Wait! Don’t just skim down to see which exercise I’ve labeled as the best, get the whole story…

I often get asked the question “What is the best exercise for weight loss?” That’s not an easy question to answer.

First off, there is no magical exercise that will “tone” or “burn” fat off in a specific area of your body. The adult human body is designed to lose fat starting at the head and working it’s way down (it’s opposite in infants as the body is wise enough to preserve the head and brain at all cost if an infant was malnourished). It is physically impossible to target an area on your body and reduce the fat from there by selecting exercises to work that specific area. That being said, some exercises are definitely better than others. And, yes, there are even a few that I would call the best.

What makes an exercise the best?

When you decide which exercises to include in your routine, it is important to consider the type of movement involved. The simpler or more isolated the movement, the fewer calories you’ll burn and the fewer muscles you will target and strengthen. On the other hand, the more compound or multi-jointed the movement, the more calories you will burn and the more muscles you will recruit and strengthen.

To put it simply, exercises that are compound movements will deliver better results than exercises that use only simple movements. Compound movements recruit multiple muscles, some to stabilize and others to perform the movement. This process keeps your heart rate higher than a isolated exercise would, giving you a more intense workout.

What is a compound movement?
A compound movement is a multi-joint movement that recruits large portions of the body to complete the exercise. Let’s compare a simple movement leg exercise with a compound movement leg exercise:

The leg extension machine uses a simple, isolated movement to work the quadriceps. You’re in a seated position moving only your knee joint. There isn’t much involvement, if any, from other muscles and it doesn’t burn very many calories.

Now let’s look at a free weight or body weight walking lunge. You start by standing with your feet together and a dumbbell in each hand at your sides (or a barbell across your shoulders, or a medicine ball held at your chest, or even with no weight at all). You take a large step forward and lower your back knee, keeping your front knee at a 90 degree angle. Now you push off your front foot and pull your back leg forward, repeating the movement. If any of my clients are reading this – they know this one very well and are probably swearing at me in their heads right now.

How many muscles did you utilize while performing the lunge? Probably too many to count.

You certainly worked your quadriceps, gluteus, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, supporting muscles in your shoulders, arms and back—just to name a few. You also raised your heart rate and really kicked your metabolism into high gear. This is the goal of weight training when it comes to building muscle and burning fat and how I structure programs for my clients with those goals.

Other ways to increase intensity
Using compound movements are just one of many ways to kick your workout intensity up a notch. Try incorporating a Super Set into your routine. To do so simply perform two or more exercises in a row and then take a short rest. I really like the technique of Super Set with antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups. For example, perform one exercise of a dumbbell chest press, then immediately without rest perform a standing dumbbell row. Then take a rest when completed with both exercises.

The key to finding the best exercise is to find the ones that bring your workout intensity to a whole new level and also ones that you personally enjoy. Because what’s the point of working out if you aren’t enjoying the process right?

I’d be shortchanging you if I named any exercise as the best. The fact of the matter is that it I always preach to not re-invent the wheel when it comes to strength training for fat loss. Having a good template for strength training with a solid foundation of compound exercises such as the squat, row, press, lunge, ext and knowing how to group these together with proper cardio training is the key to training with the goal of fat loss.

If done properly, strength training will help you to burn more calories, increase your metabolic rate, and will stimulate the production of more fat burning and muscle building hormones. Of course, there is more involved to achieving your fitness goals.

You need to incorporate fat burning interval cardio into your routine (but not too much too soon!).

You need to consistently challenge yourself during workouts.

You need to take control of your eating habits and starting tracking your macronutrients daily.

So what’s the best exercise for you? That’s for you to find out!

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