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Get ready for one of, if not the most, controversial topic in fitness. What is the best form of cardio to burn fat?
But before we can answer this, we must assume that cardio should even be used for fat loss, which raises an entirely different question. So, should cardio be used to burn fat? And if so, what's the best type to help you hit your fat-burning goals?
Whether you're genuinely looking for the best cardio exercises for burning calories or you think you already know but want to confirm you're correct, we're going to break it down the SET FOR SET way - no-nonsense, just facts.
Table of Contents:
The term "cardio" is short for cardiovascular exercise. It generally refers to any aerobic exercise that stresses the cardiovascular system with the goal of improving its performance.
Technically, just about any type of training can improve your cardio, including weight training. However, cardio generally refers to non-weight training exercises, including LISS activities such as running, swimming, or cycling. It can also include HITT-style workouts that use bodyweight exercises.
The primary variable that makes an exercise a cardio exercise is simply the intent and goal for the session.
To understand this, we must understand what happens when you do cardio. Cardio burns calories by taking energy from either fat stores or glycogen, depending on your feeding state and exercise intensity.
However, even if you get energy from stored fat, this doesn't mean you will necessarily lose fat which translates to weight loss. If you eat a caloric surplus, you will simply replace the fat used for energy.
This fact is true regardless if you're burning glycogen or fat stores. Ultimately, the only thing that will dictate actual fat loss is if you can enter a calorie deficit. And your best plan for obtaining a calorie deficit is combining a weight loss meal plan with regular exercise.
This means that the best form of cardio to burn fat is the one that burns the most calories. Burning more calories will make creating a calorie deficit easier. Your bigger calorie deficit equates to more fat loss (within limits).
It can burn belly fat, but not always. Ask yourself this question: Did you get to choose where you stored fat? Unfortunately, no.
And, for the majority of people, the same thing is true for fat loss. Thanks to genetics and physiology, the body finds some places easier to store fat than others. It's reasonable to assume the last place you'll lose fat is the first place you gain it. And, since many people, gain fat first in the belly, it's commonly a tough spot for fat loss.
Luckily, with time and consistency, a change in total body composition is possible, which can lead to a reduction in belly fat.
As you likely know, the giant list of options for cardio makes it difficult to know what you should do. This section will review what we believe to be the best cardio equipment for burning fat.
In my experience, cycling is the number one form of weight loss cardio.
High impact can become a big issue with some types of cardio (looking at you, running). Repetitive impact with the ground can take a toll on your joints, and the last thing you want is to wind up in bed unable to workout.
To be clear, I LOVE running, and it can be very effective. However, it's not the best option for all trainees, particularly those who have joint issues or are prone to injury.
Enter cycling. Every version of cycling is extremely low impact, making it easy to do every day. Getting in 30 minutes of extra cardio daily will go a long way toward fat loss.
Cycling is also easier for beginners to do for a long time, even at a higher intensity.
In fact, cycling is so effective that it was used in the original study that popularized the 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off Tabata training. Further, it's what Dr. Tabata himself recommends for cardio, which should tell you something about its benefits1. If you're looking to purchase a stationary bike to make cycling even more convenient, these 11 Best Recumbent Bikes are all great choices.
I also love the air bike for fat loss, since it works both the lower and upper body. If you're interested in using the air bike to support your weight loss goals, check out our article on the 8 Best Air Bike Options to find one that fits your budget.
The treadmill is another awesome choice of cardio exercise for fat loss. Treadmills are cushioned and therefore are easier on the joints than running outside, so you can get in training every day.
Thanks to a treadmill's ability to incline, you don't even need to run to get in some intense exercise. Walk 30 minutes at a steep incline, and you'll be good to go.
I also like how you can push yourself by setting a higher speed, so long as you're safe and don't go too fast! All in all, cardio workouts on a treadmill are an excellent choice for losing weight. To get started, take a look at these treadmill workouts for weight loss.
And, for the best treadmills for fat loss, check out our article on the 7 Best Incline Treadmills.
The benefits of stairclimbers are amazing. This training equipment follows an incredibly simple concept that burns major calories while strengthening and toning the thighs and glutes.
Many people assume you must go to the gym to use stair steppers, but they make a great addition to a home gym as well. Since they're easy to zone out on, you can set up your speed and forget about it. Climb for 30-45 minutes as you watch some TV or listen to a podcast.
Head to our article on the 9 Best Stair Steppers to find some affordable options for your home gym.
Once you've chosen your equipment, you need to decide how to use it. Many people claim one protocol is better than the other, but studies show this isn't the case.
Total calories burnt comes down to work expended, and you can do that in a variety of ways. For example, running at a steady state for 30 minutes will be similar to 5-10 minutes of maximal work in a HIIT session2. Therefore, we'll discuss a few options for you below.
Steady-state cardio has gotten a lot of negative feedback lately for no reason. The truth is that steady-state cardio can be highly effective in doing its job: burning calories.
That said, it needs to be a challenging exercise that can be maintained for 30-45 minutes. For many people, the incline treadmill or stairclimber works best.
High intensity interval training, or HIIT workouts, are a great option if you're short on time. HITT is a form of interval training that traditionally uses work-to-rest periods of 1:2-1:4.
Keep in mind these intervals were originally designed to improve performance variables, not burn fat. Still, they're a great option to maximize work in little time, and the better you can perform, the more you'll get out of your workouts.
For more information, check out our article comparing HIIT vs Steady-State Cardio For Fat Loss.
One way to maximize calories burned is to modify HIIT. Instead of working at maximal effort and stopping to rest, try this:
Work at a high intensity of 90 or 95%, which is high enough to burn calories but won't completely exhaust you. Then, instead of stopping to rest, merely take it down to an easy effort of around 60%. This allows you to keep getting in work while resting.
Here's an example workout routine that combines the best of HIIT and steady state cardio, and can be adapted to any machine.
Let's look at some of the fantastic benefits a cardio workout routine can deliver.
Cardio will always be at the top when strictly looking at the number of calories you can burn during your workout. Of course, there's some nuance with other types of exercise to burn fat, especially when it comes to calories outside the gym.
But for maximal caloric output within a specific time frame, cardio is king.
In gym culture, we are almost exclusively concerned with building muscle mass, top lifts, and body composition. Just look at the entire premise of this article: How can we burn the most fat?
In reality, there are other health components to be concerned about, namely improved cardiovascular health. Lifting weights will improve cardiovascular health to an extent, but there's a reason this type of exercise is called cardio. It takes your heart health to another level.
Cardio can be done anywhere. You can go for a jog outside, ride a bike in the comfort of your home during snowy winters, or pick your favorite machine at any gym. Access is vital as you're much more likely to do something you're not stoked about (at least at first) if it's relatively easy to start.
One issue not often discussed is cardio's contributions to active recovery when done at a lower intensity.
I've used a light cardio workout regimen as our form of active recovery and can testify it helped me. Again, this works best with a steady-state workout and is ideally low-impact.
Cycling and stairclimbers can work great for this.
Now let's look at some things you may need to address.
One common complaint about cardio workouts is that they can be boring, so most people go into it with a poor attitude. They only go for 5 minutes and call it quits.
In reality, once you "get into it," cardio is a great time to get lost in your head and do some heavy thinking. If that's not your thing, you could listen to a podcast or book.
The meditative state is big reason we like longer, steady-state cardio, but find what works best for you to enjoy it.
No one wants to dedicate themselves to a workout split, only to lose muscle because of cardio.
And, losing muscle mass is a very real possibility if you don't take a few precautions. Excessive cardio (60+ minutes) or training on an empty stomach significantly increases your chance of muscle loss due to a high rise in the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol can break down muscle into amino acids for fuel if it can't find it from other sources. With this in mind, keep your cardio sessions to 30-45 minutes, and don't perform on an empty stomach. If you follow these guidelines, it shouldn't be an issue.
Even if you don't lose muscle tissue, excessive cardio can make gaining more muscle and improving muscular strength more difficult.
Granted, if your main goal is fat-burning, gaining muscle might not matter to you as much. Still, cardio will blunt muscle growth, even if you're in a caloric surplus. The same thing goes for strength gains. You'll miss out on your highest strength potential by doing excessive cardio.
We recommend doing more frequent cardio sessions of moderate length to balance all three goals.
Again, let's not look at this question as burning fat but instead as which is optimal in terms of burning calories on a fat-loss journey.
In terms of calories burned, cardio is going to generally burn more. As most people train for an hour, we would need to look at cardio done in an hour.
If a 150-pound man trains at a moderate pace for an hour, they'll likely burn somewhere between 500 to 800 calories. If that same man lifts weights, they'll likely burn 200 to 400 calories. Various factors can affect those totals, but these are reasonable estimates.
While cardio will obviously burn more calories, other factors, such as the effect on muscle mass, should be considered. This is where weightlifting comes in.
Weightlifting will not only burn calories, but it can also help maintain muscle tissue. As an athlete, maintaining muscle is vital for successful weight loss. Therefore, if you were only going to do one, we would definitely recommend weight training. That said, doing both will provide the best results.
Cardio may work in the gym, but it doesn't need to stand alone. You have a lot more resources at your disposal, so use them!
Here are a few more great strategies to support your fat burn goals.
Now onto some frequently asked questions we may have missed.
Keep in mind that cardio for weight loss will only work if it puts you in a calorie deficit. General recommendations are to get into a 300-500 deficit for optimal weight loss (1,000 for those who are highly overweight).
You can hit that target with 30-45 minutes of daily cardio, which makes training at that duration at a moderate pace the sweet spot. It's easy to hit daily, and consistency will ALWAYS be the number one indicator for fat loss.
As long as you do them with enough intensity for long enough, all of them!
Yes! 30 minutes of cardio is a great starting position for losing weight.
No! Weight loss will always be dictated by calorie control, primarily through nutrition. If you want, you can get into a caloric deficit by controlling your diet without cardio or exercise. However, regularly adding cardio workouts to your regime can make this much easier.
When you aim to conserve muscle mass, you should do weight training. You could do anything from traditional weight training to circuits, HIIT workouts, and barbell complexes.
In our opinion, the best cardio machine to burn fat is the bike. Whether it's indoor cycling, spinning, or Air biking, they're all effective. You can't go wrong with these 11 Best Recumbent Bikes or these 8 Best Assault Bikes.
Diet is king when it comes to weight loss and fat burning. But using diet alone makes it more difficult than it needs to be. To optimize your results, you should use every tactic you have.
Hitting the issue from multiple angles will allow easier weight loss and more forgiveness on a "bad day." To build the ultimate weight loss plan, combine a healthy diet, strength training, and, of course, cardio.
When it comes to calories burned, no one method is the best. What's best for you will be whichever you can be the most consistent with.
Consistency allows you to accrue small gains over time, which will always outweigh any extra calories one type of cardio may burn over another. Various types of cardio workouts will keep things interesting anyway.
In the end, cardio is an effective means to burn calories just about wherever you are.
Losing weight and burning fat can be tough, but these 8 Best Supplements For Fat Loss can help! Or, check out our articles on the Best Fat Burners For Men & the Best Fat Burners For Women for more great options.
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