Is Your Fat-Burning Furnace Fired Up--or Fizzling Out?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Whether you're trying to lose or few pounds or maintain your current weight, most exercisers are interested in "burning fat" during their workouts. Of course, the fat-burning benefits of exercise vary based on when and what you last ate, what type of workout you're doing, how hard you're pushing—and countless other factors. On top of that, you've probably heard a lot of conflicting advice about what types of exercises burn the most fat. But I believe fitness professionals can all agree on one thing: The more calories you can burn, the more body fat you will lose. So what can you do to burn more calories and get the results you want?

Today I'll share three simple things you can do to accelerate your workout fat burning, along with three other "techniques" you should avoid.

For three of my top tips to burn more fat during your workouts, check out this short video.

The keys there are to get yourself to work harder, which ultimately burns more calories and fat. Whenever you can work harder without perceiving your workouts as being intense, you'll be even better off! That's why tricks like listening to music or picking fun workouts really pay off.

So what shouldn't you do? Here are three commonly advised strategies that may sound like sage advice--but are only going to hurt your weight-loss efforts.
  1. DON'T "Exercise in the fat-burning zone." The fat-burning zone is—shockingly—still a very common workout mode on cardio machines. It is programmed to keep you working at a low heart-rate (intensity) level because at low-energy levels your body uses more fat as fuel. That's is true in theory, but in practice it doesn't work out so well. When it comes to weight loss it does not matter where the calories you burn come from, whether glucose in the bloodstream from a recent meal you ate or stored body fat. What really matters is that you burn as many calories as possible regardless of the source of those calories. And what burns more calories? Working harder (hence my tip from the video above).
  2. DON'T "Exercise on an empty stomach." It is NOT true that exercising on an empty stomach will cause your body to burn more fat. This is a continuation of what I explained above, that the source of the energy you burn doesn't matter when it comes to weight loss. And in many cases, if you are hungry and forcing yourself to work out without eating something first—simply to burn more fat—you are only shortchanging yourself. Your body needs energy to be available for optimal exercise, especially if you want to work hard, which really burns the most calories (and, subsequently, fat). When you're low on fuel (energy), you can't work as hard or as long and your workout suffers along with your calorie burn.
  3. DON'T "Lift light weights for lean muscles." Perhaps one of the best things you can do to unleash your body's fat-burning potential is strength training. And I do believe that any strength training is better than nothing, even if it's lightweight. But the idea that lifting light weights is going to give you better results or "smaller" muscles is only a half truth. Sure, without lifting heavier you will probably not get much stronger. But stronger doesn't mean "bigger" (very important!) and the less strength you have, the fewer calories you are burning while you read this blog, while you run and while you do just about anything.

    Muscle can help elevate your metabolism, and lifting weights to fatigue can also burn some serious calories—even after your workout ends. Not to mention that during weight loss, about 25% of the "weight" you lose could actually be lean tissue like muscle. Over time, that can wreak havoc on your metabolism and fat-burning potential. So pick up those weights at least twice a week and don't fear getting stronger. You'll cut that muscle loss that often accompanies weight loss in half, and it will only make your fitter, slimmer and healthier.

Do you currently follow any of these fat-burning tips?  Are you guilty of any of the mistakes? Share your favorite method for burning more fat with us below!

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Great article. Thank u. I do elliptical workout 5 days a week, with a 10 minut warm up and cool down, and 10 minutes of interval elliptical sandwiched in between. Its a great workout. I am up to 2.5 miles in 30 minutes with this.
i also do 3 different upper body exercises with 5 lb weights, 3 sets of 10 reps, 2-3 days weekly. I am trying to build up some upper body strength that i am losing with age, as i am in my mid 50's. Report
I have never eaten before my morning exercise. I wake up change into my work out clothes, head down to the lower level and do my work out. Could be the treadmill, the bike, work out to a DVD, but I always work out for at least 30 minutes. Then during the day there may be trail walking and/or hiking and taking stairs. So I suppose I should look at eating something first and see if doing that gives my weight lose a boost. Report
I just recently started eating a healthy "snack" before my am workout. Usually a yogurt with 2 TBSP of chopped walnuts in it. When I first started Spin classes it took me a long time to start sweating but once I "fueled" my body, it was easy to do. Gotta keep stoking the furnance to get it to burn efficiently. Report
Exercise for fitness (and health), eat for nutrition, weight control and health. If you are having trouble losing weight even though your calorie intake is as needed, consider what you are eating. Is it real food? By switching to real food close to it's natural form, so mostly veggies, fruit, and very little animal food, no processed carbs and sugars, and removing added fat from the diet, I helped my husband lose 20 lbs in a couple of months. It's not a "diet" it's a lifestyle. Most of us are addicted to what I call fake foods, non-nutritious calories. We are misinformed (lied to) with the food pyramid, telling us to eat in a way that is unhealthy. Think about it. It's not that hard to change to eating almost all you want of very low calorie, very high nutrition foods and it is very satisfying to break the addiction of sugar, carbs, fat, and low nutrition foods. Report
I love that "Don't fear getting stronger!" SO true. After just a couple weeks of doing squats and other dumbbell/bands/machine-free strength training, I realized it was easier to get up after playing on the floor with my girls, and easier to pick them up... and easier to carry them and groceries at the same time... just any kind of day-to-day activities that shouldn't have been terribly hard in the first place. But you definitely have to keep it up. I let those calisthenics go after the week we spent at the hospital, and very quickly it's gotten harder to do those day-to-day things again. If it's possible to get TOO strong... I haven't found it. Thanks always, Coach Nicole! Report
Okay so now I am totally confused...... I have been doing an hour on the treadmill every day since 2/17/13 and the first month I lost 9 lbs and the trainer at the gym recommended to up the treadmill to "fat burner" which doubles calories burned....I have switched to doing treadmill 1 hour 3 days in a row and then 1 day strength training and repeat; been doing this for 3 weeks and have only lost 1 lb !!!! I have been logging my food now, every bite and balancing calories for 326 days straight and have only lost 42 lbs. Not sure where to go now and how to fix before I get frustrated..... any suggestions? Report
Short, sweet and to the point! Thanks for the 3 quick and easy advice!! Very helpful! I will incorporate your suggestions! Report
Bless you Nicole. Wonderful information. Do not listen to the negative comments. If something doesn't ring true, people need to check it out and decide for themselves. "my sister said something different" Then check it out or decide which to follow. Keep on keepin' on Nicole! Report
I once did an intense workout without eating breakfast - and passed out at the gym. won't ever do THAT again. scary.

As for fat burn - well - I let exercise take care of that. I switched my mindset from exercising to lose weight to exercising to live long and actively - now I don't have to push myself to workout at all. some things really do get better with age. Report
I'm not hungry in the morning, right now my cardio is walking 3-5 miles. I eat afterwards. Report
I don't exercise at this time. This is one of my goals. It always seems to take a back seat to the rest of my life. I have lost 85 lbs which but I don't really like the look of my body. I need to get this going. I never knew there are different types of exercise much less which should be done first. It's nice to get a bit of information to encourage me to get started. Report
I like doing my strength after the cardio. I believe the benefits and the longer calorie burn. It also takes care of 2 birds with one workout session. Thanks for all the great information. I normally use 5lbs weights when I do upper body and I swapped out a couple of times this week to lighter but I guess the 5lbs are better. Report
For those worried about exercising on an empty stomach: It's not good or bad to do so. It's about individual preference. The point is that you won't "burn more fat" on an empty stomach... so there's no benefit to doing so. However, some people do better if they eat breakfast before exercising. Others get upset stomachs or can't function well. I'm a little of both. ;) If I'm doing an intense exercise for an hour or more, I have to have something before (usually liquid, like a protein shake.) But if I am doing a light workout, I don't like to eat.

It's okay to not eat until after, you won't hurt yourself. It's about knowing your body and its needs. But don't fall for the "I should work out on an empty stomach because I'll burn more fat and lose more weight" myth. Report
I exercise at 4 in the morning,and don't eat until a slim-fast shake at 8. i only loose about a pound a week, but i wish I could burn more. perhaps eating before I work out will help boost my metabolisim? Report
I was guilty exercising in the fat burning zone. Now I exercise to burn more calories and lose weight. I work hard. Sometimes I exercise on an empty stomach, sometimes I don't. It depends if I 'm hungry. I drink a lot of water when I exercise . Thanks for the tips on the video. Report
I think these are all pretty good reminders/tips. Seems like whether or not to eat breakfast before the workout has generated a lot of conversation. I prefer to have something light, such as a banana or yogurt if I workout early in the morning--almost like a morning snack. After the workout, I will go on and have a full breakfast (if its the weekend) or a light breakfast if I'm at work. I particularly like the tip about not just using the light weights. It would take ages for me to bulk up, so I'm fine with pushing myself to the limit with weights and want to increase my overall strength as much as possible. Report
Your tips bring Zumba to mind, an intense, music filled, fun workout! I love it. Report
I usually do cardio before breakfast, empty stomach. Is that not good? Report
How much cardio should you do before strength training? I'm getting conflicting answers on this. And thanks for the tips! Report
I have been with spark since 2009 and lost and gained. Right now I am in the gain and I truly feel it is because my knees are just wearing out. I so enjoyed spin and now can't do that. I know when I get the knee replacement it will be better, but I don't think I will ever be able to push the way I used to for the fat burning.

Does more minutes at the slower pace make up for higher intensity fat burning? Report
I do follow the tips mention above, but the only thing which has bothered me is i work out on empty stomach, kindly suggest is working out early morning with empty stomach right way of excersizing??? I am highly inspired by this website and i walking for 01hour in morning and do perform yoga on empty stomach please advice appropriate method or excersizng. Report
After reading coach Nicole's strategies for fat burning, I do feel I follow these tips pretty closely. At times I wish I could lift a heavier weight, but right now I can do 12 lbs with good form and do lots of reps which I think is important too because you want to fatigue the muscles. I can feel a burn so I must be doing something right? Also, I recently purchased some Bob Harper and Amy Dickson workout dvd's that would knock the socks off of anyone even your advanced athlete. So for now I think I am doing ok in the exercise category, but still need to work harder in the eating category. I believe that no matter how hard you work out, if you throw it all away by eating badly, then you won't achieve those results you are looking for! Thanks again coach Nicole for sharing valuable weight loss tips with us! Report
Hello. I would love for know what you think of products like raspberry ketone to reduce pounds. I'm about to start using. I've been looking for some information and if anyone is interested this is a blog I found Report
I have yet to figure out how to eat something BEFORE I exercise (first thing in the morning), plus manage my calories for the day so that I am not hungry. I eat breakfast around 6, a banana around 9:30, lunch around noon, a granola bar around 2:30 and dinner around 6. The big meals with those snacks take me to my limit. Report
Vicky - on the rare occasions I work out first thing in the morning, I usually have a slice of bread with some peanut butter, a granola bar, or a banana. Just enough to keep my stomach from gnawing at my back mid-workout - eating a full meal that early doesn't agree with me either! Report
People just need to try different things until they find what's best for them. There really isn't a one size fits all physical fitness philosophy. Everyone is different. For me personally, circuit training works the best for me. It keeps my energy up and I feel great when I'm done, whether I've eaten anything or not. It's a matter of time. I'm not getting up an extra 45 minutes to let my food digest before working out before work in the morning. Report
This is a great article. One question though. I am an early morning workout person. I get up at 5am to do my workouts. It says not to workout on an empty stomach, but I do not really want to have a meal that early in the am. Ideas?? Report
i do enjoy reading the helpful tips on here. now i just need to somehow get to teh spark points page id be ok got another computer adn i am sort of lost .need togetto tehstrt page nandthisisharder tousethoscomputerth tholdonebut had problemswtihti. Report
I must say, this article has sure generated a lot of comments! I disagree with the idea that there is one way for everyone. Anyone who says that one specific plan works for every body has not worked with very many bodies. Everyone is different, and what each person needs varies. For instance, I also do my work-out first thing in the morning and there's no way that I can eat before. Whether you should eat before or after depends on the type of work-out that you're doing, what time of day you are doing it and for how long. And to answer Eric 1965, yes, using your body as weight absolutely is strength training. Push-ups, Pull ups, Squats with weights (even soup cans work) and you don't need special equipment. I work with people of all ages, sizes and shapes and what works for one does not always for another. My suggestion would be that if you are doing something that is working for you, DON"T change it because someone else says it doesn't work! Report
Funny thing, my new Runner's World has an article in it about this empty stomach and fat burning zone bit. Personally I get sick if I eat before I work out so unless its a really long run I'm out there on an empty stomach. I figure I can live off the fat of the Aponi long enough to make it home. Report
I always eat a good breakfast before I do any thing. Then after a half hour after eating I do half of my strength training routine, then go to the gym and do 30 min. of cardio. Then its back to the other half of my strength training routine. Report
I walk every morning on an empty stomach. I'm never hungry when I get up, so I walk for about a half hour, cool down, shower, and then eat when I start to get hungry. If I had to eat and then walk, it wouldn't happen. Report
I actually do make some of these mistakes at times. I also struggle with S.T. but I am doing it with high hopes it will help me when I am a little old lady : ) Report
I've like doing the weightlifting in between cardio. Run 15 min...jump over to the weights and when I change machines do some jumping jacks or something to keep my heart rate up. Go back to running for another 15 min.

But I think it's all about what works for you. Report
I am no expert but I do think that Jillian Michaels is and I have her DVD 30 day shred. She does a 3,2,1 routine. 3 minutes of strength, 2 minutes cardio, 1 minute abs. Repeat. But her moves target more then one muscle group at a time. You are doing squats with arm lifts (with free weights). I think exercise helps tone but the real key to weight loss is "calories in / calories out". Thanks Nicole I love your workouts and wish I had a laptop so I could do more of them. I don't have the room where my computer is. Report
It drives me nuts when I hear constant talk of "this is how our anscestors lived and stayed fit." Umm, ok if you want to do that then please get rid of your car - take NO transportation other than your feet, NEVER go the market - not even farmers but go hunt your food each day. Never step foot in a gym, sports complex and oh yeah, don't do Crossfit - go climb a tree instead. Grind your own arrows out of stone... Please people - we can't even compare today's living to then. And as for working out - the important thing is to just do it - move more - work the muscles preferably in a way that we use them in our daily activities. Eat healthy most of the time - eat in moderation because the fact is we will store anything extra as fat. It is not rocket science and I wish people would stop trying to make it sound like it is. Billions of $$ are spent on diet and fitness and our society is getting fater w/ each book printed. How's this for advice - shut the pie-hole and quit shoveling non-stop. Report
i never know if i should do cardio and strength training in the same day, so i alternate. M, W, F are weight lifting days while T, Thr, Sat are cardio days. This way i'll never get mixed up on which to do first. I am reading conflicting things. Report
Tip the author - You use way too many negatives in this article. They're myths and then you're saying "Don't do these things..." it gets very confusing! Be direct - as many people mentioned, the "research" is conflicting enough! Report
Oh yes, you can lose weight by eating properly, cleaner, and ensuring that protein is included...your "furnace" will fire up hard if you eat...DO NOT starve eat eat Report
My working out consists of cardio(warm up) for 10-15 minutes, then I will do upper body weight training... will do cardio the next day...I will alternate this way upper body, lower body, upper body...then the following week, I will carry on where I left off, lower/upper/lower, with cardio in between the weight training days...the Sunday will be my rest works very well for cardio days usually consists of the elliptical or outside on my bike(making sure I find hills to ride up as it will help you burn more calories, and develop your cardio)...Pre-workouts usually consists of a banana/peanut butter sandwich about 1.5-2 hours ahead of the workout...after the workout(within the first 2 hours) I will have a protein shake and maybe a few almonds...I am in and out of the gym quick...I spend no more than 1 hour in the gym, and usually am out of there in 45 hanging around chatting or drinking water, I get a good cardio workout also because when I do the weight training, I move from one exercise to another with no more than a minute in between them...I am in there for one reason and one reason only, lose weight get in shape...wake the muscles up so they will grow, get stronger and burn more calories at really is very easy...Oh yes, I also use the 10 minute rule when it comes to my cardio workouts...I will do 10 minutes for sure, and if I really cannot continue on, I will stop...but about 95% of the time I will push it for another 10 minutes...I can feel like crap before the workout but I most always will go for 30 minutes... Report
the simple truth: just do it! Report
Does strength training mean weights or will push ups, dips, pull ups, an the like suffice? Would getting and using a "Total Gym" type machine build and strengthen to the degree necessary? Report
Umph... Every source of information says a different thing. Do cardio before strength, no do it after. Eat before working out, don't eat before working out. Very confusing!
I've only recently started strength training and I think I will just first try the one method for two months (cardio then strength) and then switch and see what works best for me.
With regard to eating before working out: I'd love an article about WHAT to eat, and how much, before a workout!
I agree with SuzieQ,#21, I have been advised to do weights before doing Cardio. Soing your workouts in this order will burn more fat. Report
Yep I eat a normal breakfast before I work out, and that is a daily routine before work. I do half of my strength training, then head to the recumbent bike and elliptical for 20 min.each. Then go home and finish my strength training. Sometimes I will take a walk after work just for something to do. Report
I always do cardio first.....but only to get it out of the way! I've got 30+ lbs. left to lose and my routine consists of 60 mins. of cardio that I change up from day to day. One day of elliptical, next day of stair stepper, then bike, and so forth. Weight training and body toning are next with 30-40 mins., 4-5 times a week. Again I switch it up and work upper body one day, lower the next and then back and core! I've consistently lost weight with few plateaus and they were short. I attribute it to the ever changing workouts in my arsenal and the building of lean muscle mass make me a calorie burning machine! Report
I'm one of those people who has to exercise first thing in the morning, or it won't get done. I don't do it for fat-burning reason listed above - just to get it done. And while I work out very intensely, I don't feel as though not eating first harms my performance unless I go past 60 m, which just doesn't happen. Report
Thanks for the info but there are some issues that come with listening to music when you are outside running or walking. If you are doing your cardio anywhere there is traffic listening to music is a distraction you don't need. I see too many people who have the earbuds in and so are oblivious to the other stuff around them and to top it off when walking in the road they are walking with traffic (please walk facing traffic). When out where you share the road you need both your eyes and ears to stay safe. Running outside is the one place I never listen to music. maybe it would make it easier but coming home alive is more important that the couple extra calories I might burn otherwise. Report
This is kind of frustrating, because I have heard to do the strength training before so your muscles are working while you are doing cardio.....argh. Ok, now to switch again!

rumbamel Report