Expert Q&A

Exercise for fat loss: Which exercises are best?

What types of exercise will help with fat loss?

People often ask me this and I say “Table push-aways and fork put-downs” (sometimes this confuses them briefly as they try to imagine how table push-aways could be some kind of new bench press variation). What I mean by that, though, is that no exercise, or training regimen, will help very much with fat loss unless you also improve your nutrition and eat less. The first thing that needs to happen to lose fat is that you have to expend more energy than you take in. If you exercise but still eat too much, then that fat is going nowhere but orbiting your bellybutton. 

The best fat loss is through diet and exercise

However, exercise is indeed an important part of losing fat. A recent study (Weiss et al 2006) from Saint Louis University compared the effects of exercise versus diet alone in losing fat. Although both groups (the dieters and the exercisers) lost weight, only the exercisers maintained their strength and muscle mass and increased aerobic capacity, while those who dieted lost muscle mass, strength and aerobic capacity. Some people who lose weight by dieting alone actually end up with more body fat than when they started because of this muscle loss. In other words, they may be smaller or lighter, but relatively speaking, they’re fatter than they were before! Oh, the irony. 

In the last few decades people have become convinced that low-intensity cardio such as distance running is the best way to lose fat, and that especially for women, strength training is inadvisable. People also often do exercises such as inner/outer thigh machines or sit-ups, hoping that this will help trim their thighs or slim their waistlines. None of these approaches is correct. 

Weight/fat loss program that works!

Here’s what does work:

  • Creating a caloric deficit through consistently being more active and eating less. Ideally, do this on a daily, long-term basis.

  • Regular resistance training, ideally compound (multi-joint) exercises, done at a level that is challenging (for the average person, something like 6-12 reps per set is a good general thing to shoot for). This preserves lean muscle tissue that would otherwise be lost along with the fat.
  • “Interval” cardio: alternating brief periods of very high intensity (like sprinting) with periods of low intensity (like walking). Another way to do this is known as the Tabata protocol: alternating 20 seconds of intense activity (including traditional weights exercises such as squats or pushups) with 10 seconds of rest. As long as the high intensity periods are high enough, you can apply the concept to anything you like: hill or stair runs, hitting a punching bag, cycling, jumping rope, elliptical machine, dumbbell or kettlebell swings, etc.
  • If you’re a beginner or starting out with a lot of body fat, you can substitute regular moderate cardio for intervals, but you can still try for the interval concept by working at a lower level. Try something like walking as briskly as you can manage for 30-60 seconds, alternated by moderate strolling for 30-60 seconds.
  • If you do enjoy endurance-based cardio work like distance running or hiking, by all means do it! The most important thing is that you do what you enjoy, and what you will do consistently and frequently. However, even for endurance athletes, incorporating interval training will help with speed and overall work capacity.


Weiss, Edward, et al. “Lower extremity muscle size and strength and aerobic capacity decrease with caloric restriction but not with exercise-induced weight loss.” Journal of Applied Physiology November 9, 2006.

Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD
Contributing Expert

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