IF YOU’RE LIKE most people, you do cardio to help you stay lean and show off the muscle gains you get from hitting the weights, aka “the usual workout routine.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
by Jenn Sinrich
But when it comes to which type of cardio is best for burning fat, you have to decide which lean body type you’re going for. “If you train like a distance runner, you’ll get a distance runner’s body: little muscle, very lean from lots of miles logged at relatively slower paces,” explains Chris Ryan, C.S.C.S., a physical trainer and the founder of Chris Ryan Fitness. “If you train like a sprinter—short, high-intensity workouts—you’ll get a sprinter’s body with muscle growth and fat loss.”
Here’s something we can all agree on: Intensity is paramount. As intensity rises, more calories get burned. That’s why high-intensity interval workouts are a great choice for getting shredded while maintaining (or even gaining) muscle.
Here are the expert-approved top 10 types of cardio to help you lose weight faster and show results sooner:
These machines were originally designed to minimize impact on the knees and hips, but still allow a great workout. “Because the impact is quite low, the calorie-burning effect isn’t as great as other cardio machines, like treadmills and stairmasters,” explains Roger Adams, Ph.D., an expert in nutrition and weight loss. “However, the elliptical machine can be an excellent way to burn calories without wearing out your joints.” While the average 180-lb. man may only burn close to 500-600 calories per hour if he’s going at an above moderate pace, you can get even more out of it by switching up the intensity, speed, and resistance.
The best way to burn fat on an elliptical: Add a high incline to really activate more leg muscles, especially your glutes. “This movement can simulate stair-climbing without the impact,” says Adams. “Lower the incline and increase the resistance and you have a cross-country skiing feel to your workout that really works your quads.” As with the stepmill, don’t hold on to the handles or rails too tightly as this can reduce your efforts and lead to shoulder or wrist pain.
9. Running (moderate pace)
Running at a steady, moderate pace is a sure way to burn fat and calories, but it’s not the most economical way to build or even maintain muscle.
“By the numbers, a 180-lb. man can burn about 940 calories in an hour while running an 8.5-minute-per-mile pace—or 7 mph on the treadmill for an hour,” says Ryan. “This would be a nice, long run to do every couple of weeks to keep up your aerobic capacity, but it involves a lot of mileage for the time and effort put in.” The cons: Running at this pace can also break down muscle and subject your body to lots of pounding. “If you’re looking to add in a long run every once in awhile, by all means do so, just opt for trails or softer surfaces than cement and blacktop,” he says.
The best way to burn fat on a long run: If you’re running on a treadmill, set the incline to 2-3% to simulate running outside, suggests Adams. “This burns more calories and may actually be easier on the knees.” If running feels boring for you, try different routes in your neighborhood or join a local running club. Running with a partner or group can make the miles go by much easier.
8. Stair Climber
A stair climber offers another popular way to burn fat and calories, but only about 500-600 calories for an 180-lb. man at a moderate pace. “Because of the higher leg lift involved, climbing stairs uses significantly more muscles than just walking—strengthening your legs in a functional way,” says Adams. The primary drawback: Stair climbers can put a lot of weight and pressure on your joints, so it can be difficult for people with bad knees.
The best way to burn fat on a stair climber: “Try incorporating 90% or more effort on the stair climber for 30 seconds with a one- to two-minute ‘active recovery,’ like a farmer carry with medium-weight kettlebells or dumbbells to incorporate upper body and core strength,” says Ryan. “Doing 10-15 rounds of this workout will spice up your workout way above the normal range of calories burned.”
7. Jumping Rope
There’s a reason the jump rope is a mainstay in a boxer’s training regimen: it’s cheap, easy to do, increases foot speed, and burns a ton of calories. Think of your favorite boxers, wrestlers, and fighters—they all jump rope. “Jumping rope not only enhances your footwork, shoulder strength, and coordination, but also simulates sprinting, allowing you to burn as much as 500 calories in just 30 minutes,” says Ben Boudro, C.S.C.S., owner of Xceleration Fitness in Auburn Hills, MI..
The best way to burn fat with a jump rope: While very few people can jump rope for 30 minutes straight, it’s best to do intervals of fast and slow jumps to keep you going. Can’t do that very well? Jump as fast as you can for one minute, then rest for 20-30 seconds. Repeat until you’re done. If you’re a frequent traveler, throw a jump rope in your suitcase for a great workout without ever having to leave the hotel room.
While a kettlebell workout isn’t technically a cardio-only exercise, its calorie-burning effects are too high to keep off this list. “Kettlebell workouts combine the best of both worlds: strength training and cardio,” says Adams. “In addition, a recent study on the calorie-burning effects of this type of workout puts it at around 20 calories per minute.” This total takes into account not only the aerobic calorie expenditure, but also the anaerobic calories burned. Very few cardio exercises build muscle—this is one of the exceptions. You can expect to burn around 400-600 calories in just 30 minutes, says Adams.
The best way to do it: If you can do a particular movement for 40-50 reps, chances are your kettlebell isn’t heavy enough. “Don’t go too light, and don’t go too heavy either,” he says. “Some of the best ways to do a kettlebell workout to maximize calorie burning is to do a movement for 30-40 seconds, rest for 20-30 seconds, then repeat the movement or cycle through several movements.” Set your timer for 30 minutes and see how many rounds you can get.
Stationary bikes are a mainstay at most gyms, but there’s a reason most people aren’t waiting in line to use them: “You must be willing to go at an intense rate,” says Adams—so no pedaling while scrolling through your smartphone. “During a vigorous indoor cycling or spin class, the average 180-lb. man may burn close to 1,150 calories per hour, while a more moderate ride will only burn half that amount at about 675 calories per hour.”
How to burn fat with cycling: Doing intervals on a stationary bike is a great way to maximize your calorie burn in minimum time. “Keep the intensity really high on the intervals for a couple of minutes, then slow down for a minute or so, continually repeating these intervals for as long as you can,” Adams suggests.
Swimming is a total-body workout that starts the second you begin treading water. “You’re essentially fighting gravity, so your muscles are working extra hard to keep you afloat without getting a break until you’re out of the water,” says Boudro. “In fact, with just one minute of fast swimming, you’ll burn 14 calories.”
Remember that the type of stroke makes a difference, Adams says. “A breast stroke burns fewer calories than the butterfly, so be sure to incorporate different strokes in your training.”
The best way to burn fat while swimming: An easy way to burn calories in the water is to simply tread water. You can do a few laps, then have a water-treading interval, then repeat. “If you’re able to swim at a high level, then swim as fast as you can for as long as possible,” says Adams. “If you aren’t such a strong swimmer, then do swimming intervals: Swim as fast as you can down the length of the pool and back, then swim slower for the same distance.” Alternate these intervals for the duration of your workout.
Take a look at any collegiate rower’s body and you’ll surely be envious of their athletic, v-cut frame. “Rowing makes the list because it is a great way to incorporate the upper and lower body in a relatively low-stress manner on your joints and ligaments,” explains Ryan. “It’s also a great way to work the posterior chain.” Following a moderate pace on the rowing machine can burn upwards of 800 calories per hour for an 180-lb guy, but increasing the intensity with short sprints will get that number well over 1,000 calories per hour very quickly.
The best way to burn calories on a rower: “Keep your chest up and use your entire body when rowing,” says Boudro. “But don’t let your arms do all the work—try using your legs to get the motion going.” His go-to rowing workout: Set a clock for 20 minutes, row 250 meters as fast as possible, rest for one minute and then repeat for the entire 20 minutes.
2. High-intensity interval training
HIIT gives you a well-rounded workout while burning a ton of fat and calories. “HIIT workouts can vary greatly, from 500 calories per hour to 1500-plus calories per hour for an 180-lb man,” says Ryan. “HIIT workouts are great because of the intensity of each exercise as well as the variation of exercises and reps.” Pairing any body-weight movement with a weighted movement and a traditional cardio element and you have the perfect recipe for an amazing fat-burner.
The best way to do it: Look for Tabata, HIIT, high-impact aerobic, and vigorous interval classes using weights at your local gym. No gym or class? Check out these 10 HIIT workouts to get shredded. Be sure to keep rest periods to a minimum to really maximize your efforts.
Sprints outside, on a treadmill, or even up stairs or bleachers are great to burn the most calories in the least amount of time. No equipment is really necessary and you can do these workouts just about anywhere. “Sprinting is simple, and it burns huge amounts of calories—when looking to shed weight, it tops the list,” says Adams. “While steady-state running or jogging burns plenty of calories, increasing your speed and intensity will really pay off.”
The best part? Sprinting leaves no muscle unscathed, Ryan says. “If your destination is Six Pack City, then go full-steam ahead with your sprints.”
The best way to burn fat with sprinting: If you’re outside on a track, try sprinting a lap and then jog a lap. Keep repeating this for as long as you can. If you’re on a treadmill, do an all-out sprint for 20-30 seconds, then slow the belt down and jog for a minute or so before repeating. At a stadium or flights of stairs? Run up to the top as fast as you can, then jog or walk down. “It’s never a good idea to run down stairs or bleachers, so use the downward portion for your active rest periods,” says Adams. “Really lift those knees high to get your glutes some great action and build sprinter power in no time.”