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11 Ways to Burn More Calories
We bet you don't walk into the gym wanting to burn just a few calories. But you probably don't have the time or (let's face it) the energy to log more miles and minutes than you already do, either. The solution? Find out when — and how — you can score the biggest calorie burn for your workout efforts.
Exercising on a Full vs. Empty Stomach
Winner: When You Exercise on a Full Stomach
Food is fuel, and while hitting the gym right after eating sets yourself up for a food coma, having some (at least partially) digested food in your system means your muscles are stocked with the glycogen they need to work their best, says Jessica Matthews, MS, assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. Case in point: In one International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism study, exercisers who ate breakfast before working enjoyed significantly higher VO2 (a measure of energy expenditure) and fat-burn rates compared to those who hadn't eaten breakfast before exercising. The best part? The calorie-torching edge lasted for a full 24 hours after working out.
Upper-Body vs. Lower-Body Exercises
Winner: When You Work Your Lower Body
Rep per rep, you burn a lot more calories churning out squats than biceps curls. And while we mean no disrespect to a perfectly sculpted upper body, your largest muscles — you know, the ones that use the most energy — are in your legs. Plus, by working bigger muscles, and thus, more muscle fibers, you create more of those micro-tears your body has to spend calories to repair, says Chris Jordan, MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, ACSM HFI/APT, director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute, and creator of the Johnson & Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout App. By working your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, you actually have a better shot at burning the fat that's currently hiding your biceps. Try squats, lunges, and deadlifts to hit the most muscle fibers, and mix them up with different variations when the moves start feeling easier. Last but not least, when you do work your arms, stand up whenever possible. As soon as you sit down, those big calorie-burning muscles go all but dormant.
Slow and Steady vs. Interval Training
Winner: Interval Training
Get bored on the elliptical? You can burn more calories — and still hop off the machine sooner — if you hit it hard. The key is interval training. By alternating between periods of all-out effort and rest, it lets you go harder, longer, to burn the same number of calories in about half the time as you would with steady-state exercise, Jordan says. For instance, an Australian study in the International Journal of Obesity found young women who alternated between 8 seconds of high-intensity and 12 seconds of low-intensity exercise for just 20 minutes three times a week burned more fat than did steady-state exercisers who logged twice as much time breaking a sweat. While higher intensities use more calories, period, the even bigger calorie-zapping effect might be in the calories you torch after you leave the gym, Jordan says. In fact, research from the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University suggests that completing high-intensity intervals can up your metabolic rate for 14 whole hours.
Calorie Burn Showdown: Round One
Which choices give you the most bang for your calorie buck?
Working Out by Yourself vs. With Others
Winner: When You Work Out with Others
Okay, so hanging with your friends won't directly up your calorie burn, but it will help you go harder, longer, and without even knowing it. In one Michigan State University, women almost doubled their exercise duration (and thus, their calorie expenditure) when cycling with a virtual partner who they were told was slightly better than them. Can you imagine how many calories you could go through if you had real, live buddy alongside you? Best of all, most people don't even realize they are pushing themselves harder than they would if they were solo. One study of Oxford University rowers suggests endorphins may be one reason: It found that when team members worked out together, they released twice as many feel-good endorphins as those who exercised by themselves.
Lifting Lighter Weights vs. Heavier Weights
Winner: When You Lift Heavier Weights
Drop the 2.5-pound weights and really start flexing your muscles. "For your muscles to grow, you need to challenge them with weights that are outside of your comfort zone," says Jordan. And as we all know, more muscle means a faster metabolism. But what you might not know is that lifting heavier weights uses more calories right now by creating more protein breakdown in the muscle, which your body then has to use energy (aka calories) to repair. In fact, one Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that women who lifted more weight for fewer reps (85 percent of their max load for 8 reps) burned nearly twice as many calories during the two hours after their workout compared to when they completed more reps with a lighter weight (45 percent of their max load for 15 reps). And no, even if you are lifting heavy weights, you won't bulk up like your boyfriend. You can thank your lower levels of testosterone for that one.
Starting Your Workout with Static vs. Dynamic Stretches
Winner: Dynamic Stretches
Static stretching (think: bend and hold) before exercising does not make for a good calorie burn. Why? Performing static stretching before a workout can cause your muscles to lose some of their elastic properties, Jordan says. One 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretching before completing a squat reduced strength 8.36 percent and lower-body stability by a whopping 22.68 percent. And if you're shaky and weak, you're going to get a lot less of a burn from your exercise moves. Dynamic stretching (such as light jogging or performing butt kicks before a run) keeps your muscles strong when you head into a workout so you crank out more reps, maintain proper form, go for longer and generally go through more calories, Jordan says. Plus, you expend more calories performing dynamic stretches than you do static ones.
Doing the Same Workout Every Day vs. Switching It Up
Winner: Switching Up Your Workouts
When it comes to your workout, there's a fine line between a routine and a rut. After all, it takes just three weeks for a fit body to adapt and become more efficient at a given exercise. And while adaptation might sound like a good thing, the more efficient your body is at a given move, the fewer calories it has to burn to complete it, says trainer Chase Karnes, CSCS, NSCA-CPT. Still, that doesn't mean you should haphazardly perform different exercises each time you walk into the gym. Instead progress at a given workout and setup of sets and reps, and then after four to six weeks change things up, he suggests. Altering the exercises, angles, or even just the number of sets and reps can keep your body guessing and burning more calories during every workout.
Exercising Indoors vs. Outdoors
Trade your treadmill for the trails. Outside, varied terrain, temps, and wind resistance can help you burn more calories (some people estimate up to 10 percent more) even if you stick to your indoor pace. And even if you go the DIY boot camp route instead, chances are you will still work out longer. Why? One review of outdoor versus indoor exercise published in Environmental Science and Technology found that people consistently reported feeling more energetic and optimistic as well less tense, angry, and depressed after exercising al fresco compared to exercising indoors. Plus, they just had more fun. "People tend to find greater enjoyment when they exercise outdoors amongst nature rather than inside, and because of that they may be more likely to get more out of each workout session," Matthews says.
Eating After a Workout vs. Not
Winner: Eating a Snack After a Workout
Breaking down your muscles burns calories, sure, but what really torches them is building those muscles back up — and that's where post-workout nutrition comes into play. Eating a mix of carbohydrates and protein within an hour of your cool-down helps increase your body's levels of muscle-repair-signaling hormones. That way, you'll not only build more calorie-torching muscle, but your muscles will actually spend extra energy pulling over time on the repair process, Matthews says. Plus, carbs help replenish your muscles' glycogen stores so you're not exhausted and sitting on your butt for the rest of the day burning minimal calories, she says. "Post-workout, aim to consume a snack with a 3:1 ratio of healthy carbohydrates to protein, such as a smoothie made with plain yogurt and water-rich fruits." Keep in mind though that your need to refuel isn't an excuse to binge. "This is a big mistake I see with a lot of women," says Karnes. "They feel they 'deserve' a post workout snack and eat way too much, replacing all the calories they've just burned while training." Stick to 150 to 200 calories — that should do the trick.
Exercising in the Morning vs. Evening
Winner: It Depends
This one's not so cut-and-dried, and really depends on you. While research from Appalachian State University shows that morning workouts yield better sleep (which you've got to have if you want to hit it hard the next day), French research shows evening workouts come with better workout performance and greater power output. Researchers believe that's because core body temperatures are higher in the late afternoon and early evening, making muscles and joints better able to keep up with challenging moves. Basically, every time comes with both pros and cons. In the end, Karnes recommends timing your workouts for when you have time and energy. That's when you're going to get the most out of your workout.
Strength Training vs. Cardio First
Winner: Strength Train First
Strength training and cardio exercise burn the most calories in that order, says Karnes. Why? Your body converts food to energy using both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. Strength training primarily taps your anaerobic ones, so if you knock out your reps first, by the time to get to your cardio routine, your body has used up most if not all of its stored energy. That means your body puts its fat stores to good use and you burn more calories both in the gym and during the rest of the day. Plus, the setup allows you to hit your strength training (which is responsible for bigger calorie burns) harder than you if you completed it post-run. Karnes recommends this order for your workout: strength training, high-intensity cardio and then any low-intensity, steady cardio.
Calorie Burn Showdown: Round Two
What's the best calorie-torching terrain for your run? Should you lift weights before doing cardio? Find out in our face-off.