Before we get into the best workouts for weight loss and how to use exercise as a tool in your weight loss journey, let’s make two things clear. First, there are a huge number of reasons to work out that have absolutely nothing to do with losing weight. From mental health benefits to better sleep to boosted immunity, regular exercise is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. Exercise doesn’t have to be about losing weight, and for a huge number of people, it isn’t.
And that brings us to the second thing: If your goal is to lose weight, you should know that working out isn’t enough on its own to actually make that happen. There’s so much else that goes into weight loss and body fat loss; in fact, exercise isn’t even technically necessary to lose weight for most people. We wouldn’t ever recommend a weight loss regimen that doesn’t include exercise, though, because exercise is good for you and it’s a healthy way to live. And on that note, even if you are doing everything “right”—working out regularly, eating appropriately—lifestyle habits like sleep and stress, and health conditions (think thyroid issues, to name just one of many) can get in the way of your weight loss efforts. Weight loss is an extremely personal journey that doesn’t look or work the exact same way from one person to the next.
With those disclaimers out of the way, however, it’s also true that there are certain exercises and workouts that can be particularly useful in helping you lose weight or burn fat or change your body composition as you please (and, on that token, there are certain mistakes you might be making in your exercise routines that can get in the way of your weight loss goals). The best workouts for weight loss, as we explore below, all have certain elements in common: They’re generally high-intensity and they burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time.
But first, here are some very basic things you should know before you get started on a new exercise regimen for weight loss.
1. Your food choices—how you fuel your body—are even more important than your workout choices. I covered this above, but it’s worth reiterating: healthy eating habits are even more important than your exercise routine if your goal is to see permanent changes on the scale. Here are 27 tips from registered dietitians on how to eat healthier this year.
2. Exercise should become part of your routine in a meaningful way. In order to see results, hitting the elliptical for 30 minutes while you catch up with the Kardashians once a week just isn’t going to cut it. Instead, aim for three workouts if you’re just getting into a routine again, or five to six sessions if you’ve been at it for a while, says Holly Rilinger, a Nike master trainer, master Flywheel instructor, and star of Bravo’s Work Out New York. “And keep in mind that rest is key to reset mentally, physically, and emotionally, so make sure to build in at least one full rest day.”
3. You’ll need to really push yourself in every workout you do. It’s kind of a big deal that you bring your A-game to each and every workout. “I’d rather see you do balls-to-the-wall workouts three times a week than see you give 50 percent for five days,” says Rilinger. “Decide when you walk through that door you are going to give it 100 percent the entire time, and check in throughout your workout with one simple question: Can I give more?”
4. You’ll need to find a workout you genuinely enjoy if you have any hope of sticking with it. “Finding a trainer or workout that makes you happy is actually really important to weight loss,” says Rilinger. When you enjoy doing it you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Below are 10 workouts that will help you reach your weight loss goal. If you’ve tried one of the classes here and there and didn’t really love it, don’t give up on the sport or practice altogether. You may not have found an instructor you love yet, and that can make or break your goals.
Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s talk about the specific workouts.
1. Interval Training
The number one training method the experts turn to again and again for weight loss: interval training. What’s that? “Any form of exercise where your heart rate spikes and then comes down repeatedly,” says Rilinger. This type of training keeps your heart rate elevated, which in turn keeps your metabolism humming. When that’s happening, you burn more calories.
One of the many styles of interval training is indoor cycling, though this workout leans heavily toward cardio over strength training, Rilinger explains. She also notes that cycling requires you to use various muscles in your body—quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core, for starters—which once again translates to weight loss. “The more muscles you have to incorporate, the more calories you’re going to burn because those muscles all require energy in order to work,” she says. “And the more energy you use, the higher those calorie-burning numbers climb. It’s all a cycle.”
Try it: Here are 4 fat-burning stationary bike workouts that you might like. If you’re more of a treadmill person, this 20-minute treadmill interval workout will kick your butt in the best way. And if you want to skip the equipment altogether, this 10-minute lower body bodyweight interval workout is a good place to start.
2. Weight Training
Consider weight training “the mother of all weight-loss techniques, the highest in the workout food chain, the top of the totem pole,” says Rilinger. Resistance training, whether it’s with your bodyweight alone or with added weights, is an effective method to help you drop pounds, if that’s your goal. Lifting weights has been shown to increase your resting metabolic rate, which means you’ll continue to burn calories even after you finish working out. It’s called the “afterburn effect,” and you can read all about it here. Rilinger suggests adding weight training to your routine at least three times a week. And since your body adjusts to workouts after being exposed to the same moves at the same intensity, becoming less effective over time, she says to mix it up about every three weeks to keep your body guessing.
Try it: First, if you’ve never done it before, be sure to read these strength training tips for beginners before you get started. And check out this primer on how to choose the right weights for your workout.
Now here’s a quick 10-minute total-body dumbbell workout and another 10-minute living room dumbbell workout to get you started. Here’s a 20-minute strength workout for when you have a bit more time. (Just be sure to use actual dumbbells, not the adorable dessert dumbbells above.) Here’s some info about how to superset at the gym. And if you’re going to use kettlebells and barbells in your strength workout routine, be sure to work with a personal trainer to make sure you’re using proper form. You’ve got this!>
For a workout that’s going to keep your metabolism elevated all day, turn to boot camp, as these classes (think Barry’s Bootcamp) combine two of the most effective styles of training: interval and resistance. “You’ll perform exercises, some more cardio-focused and others strength-focused, full-out for short bursts of time, coupled with short periods of rest,” says Adam Rosante, certified personal trainer and author of The 30-Second Body. But if it’s your first time giving it a go, speak up. He says a good instructor will help you determine when you need to crank up the weight or intensity (tip: if you can cruise through 10 reps without any trouble, it’s too easy), keep your form on par, and can always provide a modification for any move that might be too tough or irritates an injury. If you can’t make it to a studio, though, you can virtually sweat it out with Rosante in his 20-minute C9 Challenge, or try this bodyweight-only 16-minute routine.
“At its essence, boxing is really another form of interval training,” explains Rosante. But it also makes you feel insanely badass. Here’s the trick to remember: it’s a common mistake for beginners to punch using only their arm strength, but the majority of your power is going to come from your core and you’ll use muscles that are typically ignored in other workouts (hey there, obliques).
It’s best to log this type of workout in a class, as Rosante says it’s crucial for beginners to learn proper form from an instructor who can help keep your intensity level high. Here are 15 boxing gyms worth visiting. But if you want to brush up on your skills at home, try this beginner-friendly video from Milan Costich, founder of Prevail boxing gym in Los Angeles.
All you need is a pair of sneakers before you head out the door. But if weight loss is the name of your game, the lackadaisical head-out-for-a-light-jog style of running isn’t the way to go. Instead, find a hill you can sprint up, or crank the incline on that treadmill. “Running up hills forces you to work your glutes and legs—two of your body’s biggest muscle groups—even more, which requires smaller muscle recruitment and more energy expenditure,” explains Rosante. As noted earlier, the more energy you’re using, the brighter that calorie-burning fire burns. But proper form here is key. “Lean into the hill, and drive your knees as high as you can, striking the ball of each foot down directly under your body,” he says. “Keep your hands open and arms bent at 90 degrees, and drive your arms straight forward up to face level, then backward to the top of your back pocket.” And try not to let your arms cross over your body—that’ll just waste the precious energy your muscles need. If you’re training indoors, here are a few fat-burning treadmill routines to get you started.
Try it: You can do these 4 fat-burning workouts on a treadmill. Or you can take them outside if you’d like—for incline work, just fine a good hill.
There’s a reason CrossFit has become such a booming part of the workout industry—it works, so long as you don’t overdo it. Workouts are varied—you may be doing anything from kettlebell swings to rope climbs and box jumps to front squats—and the routines are designed to be short and intense. The most important thing to find when looking for the box (CrossFit slang for “gym”) that fits you best: a well-informed coach who can explain and modify the moves, and make sure that you don’t push yourself to the point of injury.
If your biggest excuse for skipping a workout is being crunched for time, Tabata is your dream come true. It’s designed to be four minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that consists of 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times, explains Shanon Squires, an exercise physiologist and human performance lab coordinator at Colorado University Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. And you can use this protocol with different exercises, including the battle rope slams above. You’ll spike your metabolism and heart rate in four minutes, but Squires warns against making this time frame a habit if you’re trying to lose weight. “Your body will quickly adapt to that interval, and you’ll need to increase the volume or intensity to continue getting a benefit from it,” he says. To do that, Rosante suggests extending your session to 20 minutes and following the same format. Simply pick four exercises—think jump rope, squats, mountain climbers, and squat jumps—then do each for 20 seconds as hard and fast as you can (while maintaining proper form, of course), then recovering for 10 seconds and 10 seconds only. Repeat for eight rounds on that one move (so, four minutes of work) before resting for one minute and moving on to the next exercise.
OK, so yoga alone isn’t a great workout for weight loss. But Rilinger says it can be a secret weapon in your weight loss arsenal because it keeps you flexible and healthy for your other, more intense workouts (like that boot camp class). But that’s not all. “Yoga requires balance and stability, which promotes functional strength, and it helps our mental health,” she says. Aim to squeeze it in at least once a week. And if you can’t make it to the studio, there are plenty of flows you can do at home.
If you can’t stand the thought of running, or just want to work out without a ton of pounding on your joints, do a few laps in the pool. Rosante says you can burn over 750 calories in an hour of swimming and you’ll work all of your major muscle groups. As with most workouts, it helps to go in with a plan. Try this one, from Rosante: Tread water for as long as possible by standing upright in the deep end and using your arms and legs to stay afloat. Then rest for two minutes. Now swim 10 sets of 100 meters (that’s back-and-forth lap in an Olympic-sized pool), resting for one minute in between sets. By the time you climb out of the pool, your muscles will be pleasantly worn out.
10. Jumping Rope
It’s time to kick it back to the good ole’ days of P.E. class, when you first learned how to swing a jump rope. This tool is cheap, portable (it’ll fit in the tiny parts of your suitcase!), and can be used just about anywhere. After just a few minutes you will feel your heart rate racing!
Try it: Here’s a speedy routine to try from Rosante:
- Warm up with a light 3-minute skip with the rope
- Do 100 traditional jumps (both feet leave the floor at the same time, and no extra hops in between)
- Once you finish, immediately do 100 jump rope sprints (think regular jumping rope but at an even quicker pace)
- Repeat steps 2 and 3, but follow this format: 50/50, 21/21, 15/15, 9/9
- If you want more, work your way back up the ladder until you reach 100/100 again