4 Ways to Burn More Calories & Why Cardio Sucks!
Choosing the correct type of exercise is critical for losing weight and keeping it off. By the end of this, you’ll realize cardio alone sucks for weight loss, but to explain this, first let’s recap how our body expends calories to put things in perspective.
Finding your caloric balance
To lose weight, you need find a way to consume less calories, or to burn more calories. There are four main ways our bodies burn calories. The first is your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or what many refer to as your metabolism. This is how many calories you burn at rest and is largely dictated by your genetics and body composition (more muscle = higher BMR). Besides going back in time to somehow select more genetically gifted parents, you can’t do much to significantly increase your basal metabolic rate.
Foods that burn fat?
The second way to burn calories is the thermic effect of food (TEF). This is the amount of energy you expend from digesting food. This amount is small and accounts for 15% of total energy expenditure at most. If you’re already eating to maximize health, you’re likely maxed out on the thermic effect of food. This means if you’re eating mostly whole foods rich in protein and fiber, there’s not much else you can do to further increase the thermic effect of food.
You could eat more food, but that defeats the purpose because you’ll be increasing energy in more than the increase in energy out gained in the form of a higher thermic effect of food..
How to Burn More Calories
Long story short, both your basal metabolic rate and thermic effect of food can’t be significantly altered beyond small limits.
That’s where the other two ways come in which is exercise and NEAT. Exercise is the formal physical activity you embark on like running or lifting weights.
While you can burn more calories by exercising for longer or more frequently, it’s still not as much as what many people think. Even for regular exercisers, exercise’s contribution towards energy expenditure is 15-30% (2).
Lastly there’s NEAT which is the physical activity you do outside of formal exercise. This includes intentional and spontaneous things like walking, fidgeting, and scrolling through this article.
Variability in NEAT
NEAT could differ between individuals by as much as 2000 calories a day even if they are the same size because of differences in behavior (1). This is why NEAT has the largest variability.
In sedentary individuals, NEAT accounts for 6-10% of energy expenditure while for active individuals, it can account for over 50% of energy expenditure (1).
You can increase NEAT by making your daily lifestyle more active. For example, you could park your car further or take the stairs instead of the elevator. NEAT can also increase if your body becomes “inefficient” and burns more energy per movement. (more on this later)
Why Can’t I Lose Weight?
Studies show that NEAT levels go down as you lose weight (3,11). As you get smaller in a caloric deficit, your body saves energy because it doesn’t need to burn through as much fuel to power a now smaller body. After you’ve lost 15 lbs, you’ll even burn less calories brushing your teeth and flossing than you did when you were heavier.
Several unconscious behavioral changes also take place, meaning you’ll choose to sit down when you’d otherwise stand, you’ll choose the escalator over the stair more often, etc..
So basically, as you lose weight, it becomes harder to lose more weight because NEAT naturally reduces and thus your body is saving more calories. This is called adaptive thermogenesis and it’s completely normal. You can’t avoid it, but you can counter it. Here’s how.
Is Cardio Better than Weights?
Lifting (a.k.a. resistance training) burns less calories compared to sessions of cardio, but remember that burning calories during exercise only is a small part of the fat loss equation of calories in vs calories out. The type of training we choose not only affects how much we burn within the session, but also outside of the session as well.
Even though lifting burns less during the session, lifting is still the ideal choice for fat loss. Not only does lifting help you builds/preserve muscle mass so basal metabolic rate stays high, but it also increases NEAT (4,6).
This affects how many calories you burn outside of the exercising session and makes keeping weight off easier instead of gaining it back.
Resistance training’s positive effect on NEAT is superior to cardio and has been shown to work even in very low-calorie diets (5).
Does Lifting Weights Burn Fat?
So if you’re able to put two and two together, you’ll realize by resistance training, you could potentially burn the additional calories you need to in order to make up for the calories your body conserved from adaptive thermogenesis.
If that wasn’t enough to convince you to lift weights, here’s a study showing resistance training increases the calories you burn through NEAT on days you don’t even work out by about 216 calories per day. In contrast, cardio makes you burn less calories through NEAT by about 148 calories per day (7).
Cardio Vs. Weight training
Remember, doing an hour of cardio can burn up to 600 calories during the session, while lifting for an hour burns about 150 calories. Using all of the numbers above numbers, choosing a lifting session instead of a cardio session leads to 450 less calories burnt during that session, but also leads to around 360 extra calories burnt per day through NEAT.
Thus, you are not getting as much benefit from cardio as you might think. Not only is weight training critical to outweigh the drawbacks of adaptive thermogenesis, but if you were to neglect it and only do cardio, you’d be at the mercy of both adaptive thermogenesis’s reduction in NEAT along with cardio’s reduction in NEAT.
This is why people who do nothing but cardio plateau quickly and struggle to keep the weight they lost off. They’re simply burning less than optimal outside of the gym.
How Do Muscles Burn Fat?
You’re probably wondering how and why does this happens?
It’s pretty simple. It has to do with muscle work efficiency. You see, the higher muscle work efficiency is, the lower NEAT levels are (8). Simply put, the more efficient your muscles are, the less calories you burn through NEAT.
For example, let’s say you burned a certain number of calories to sit up and down on your couch. If your muscles got more efficient, it would learn to do the exact same task while using less calories. The opposite is true as well, if your muscles got less efficient, it would need to burn more calories to accomplish the same task.
So being inefficient is good and being efficient is bad?
Yes, it sounds weird because in everyday life, you always want to be efficient at everything by getting the most work done while expending minimal resources. However, when it comes to fat loss, you want your body to be as inefficient as possible.
Do You Want Bugatti Muscle or Prius Muscle?
Here’s another example I like to use when describing this to clients. If you drove a Prius one mile, because it’s very fuel efficient, it conserves a lot of gas and thus by the end of that mile didn’t really burn through much.
Compare that to a Bugatti. If you drove a Bugatti that same mile even at the same speed, you would end up burning through much more fuel because it’s an inefficient vehicle.
If the goal is fat loss, You want to turn your body into a Bugatti. You want your body to burn through more fuel (calories) for the same movements aka become inefficient. This is the mechanism behind why weights and cardio affect NEAT differently.
Resistance training decreases muscle contractile efficiency making your body more inefficient (9). On the contrary cardio has been shown to increase muscle contractile efficiency making your body more like a Prius (10).
Do This Now to Burn More Calories for Fat Loss
- If the goal is weight loss, resistance training should be included and prioritized.
- Cardio can be added for additional energy expenditure and heart health, but should never be the main priority for fat loss.
- Resistance training should still be the priority once weight is lost as it plays a powerful role in keeping weight off.
- Diet still has to be on point if you want to lose body fat, no matter what training method you choose. Get your blueprint on fat loss success here.
So as you can see, solely focusing on
cardio will make weight loss a nightmare because adaptive thermogenesis will
reduce NEAT and without resistance training, NEAT could drop even further
making your daily energy expenditure very low making it very difficult to reach
a caloric deficit. Fortunately, resistance training has a positive effect on
When in doubt head over to the weights and machines, not the treadmill my friend.
Article by Calvin Huynh of Team EBT
Edited by Artin Entezarjou, M.D.
Calvin has years of coaching experience and has written evidence-based articles for some of the top names in the industry. Check out more of his content on awesomefitnessscience.com.