The Best Exercises For Weight Loss

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Photograph: Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Think of fat loss, and your mind jumps – probably unwillingly – to teeth-gritting spin bike sprints, retch-making burpee intervals or, if you’re really behind on the science, endless cardio. Good news: none of the above is necessary.

“Your body is smart about how it regulates the energy it uses,” says trainer Adam Wakefield. “If you go out and run, cycle or swim for an hour each day for a year, then you won’t be burning the same number of calories twelve months down the line as when you first started. Your body’s used to the stimulus – and now you’ll need to do more than before to get better results.”

With weights, this isn’t a problem, because it’s far easier to make little tweaks to your sessions – whether that’s exercise selection, equipment, weight, sets, reps, tempo or rest – to keep your body guessing. “When it comes to lifting weights, the body never gets used to the stimulus being thrown at it,” says Wakefield. “And having a large amount of muscle helps your body burn more calories, so doing this type of training over the long term puts you in the best position to burn more body fat.”

You’ll still need to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, of course, but there’s another benefit to getting there via the barbell instead of the bike: the shape you’re in once you’ve stripped the fat will be – well, more of a shape.

“Send your body the right signals through your training and you’ll preserve – and build – muscle mass,” says Wakefield. “Cardiovascular exercise doesn’t send that signal – you’re just burning calories, and your body’s likely to rid itself of its calorically expensive muscle tissue. So you might end up lean, but you’ll have no chest or arms to fill out a T-shirt, either.”

So use weights for your fat loss workout, and you’ll shift fat more efficiently, transform your body into a machine that burns calories even while you rest, and give yourself a set of abs and arms worth revealing. It’s a plan with no drawbacks – as long as you get the execution right. And that’s what we’re here for…

How To Plan Your Workouts

Think big

“You need to be performing compound exercises that use multiple muscles, because they’ll provide your body with the best signal to hang on to muscle mass and also burn the most calories,” says Wakefield. “Focus on deadlifts, squats, pull-ups and presses, using the isolation moves for ‘pump’-style finishers.”

Go up and down

“I’d recommend doing upper- and lower-body strength exercises on the same day, to keep your heart rate high and maximise fat burning,” says trainer Will Purdue. “Doing both in a single superset is an option, but just planning squats and benches for the same day is fine.”

Start slow and heavy

“You should be lifting in the six to eight rep range with these exercises, using a slow controlled tempo (two seconds down, two seconds up) on every rep,” says Wakefield. “The key is to keep your rests disciplined – ideally they’ll be 60 seconds or even less.” It won’t always be pleasant.

Chase the pump

“After you’ve done your main exercises, you can move on to a couple of isolation exercises in the 12-20 rep range,” says Wakefield. “This will create a different kind of metabolic stress – forcing blood into the muscles being worked and creating a large amount of damage to the muscle fibres, both of which are key determinants of hypertrophy [muscle growth].”

Finish strong

“Throw in a circuit-style finisher and you’ll burn a ton of calories during the workout and afterwards because your metabolism will be increased,” says Wakefield. “This means you’ll burn more calories throughout the rest of the day even after you’ve stopped working out.” You certainly don’t get that from 5K on the treadmill.

3 Weight-Loss Workouts For Your Lunch Break

Photography: Glen Burrows; Model; Jack Jefferson

45 Minutes: Full-Body

“If you’ve got time, this is the most complete option,” says Wakefield. “It will build strength and muscle, but also burn fat. Do four workouts like this a week and change the exercises each workout.”

1 Front squat

Sets 3 Reps 6 Rest 60sec

2 Barbell deadlift

Sets 3 Reps 6 Rest 60sec

3 Bench press

Sets 3 Reps 8 Rest 60sec

4 Barbell Pendlay row

Sets 3 Reps 8 Rest 60sec

Do three rounds of the following, resting 60sec between sets

5A Dumbbell biceps curl

Reps 30

5B Dumbbell lateral raise

Reps 15

5C Walking lunge

Reps 30

30 Minutes: Express

To pack more into less time, start with a superset and end with a circuit. “You could do this two days a week,” suggests Purdue. “On the second day, switch the bench and squat for deadlift and row, and change the exercises in the circuit.”

1A Back squat

Sets 5 Reps 5 Rest 60sec

1B Bench press

Sets 5 Reps 5 Rest 60sec

Next, do 40 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest at each of these stations, rest a minute and repeat for a total of three circuits. Done!

2A Jump squat

2B Press-up

2C Bear crawl

2D Medicine ball slam

2E Oblique crunch

15 Minutes: All-Out

“If time’s short, use the ‘every minute on the minute’ or EMOM format,” says Wakefield. “Start a timer, do all the reps of the exercise, and rest for the remainder of the minute before restarting. You should be able to rest for ten to 15 seconds each minute. If you’re unable to complete the set amount of repetitions and exercises each minute, then think about reducing the reps.”

Starting a new set every minute on the minute for 20 minutes, complete…

1 Press-up

Reps 10

2 Goblet squat

Reps 10

3 Dumbbell bent-over row

Reps 10

The Dos And Don’ts Of Better Fat Loss

Don’t use Olympic lifts 

“Trying to do heavy, technical lifts while tired is a recipe for disaster,” says Wakefield. “And doing one to three snatches then resting for a few minutes – the best way to master them – isn’t optimal for fat loss.” There are more efficient options.

Do perform barbell complexes

In these you’ll use one barbell with moderate weight, and perform four to five exercises back to back without rest. Wakefield suggests front squats, overhead presses, bent-over rows, deadlifts and then press-ups on the bar. Rest for 60 seconds between sets and perform five sets total. High fatigue, low risk.

Don’t do plyometrics

“Avoid using box jumps in circuits,” says Wakefield. “They can be dangerous when you’re tired – and jumping on a fatigued achilles tendon is a great way to blow it.” If you must do them, step down, don’t jump.

Do use kettlebells

They build explosiveness with low impact. “Grab a pair and set the timer for however long you have to work out,” says Wakefield. “Perform as many rounds as possible of this circuit in that time. Record your score and try to beat it each time.

  • 3 cleans
  • 5 overhead presses
  • 7 front squats
  • 9 bent-over rows
  • 11 swings

Don’t abandon form

“Lifting lighter weights faster for more reps won’t increase the amount of fat you burn,” says Purdue. “And if you injure yourself, you’re going to go back to lying on the couch, minimising your burn.”

Do use your body

For circuits, stick to moves that are easy to do safely when you’re fatigued. That might mean missing out the deadlifts and overhead press. Safest of all are bodyweight moves.

Don’t destroy yourself

“It’s all well and good to go all-in and leave yourself in pieces, but can you get up and train again hard the next day, or the day after?” asks Purdue. “You might need to start with one or two rounds of circuits before building up to three or four, and there’s no problem with that.”

Do plan for progression

Start with weights and intervals you can manage and you’ll always have somewhere to go. “For the Express circuit (above), try to keep the same set and rep ranges but add a little weight over the month for the strength exercises,” says Purdue. “For the conditioning circuits, increase the time you’re working, and cut the rest – or try to get more reps on each movement.”

Don’t curl for conditioning

Single-joint exercises like curls just aren’t optimal in a circuit. “They’re more about targeting individual muscles,” says Purdue. “They don’t give you the full-body hit you really need to burn fat.”

Do add a press

The dumbbell curl and press works better, since you’ll be working more of your body in each rep – and you can push until your heart and lungs, not just your biceps, are taking the load. Add some Arnold presses to your circuit too: curl, press overhead, lower and repeat.

Finish Strong With Metcon

“To train with weights for conditioning while still keeping the signal to maintain muscle mass, I’d suggest using metabolic conditioning, or ‘metcon’ training,” says Wakefield. “With this, you’ll move heavy weights or use full-body movements to burn fat and build work capacity in a very short space of time.” Take five minutes at the end of your session, and go all-out.

The Strongman Option

“You can go fairly heavy on this one,” says Wakefield. “It’ll build strength and endurance.” 5 rounds of…

  • 5 kettlebell clean and jerks
  • 30m farmer’s walk
  • 30m sled push

The Go-Anywhere Option

This circuit, created by Purdue, is your bodyweight-only go-to. Do 40 seconds of each move, rest for 20 seconds, then move on to the next. No dip bar? Add a set of diamond press-ups.

  • Pull-up
  • Jump squat
  • Wide-to-narrow alternating press-ups
  • Burpee
  • Walking plank
  • Dip

The Full-Body Burn

“Do 30 seconds of each move, twice, for a four-minute thrash,” says Purdue. “This is a full-body finisher.”

  • Medicine ball slam
  • Burpee
  • Dumbbell thruster
  • Jump squat

And if you must do cardio…

… go fast – or very, very slow. By doing traditional steady-state cardio on the treadmill, stepper or (please, no) the elliptical, you’ll tax your system, hampering recovery from your other workouts without working at the optimal intensity for fat loss. Worse, there’s a chance you’ll spike your cortisol levels, causing your stressed-out nervous system to put digestion and fat metabolism on hold. If you still want to do cardio, these are your options.

HIIT

You’re probably aware of high-intensity interval training, but what you might not be aware of is the optimal intensity for fat loss. A team of researchers from the University of Nebraska concluded that 30-second bursts are ideal, but only if they’re done with adequate rest – anywhere up to four minutes – to allow proper recovery between intervals. Your prescription? Six 30-second efforts, done as hard as you can possibly go, with three to four minutes between bursts.

LISS

If you’ve got more time and less energy, low-intensity steady state is your ticket. That means 30 to 60 minutes of walking, swimming or other gentle exercise aimed at increasing blood flow and slowly simmering body fat without too much stress on your system. According to a 2013 study published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism And Cardiovascular Diseases, you’re more likely to stick with it than HIIT – maybe because it’s done at a pace where you can keep up a conversation.