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Ask the expert Weight management
Last updated January 27, 2020. 4 minute read

The best exercises for weight loss, ranked

You’ll do a certain exercise more and give it more of your time and energy if you enjoy it. So two people who have many of the same stats that determine caloric expenditure, like weight and height, could have completely different “best exercises for weight loss” based on what they actually prefer doing.

Jim White

Jim White, RDN

Jim White, RDN, ACSM EX-P, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios and Jim White Workplace Wellness, and founder of LIFT Fitness Foundation.

Reviewed by Tzvi Doron, DO

The idea behind weight loss is calorie input versus calorie output. You simply need to be burning more calories than you’re taking in if you want to lose weight, though this formula is more complicated than some make it seem. The calories you burn during exercise is a great example of that. Different exercises will help different people lose weight, well, differently. The factors that play into a person’s weight loss are weight, gender, age, and diet.

When it comes to exercises, these factors are consistency and intensity, measured in metabolic equivalents (METs, a measure of energy expenditure based on oxygen uptake). All of these things affect how many calories a person will burn from a particular exercise and, therefore, how much weight they can potentially lose from it. 

A lot of the weight loss potential of exercises is determined by the FITT principle, which is:

  • Frequency: The more frequent and consistent you are, the better the results will be.
  • Intensity: The higher the intensity, the more calories you will burn.
  • Time: The longer you workout, the more calories you will burn.
  • Type: The type of workout you do determines the number of calories you will burn.

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But a big factor in determining the best exercises for weight loss comes down to the person doing them. You’ll do a certain exercise more and give it more of your time and energy if you enjoy it. So two people who have many of the same stats that determine caloric expenditure, like weight and height, could have completely different “best exercises for weight loss” based on what they actually prefer doing.

But you should also keep in mind that your diet is very important for your results. If you are not getting the right macronutrients or macros (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) you need—especially after a workout—it can take away from the work you put in during your workout. If you are going over the number of macros recommended, you are not going to get the results you want. At the end of the day, weight loss is about calories in versus calories out. If you go over on your macros, you go over on your calories. It’s the same idea, just a different measurement system.

Calorie-torching exercises

Although it can be more complicated than this, one way to evaluate which exercises are best for weight loss is to determine how many calories they’ll burn. This depends on the number of METs each exercise produces. 

A MET is the amount of oxygen consumed at rest, which corresponds to the amount of energy burned at rest. For example, if you exercise at an intensity of 4 METS, this would mean that you are burning 4X as much energy as you do while resting. This would be considered a “moderate intensity” (3–6 METS is considered moderate, 6 or more is considered high-intensity).

The workouts with the most METs are going to be the ones with the higher intensities. Not sure about the METs of your workout? You can take a shortcut and think about the muscle recruitment your exercise requires. While exercising, you want to target those larger muscle groups, which are your glutes, quadriceps (quads), back, chest, and hamstrings. Most aerobic exercises generally use most of the larger muscle groups. Because they are larger and expend more energy, they will burn more calories.

But you can also effectively use standard health guidelines. Guidelines don’t focus on the number of calories to burn, but more so how long you should be working out and the intensity. It’s recommended that for aerobic training, you should get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week or 75 min of higher intensity activity a week. For strength training, it is recommended to exercise all major groups at least twice a week.

Running

Running at a rate of 6mph, or a 10 min mile, produces 9.8 METs. Although people tend to think of cycling as a high-intensity mode of training, a jog is actually more effective for weight loss because it recruits more muscles and therefore burns more calories in the same amount of time.

Cycling

Indoor cycling, which is rated between moderate and vigorous intensity, produces 6.8 METs. The muscles in your lower body are larger than those in most of your upper body, so relying on them for your workout is an effective way to burn calories. Though, as I mentioned, cycling will still burn fewer calories than running, which can use your upper and lower body as well as the muscles throughout your trunk.

Interval training

There are multiple types of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Many people are familiar with sprint intervals, which are one type. Circuits can be another type of this style of training, depending on the workload and rest periods, Tabata is another. Tabata is a type of HIIT training that consists of 8 sets of exercises performed for 20 seconds with 10 seconds rest between them. Whether you’re hitting the gym for a kettlebell circuit or treadmill sprints, interval training needs to have short periods of time with high intensity and minimal rest. The variations on this style of training produce around 8.0 METs.

Cross-training

Cross-training is an exercise regimen that uses various modes of training to develop a more well-rounded exercise regimen. The essential fundamental of cross-training is switching up your routine with different modes of exercise throughout the week. That could be hopping between resistance training, pilates, aerobic exercise, and boot camp. Training this way is so effective because many of these exercises are high MET activities. And many of the exercises in a boot camp that uses your body weight as resistance to give you a total-body workout are effective even though they may be more low-impact for people with joint issues. Examples of this may be mountain climbers, push-ups, air squats, and in-place lunges since they use major muscle groups and get your heart rate up.

Resistance training

Weight training generally burns a lower amount of calories in a one-hour session compared to cardiovascular training (cardio) at a similar intensity. However, the calorie burn effect from strength training exceeds the number of calories that are burned in the gym. Your muscles are repairing after your weight lifting session for an additional calorie burn that cardiovascular training does not match up to. 

You’ll also need dumbbells or barbells in your routine to build muscle. Resistance training is what increases muscle mass, whereas cardio workouts can burn it. Lean muscle is more metabolically active than body fat. If you can train with weights to build muscle and burn fat, then you’ll burn more calories each day even if your weight doesn’t change because your metabolic rate will be higher. Overall, it is best to include both cardiovascular training and weight training into your exercise routine.