Is Your Fat-Burning Furnace Fired Up--or Fizzling Out?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  109 comments   :  264,385 Views

Whether you're trying to lose or few pounds or maintain your current weight, most exercisers are interested in "burning fat" during their workouts. Of course, the fat-burning benefits of exercise vary based on when and what you last ate, what type of workout you're doing, how hard you're pushing—and countless other factors. On top of that, you've probably heard a lot of conflicting advice about what types of exercises burn the most fat. But I believe fitness professionals can all agree on one thing: The more calories you can burn, the more body fat you will lose. So what can you do to burn more calories and get the results you want?

Today I'll share three simple things you can do to accelerate your workout fat burning, along with three other "techniques" you should avoid.

For three of my top tips to burn more fat during your workouts, check out this short video.

The keys there are to get yourself to work harder, which ultimately burns more calories and fat. Whenever you can work harder without perceiving your workouts as being intense, you'll be even better off! That's why tricks like listening to music or picking fun workouts really pay off.

So what shouldn't you do? Here are three commonly advised strategies that may sound like sage advice--but are only going to hurt your weight-loss efforts.
  1. DON'T "Exercise in the fat-burning zone." The fat-burning zone is—shockingly—still a very common workout mode on cardio machines. It is programmed to keep you working at a low heart-rate (intensity) level because at low-energy levels your body uses more fat as fuel. That's is true in theory, but in practice it doesn't work out so well. When it comes to weight loss it does not matter where the calories you burn come from, whether glucose in the bloodstream from a recent meal you ate or stored body fat. What really matters is that you burn as many calories as possible regardless of the source of those calories. And what burns more calories? Working harder (hence my tip from the video above).
  2. DON'T "Exercise on an empty stomach." It is NOT true that exercising on an empty stomach will cause your body to burn more fat. This is a continuation of what I explained above, that the source of the energy you burn doesn't matter when it comes to weight loss. And in many cases, if you are hungry and forcing yourself to work out without eating something first—simply to burn more fat—you are only shortchanging yourself. Your body needs energy to be available for optimal exercise, especially if you want to work hard, which really burns the most calories (and, subsequently, fat). When you're low on fuel (energy), you can't work as hard or as long and your workout suffers along with your calorie burn.
  3. DON'T "Lift light weights for lean muscles." Perhaps one of the best things you can do to unleash your body's fat-burning potential is strength training. And I do believe that any strength training is better than nothing, even if it's lightweight. But the idea that lifting light weights is going to give you better results or "smaller" muscles is only a half truth. Sure, without lifting heavier you will probably not get much stronger. But stronger doesn't mean "bigger" (very important!) and the less strength you have, the fewer calories you are burning while you read this blog, while you run and while you do just about anything.

    Muscle can help elevate your metabolism, and lifting weights to fatigue can also burn some serious calories—even after your workout ends. Not to mention that during weight loss, about 25% of the "weight" you lose could actually be lean tissue like muscle. Over time, that can wreak havoc on your metabolism and fat-burning potential. So pick up those weights at least twice a week and don't fear getting stronger. You'll cut that muscle loss that often accompanies weight loss in half, and it will only make your fitter, slimmer and healthier.

Do you currently follow any of these fat-burning tips?  Are you guilty of any of the mistakes? Share your favorite method for burning more fat with us below!

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  • 59
    How much cardio should you do before strength training? I'm getting conflicting answers on this. And thanks for the tips! - 4/3/2013   9:53:50 AM
  • 58
    I have been with spark since 2009 and lost and gained. Right now I am in the gain and I truly feel it is because my knees are just wearing out. I so enjoyed spin and now can't do that. I know when I get the knee replacement it will be better, but I don't think I will ever be able to push the way I used to for the fat burning.

    Does more minutes at the slower pace make up for higher intensity fat burning? - 4/3/2013   9:42:15 AM
  • CHETTY90
    I do follow the tips mention above, but the only thing which has bothered me is i work out on empty stomach, kindly suggest is working out early morning with empty stomach right way of excersizing??? I am highly inspired by this website and i walking for 01hour in morning and do perform yoga on empty stomach please advice appropriate method or excersizng. - 4/3/2013   9:15:49 AM
  • 56
    After reading coach Nicole's strategies for fat burning, I do feel I follow these tips pretty closely. At times I wish I could lift a heavier weight, but right now I can do 12 lbs with good form and do lots of reps which I think is important too because you want to fatigue the muscles. I can feel a burn so I must be doing something right? Also, I recently purchased some Bob Harper and Amy Dickson workout dvd's that would knock the socks off of anyone even your advanced athlete. So for now I think I am doing ok in the exercise category, but still need to work harder in the eating category. I believe that no matter how hard you work out, if you throw it all away by eating badly, then you won't achieve those results you are looking for! Thanks again coach Nicole for sharing valuable weight loss tips with us! - 4/3/2013   8:08:44 AM
    Hello. I would love for know what you think of products like raspberry ketone to reduce pounds. I'm about to start using. I've been looking for some information and if anyone is interested this is a blog I found - 3/6/2013   5:07:34 AM
  • 54
    I have yet to figure out how to eat something BEFORE I exercise (first thing in the morning), plus manage my calories for the day so that I am not hungry. I eat breakfast around 6, a banana around 9:30, lunch around noon, a granola bar around 2:30 and dinner around 6. The big meals with those snacks take me to my limit. - 6/16/2012   8:47:27 AM
    Vicky - on the rare occasions I work out first thing in the morning, I usually have a slice of bread with some peanut butter, a granola bar, or a banana. Just enough to keep my stomach from gnawing at my back mid-workout - eating a full meal that early doesn't agree with me either! - 6/11/2012   11:08:28 AM
  • 52
    People just need to try different things until they find what's best for them. There really isn't a one size fits all physical fitness philosophy. Everyone is different. For me personally, circuit training works the best for me. It keeps my energy up and I feel great when I'm done, whether I've eaten anything or not. It's a matter of time. I'm not getting up an extra 45 minutes to let my food digest before working out before work in the morning. - 6/5/2012   11:49:42 PM
  • 51
    This is a great article. One question though. I am an early morning workout person. I get up at 5am to do my workouts. It says not to workout on an empty stomach, but I do not really want to have a meal that early in the am. Ideas?? - 6/5/2012   7:55:44 PM
    i do enjoy reading the helpful tips on here. now i just need to somehow get to teh spark points page id be ok got another computer adn i am sort of lost .need togetto tehstrt page nandthisisharder tousethoscomputerth tholdonebut had problemswtihti. - 6/5/2012   5:40:43 PM
    I must say, this article has sure generated a lot of comments! I disagree with the idea that there is one way for everyone. Anyone who says that one specific plan works for every body has not worked with very many bodies. Everyone is different, and what each person needs varies. For instance, I also do my work-out first thing in the morning and there's no way that I can eat before. Whether you should eat before or after depends on the type of work-out that you're doing, what time of day you are doing it and for how long. And to answer Eric 1965, yes, using your body as weight absolutely is strength training. Push-ups, Pull ups, Squats with weights (even soup cans work) and you don't need special equipment. I work with people of all ages, sizes and shapes and what works for one does not always for another. My suggestion would be that if you are doing something that is working for you, DON"T change it because someone else says it doesn't work! - 6/5/2012   4:29:35 PM
  • 48
    Funny thing, my new Runner's World has an article in it about this empty stomach and fat burning zone bit. Personally I get sick if I eat before I work out so unless its a really long run I'm out there on an empty stomach. I figure I can live off the fat of the Aponi long enough to make it home. - 6/5/2012   2:41:21 PM
  • 47
    I always eat a good breakfast before I do any thing. Then after a half hour after eating I do half of my strength training routine, then go to the gym and do 30 min. of cardio. Then its back to the other half of my strength training routine. - 6/5/2012   1:54:19 PM
    I walk every morning on an empty stomach. I'm never hungry when I get up, so I walk for about a half hour, cool down, shower, and then eat when I start to get hungry. If I had to eat and then walk, it wouldn't happen. - 6/5/2012   11:42:25 AM
  • 45
    I actually do make some of these mistakes at times. I also struggle with S.T. but I am doing it with high hopes it will help me when I am a little old lady : ) - 6/5/2012   11:18:32 AM
  • 44
    I've like doing the weightlifting in between cardio. Run 15 min...jump over to the weights and when I change machines do some jumping jacks or something to keep my heart rate up. Go back to running for another 15 min.

    But I think it's all about what works for you. - 6/5/2012   10:32:08 AM
    I am no expert but I do think that Jillian Michaels is and I have her DVD 30 day shred. She does a 3,2,1 routine. 3 minutes of strength, 2 minutes cardio, 1 minute abs. Repeat. But her moves target more then one muscle group at a time. You are doing squats with arm lifts (with free weights). I think exercise helps tone but the real key to weight loss is "calories in / calories out". Thanks Nicole I love your workouts and wish I had a laptop so I could do more of them. I don't have the room where my computer is. - 6/5/2012   10:00:14 AM
  • 42
    It drives me nuts when I hear constant talk of "this is how our anscestors lived and stayed fit." Umm, ok if you want to do that then please get rid of your car - take NO transportation other than your feet, NEVER go the market - not even farmers but go hunt your food each day. Never step foot in a gym, sports complex and oh yeah, don't do Crossfit - go climb a tree instead. Grind your own arrows out of stone... Please people - we can't even compare today's living to then. And as for working out - the important thing is to just do it - move more - work the muscles preferably in a way that we use them in our daily activities. Eat healthy most of the time - eat in moderation because the fact is we will store anything extra as fat. It is not rocket science and I wish people would stop trying to make it sound like it is. Billions of $$ are spent on diet and fitness and our society is getting fater w/ each book printed. How's this for advice - shut the pie-hole and quit shoveling non-stop. - 6/5/2012   9:21:59 AM
  • UMMM613
    i never know if i should do cardio and strength training in the same day, so i alternate. M, W, F are weight lifting days while T, Thr, Sat are cardio days. This way i'll never get mixed up on which to do first. I am reading conflicting things. - 6/5/2012   8:29:05 AM
    Tip the author - You use way too many negatives in this article. They're myths and then you're saying "Don't do these things..." it gets very confusing! Be direct - as many people mentioned, the "research" is conflicting enough! - 6/5/2012   5:53:29 AM
  • LINKS2
    Oh yes, you can lose weight by eating properly, cleaner, and ensuring that protein is included...your "furnace" will fire up hard if you eat...DO NOT starve eat eat - 6/5/2012   2:51:59 AM
  • LINKS2
    My working out consists of cardio(warm up) for 10-15 minutes, then I will do upper body weight training... will do cardio the next day...I will alternate this way upper body, lower body, upper body...then the following week, I will carry on where I left off, lower/upper/lower, with cardio in between the weight training days...the Sunday will be my rest works very well for cardio days usually consists of the elliptical or outside on my bike(making sure I find hills to ride up as it will help you burn more calories, and develop your cardio)...Pre-workouts usually consists of a banana/peanut butter sandwich about 1.5-2 hours ahead of the workout...after the workout(within the first 2 hours) I will have a protein shake and maybe a few almonds...I am in and out of the gym quick...I spend no more than 1 hour in the gym, and usually am out of there in 45 hanging around chatting or drinking water, I get a good cardio workout also because when I do the weight training, I move from one exercise to another with no more than a minute in between them...I am in there for one reason and one reason only, lose weight get in shape...wake the muscles up so they will grow, get stronger and burn more calories at really is very easy...Oh yes, I also use the 10 minute rule when it comes to my cardio workouts...I will do 10 minutes for sure, and if I really cannot continue on, I will stop...but about 95% of the time I will push it for another 10 minutes...I can feel like crap before the workout but I most always will go for 30 minutes... - 6/5/2012   2:49:52 AM
  • 37
    the simple truth: just do it! - 6/4/2012   1:23:18 AM
  • 36
    Does strength training mean weights or will push ups, dips, pull ups, an the like suffice? Would getting and using a "Total Gym" type machine build and strengthen to the degree necessary? - 6/2/2012   8:55:41 AM
    Umph... Every source of information says a different thing. Do cardio before strength, no do it after. Eat before working out, don't eat before working out. Very confusing!
    I've only recently started strength training and I think I will just first try the one method for two months (cardio then strength) and then switch and see what works best for me.
    With regard to eating before working out: I'd love an article about WHAT to eat, and how much, before a workout!
    - 6/2/2012   6:30:19 AM
  • 34
    I agree with SuzieQ,#21, I have been advised to do weights before doing Cardio. Soing your workouts in this order will burn more fat. - 5/31/2012   3:19:19 PM
  • 33
    Yep I eat a normal breakfast before I work out, and that is a daily routine before work. I do half of my strength training, then head to the recumbent bike and elliptical for 20 min.each. Then go home and finish my strength training. Sometimes I will take a walk after work just for something to do. - 5/31/2012   2:02:21 PM
  • 32
    I always do cardio first.....but only to get it out of the way! I've got 30+ lbs. left to lose and my routine consists of 60 mins. of cardio that I change up from day to day. One day of elliptical, next day of stair stepper, then bike, and so forth. Weight training and body toning are next with 30-40 mins., 4-5 times a week. Again I switch it up and work upper body one day, lower the next and then back and core! I've consistently lost weight with few plateaus and they were short. I attribute it to the ever changing workouts in my arsenal and the building of lean muscle mass make me a calorie burning machine! - 5/31/2012   1:07:56 PM
  • 31
    I'm one of those people who has to exercise first thing in the morning, or it won't get done. I don't do it for fat-burning reason listed above - just to get it done. And while I work out very intensely, I don't feel as though not eating first harms my performance unless I go past 60 m, which just doesn't happen. - 5/31/2012   11:22:33 AM
  • 30
    Thanks for the info but there are some issues that come with listening to music when you are outside running or walking. If you are doing your cardio anywhere there is traffic listening to music is a distraction you don't need. I see too many people who have the earbuds in and so are oblivious to the other stuff around them and to top it off when walking in the road they are walking with traffic (please walk facing traffic). When out where you share the road you need both your eyes and ears to stay safe. Running outside is the one place I never listen to music. maybe it would make it easier but coming home alive is more important that the couple extra calories I might burn otherwise. - 5/31/2012   10:50:28 AM
  • 29
    This is kind of frustrating, because I have heard to do the strength training before so your muscles are working while you are doing cardio.....argh. Ok, now to switch again!

    rumbamel - 5/31/2012   9:55:31 AM
  • 28
    I find what works best for me are basically 2 a days. I run in the morning and then do strength training when I get home from work. - 5/31/2012   9:31:46 AM
  • 27
    Basically I do the cardio before strength and never stay in the fat burning is about the total calories burned after all. However, I don't exercise to music....I can't focus on strength and my form in cardio go into the waste bin [I have almost fallen off my elliptical because of the music from a near by spin class!]..I enjoy the music to I watch the food channels [I am a total foodie!] and it works for me - 5/31/2012   8:25:26 AM
  • JPEARL127
    Good points to follow! Music really does help with exercise. I tried audio books, but I didn't get much out of EITHER the reading or the exercise! - 5/31/2012   5:54:01 AM
    Awesome! Thanks. I started working out with music and noticed a huge change right away. I was trying to stay in the present moment, but exercise should not lead to bordomville. I was a regular visitor. Between the dixie chicks and my gospel cd's I'm a workout wonder!

    The don'ts intrigue me. I always try to workout in the fat burning zone (oopsie) and I try to workout on an empty stomach (my reason for working out first thing in the morning). But I was so depleted after the workout, I stopped my early morning gym workouts. - 5/30/2012   8:27:18 PM
  • MAKY1978
    I belonged to a gym last year and they said to start with 20-30mins of cardio (and really give it your all after the warm up), then to strenth training, again give it your all, then cool down for 10mins on a cardio machine again. I disn't lose a lot of weight, but I wasn't very consequent and disn't go bery often, but even with 2 x a week most weeks I dis notice quite a few changes. Then at the beginning of this year I switched to te gym at my office and when I did the intake the guy there said no strengh training, low intensity cardio that you should build up to 45-60 mins 5x a week and the weight will fly off he said. I've been doing that for nearly 6 months now and barely any weightloss. I am fitter though and have more stamina, so it's good for something, but I am definitely going to go back to more of a cardio/strenth combo workout and am goingto go back to giving it my all again, which I loved. I have always eaten something before a workout, was mostly advised against it but have always thought that if not eating makes me feel shakey and low energy half way through it's not a good thing. @bett2u, I'm no expert, but I would imagine that eating lots of protein and slow absorbing carbs before your cardio workouts might help with the massive hunger post workout.
    @rosewci, if eating makes you nauseated and you are still able to work out properly, then I wouldn't eat, at the end of the day regardless of all the rules, you've gotta listen to your body and go with what works for you.
    - 5/30/2012   6:00:59 PM
  • MAKY1978
    . - 5/30/2012   5:40:02 PM
  • SUZIEQ115
    I disagree with doing cardio before strength training. When you do strength training, your muscles need the fuel in your muscles to lift. If you do cardio first, you burn up that ready fuel. Weight training will use up your stored fuel in your muscles. Then when you do a moderate cardio afterwards, you are burning more fat. I save my intense cardio workouts for non weight training days. - 5/30/2012   5:26:23 PM
  • 21
    Wow! 250 minutes does seem like a lot. I strength train 3 days a week with a personal trainer and do cardio (elliptical & Stair stepper) for 90 minutes a week. My goal is to try to get in another 2 hours of cardio a week. So tonight is Zumba and I will be back in the gym on Saturday for an additional cardio workout. Definitely a lifestyle change! - 5/30/2012   3:24:06 PM
  • 20
    I generally follow what the video suggests, I have found that it helps to vary my exercise and I usually do cardio before strength training. I usually though am not a music listener, I listen to a lot of audiobooks and have actually found when I am really engaged in a book, I work out for a longer time than if I were just listening to music. - 5/30/2012   2:06:12 PM
    i normally exercise on an empty stomach but will stop right away - 5/30/2012   2:02:49 PM
  • 18
    I usually have a problem trying to do strength training after cardio. I usually do a 45 minute step class as my cardio and by the time I am finished I am sweaty and wiped out. Who wants to lift weights after that! - 5/30/2012   1:51:20 PM
  • 17
    Watch the HBO documentary on YOUTUBE, "The WEIGHT of the Nation" which has four one hour parts. - 5/30/2012   12:19:46 PM
  • 16
    This is how Spark taught me to work out and it is working for me. - 5/30/2012   12:12:01 PM
  • 15
    Good points. - 5/30/2012   11:58:35 AM
  • 14
    My new mantra comes from the guy who trained the actors for "300" -- "Appearance is a consequence of fitness." The stronger and healthier I am, the better I'm going to look. It's great permission to go for it, work hard, and not worry about what others think! - 5/30/2012   11:31:49 AM
  • 13
    Yesterday I did cardio before strength training and I had so much energy afterwards that I did another round of cardio. My regimen is to do cardio every day and alternate between muscle groups for strength training every other day. - 5/30/2012   10:20:41 AM
    I work out at a gym 3x/week and sometimes feel conspicuous for the amount of (free) weight I use for a woman. One man commented that I was "tough" - which I didn't think was such a compliment (though he was speaking in his second language so I cut him some slack!). The truth is, I believe what Nicole says about gaining strength with larger weights, but only in the last 2 months have I been adding more cardio to my workout such that not only am I getting stronger, but am now seeing inches off as well. I have many pounds to lose so this combination is really encouraging. And definitely, music in my iPod makes the cardio go faster! - 5/30/2012   9:32:52 AM
  • 11
    Regarding the first tip - which recommends cardio before strength training. I've always been told to do the opposite, with the rationale being that you're more likely to injure yourself during strength training if you're tired. Is this not the case? - 5/30/2012   9:29:16 AM
  • 10
    I'm curious if the fat burning "don't" applies to endurance athletes as well? I'm a triathlete and many training books suggest that doing an easier pace for longer training sessions (1:30+) has your body to burn fat for energy rather than glycogen. - 5/30/2012   9:28:26 AM

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