shuts down your body's ability to metabolize fat. According to a study from Missouri University, certain enzymes in the blood vessels of muscles that are responsible for burning fat are "shut off" if you sit still for too long. The good news? The researchers say standing and moving just lightly will re-engage the enzymes.
4. Meditate daily: A study from the University of California, San Francisco found that meditating for just 30 minutes a day can reduce belly fat by way of reducing stress levels (remember that cortisol/fat connection). Plus, a regular mindfulness or meditation practice can help you eat less calories overall and cave less to cravings and emotional eating (and all those processed ingredients that wreak havoc on your fat-regulating hormones).
5. Reduce your stress levels: Working out and eating right can help keep cortisol from running rampant in your body, but if you spend your 9-to-5 stressed to the max, levels of this hormone are going to shoot through the roof regardless. Study after study shows one of the healthiest things you can do for your waistline (as well as your happiness and life span) is to minimize the amount of stress you encounter every day. Incorporate zen activities like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises into your day to help teach you to control spikes of stress when they come up.
6. Fast once a week: While regularly underfeeding your body completely messes with your hormone balance, there's sufficient research to suggest that intermittent fasting (IF)—or going without any food for set intervals—can actually help your insulin sensitivity and burn more fat. Researchers at LSU, for example, found that when people fasted all day, every other day, their fat oxidation increased and they actually lost 4 percent of their body fat in just 22 days. There are a lot of ways to go about IF, from fasting for 12 to 16 hours every day, to going 24 hours once a week. (Learn more about it here.)