7 Simple Exercise Swaps to Burn More Calories

Finding time for a workout can be challenging, so when you have 30 minutes on your lunch break or 15 minutes before you pick the kids up from soccer practice, it's important to make the most of that precious time. If this sounds familiar and you've been looking to maximize the calorie burn of your workout, the good news is that you shouldn't have to carve out extra time to achieve the desired result. By making some simple swaps, you can burn more fat and calories, improve your fitness level and get even closer to achieving all of your healthy living goals.

When designing a workout program, the most important thing is to find exercises you enjoy. If you like what you're doing, you'll stick with it. If you dread your workout, it doesn't matter how many calories it burns because you're not likely to continue long-term. Ideally, you'll find a balance between enjoying what you're doing and getting the most out of it.

In general, adding short bursts of higher intensity intervals or exercises that involve multiple muscle groups are simple ways to increase your calorie burn. Whether you're fairly new to exercise or have been active for many years, the intensity of the workout can always be adjusted to meet your needs, so consider some of these simple swaps experts recommend when you want to increase your calorie burn.

Smarter Swaps

1. Instead of isolated strength exercises, try compound strength movements.  

According to Dempsey Marks, fitness expert and creator of the PreGame Fit program, strength exercises that only work one small muscle or one set of muscles are not efficient in terms of burning fat and calories. "For example, while a bicep curl is great for the bicep, there is not a great deal of calorie or fat burning going on," she explains. "If that is your goal, you are best to combine exercises that work large and small muscle groups at the same time. Add a lunge with your bicep curl to work your lower muscle groups, test your balance (which forces you to engage your core) and more. [This swap works by] increasing the intensity, the burn and the efficiency of your workout. Just be sure you are paying close attention to your form any time you combine moves."

2. Instead of a traditional yoga or Pilates classes, try a higher intensity version.

Hatha yoga is typically used to describe basic yoga and is generally an introduction to the practice. While it's great for beginners to become familiar with the terminology and poses, it's not the best option when it comes to calories burned. An average Hatha class burns around 189 calories per hour, while an average Vinyasa class could burn as many as 594 calories in the same amount of time. Vinyasa yoga involves continuous movement with poses running together, which keeps your heart rate up and muscles working overtime. 

Similarly, a traditional Pilates class might burn 120 to 336 calories per hour, but if you're looking for an extra boost, consider Pilates reformer, which burns 250 to 450 calories per hour (depending on your fitness level). If you want to add a plyometric punch, a Jumpboard class—which involves jumping off a horizontal plate attached to the footboard of the reformer—might be more your speed. Both the traditional reformer and Jumpboard class can take your Pilates practice to the next level.<pagebreak>
3. Instead of machine-based sitting exercises, try standing exercises.

Shane McLean, an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness blogger, suggests that standing and exercising will burn more calories and help burn more fat compared to sitting. "A study in the UK reveals that if a person stood instead of sitting for an extra three hours a day, they could burn over 30,000 calories in the course of a year, or what amounts to eight extra pounds," McLean explains. "Standing while exercising will burn more calories and help burn more fat compared to sitting because standing engages your balance and core." To replace common sitting exercises with standing modifications, start with:
  • Goblet squat instead of leg press
  • Single-arm chest press instead of supine chest press
  • Single-arm dumbbell row instead of seated row 
4. Instead of spinning or the elliptical, try biking or rowing.

Dana Ryan, Ph.D. suggests that these two popular exercises might not burn as many calories as you'd expect. "As much as I love a good spin class, it may not always be the calorie burn you are hoping for. Many people fly through these classes with no resistance on the wheel, which doesn't require much work from the body," she explains. Ryan recommends that if you are going to do this type of workout, don’t cheat yourself on your resistance or, better yet, grab a road bike and head for the hills for a real calorie burn.

She goes on to say that the same thing can happen with an elliptical. "While it's possible to burn substantial calories, many people use little resistance and put too much weight into their hands, both of which limit calorie burn," she says. "Instead, try to mix it up by hopping on the rowing ergometer, where you can burn more calories while strengthening more muscles."

5. Instead of simple strength movements, add plyometrics to your routine.

"A regular squat is a great exercise, but to increase the calorie burn, try adding plyometrics and making it a squat jump," health coach Sharla Mandere suggests. Mandere recommends starting with 10 repetitions and working up to 16 as you become more physically fit. Often incorporating jumping or high-velocity movements, plyometric exercises are intense and not recommended for beginners, but they can be a good option for a more seasoned exerciser.

"Another idea is to hold a squat down low and pulse up and down, working up to 20 pulses. Only an inch of movement is needed here," she says. Mandere goes on to explain that, "The quads are one of the biggest muscle groups in the body and will use the most oxygen and burn the most calories. Kicking it up a notch [with pulses] helps use more oxygen, raises the heart rate and raises your core body temp, which is how we burn calories."<pagebreak>
6. Instead of steady-state cardio, try HIIT.

According to health coach Dean Anderson, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has a number of advantages over traditional steady-state exercise. "HIIT is a specialized form of training that involves short intervals of maximum intensity exercise separated by longer intervals of low to moderate intensity exercise," he explains. "The key element that makes HIIT different than other forms of interval training is that the high-intensity intervals involve maximum effort, not simply a higher heart rate. HIIT increases the number of calories you burn during (and after) your exercise session, because it increases the length of time it takes your body to recover." Anderson goes on to say that, "This type of training causes metabolic adaptations that enable you to use more fat as fuel under a variety of conditions. This will improve your athletic endurance as well as your fat-burning potential."

Keep in mind that HIIT is not for the novice exerciser or those with cardiovascular problems; it is an intense workout designed to take an advanced exerciser's routine to the next level. Because of the intensity, it should only be performed a few times a week, not as part of every workout. If you're not ready for this type of training, try adding lower-intensity intervals to your routine instead.

7. Instead of your traditional "standby" routine, incorporate exercises that take you out of your comfort zone.

Personal trainer and health and wellness coach Jamie Logie explains that sometimes the best calorie- and fat-burning exercises are the ones that require a big amount of effort that put you in an uncomfortable situation, forcing true exertion. "When an exercise is very demanding, it requires more energy, muscle and action from your body, thereby making it more of a calorie burner," he describes. "This is why some people don't enjoy doing burpees, deadlifts or squats. They engage pretty much all muscles in the body. These full-body efforts are what burn the most calories." 
Logie notes that, "When you only do exercises that are easy to do or that you're good at, you're not really challenging your body. Your body learns the easiest way to perform an exercise when it does it all the time and that makes it less effective. You need to challenge it by providing a higher and more challenging stimulus." Your body will then respond by burning more calories and becoming more fit over time. Logie recommends adding in a few high-intensity exercises, such as burpees, planks, mountain climbers, sprints, walking lunges, deadlifts and pull-ups, when you feel the need for an extra challenge.

Since many of these exercises are very intense, proceed with caution. Even if you aren't ready for sprints, adding a few intervals of speed walking to your regular walk is a simple way to increase the calorie burn while controlling the intensity. Try modified planks on your knees if you aren't ready for a full plank. If balance is an issue, try lunges in place while holding onto a chair instead of walking lunges. What matters most is adding variety instead of getting stuck in the same exercise routine week after week.   

It's important to note that there is nothing wrong with the "instead of" exercises described above. If you like what you're doing and it keeps you moving, then stick with it! If burning more calories is your primary goal, these swaps give you something to consider to increase the burn and kick your results up a notch.