The fat burning zone… the land of milk and honey. That magical place where, if you’re lucky enough to find it, the fat will melt off your body like butter on pancakes.
Woe is he who trains with too much or too little intensity, missing the fat burning zone all together. For he is not only wasting his time, he’s also burning his hard-earned muscle. Soon he will be left with no muscle mass whatsoever, and his fat shall hang off his skeleton like spider webs on a Halloween decoration.
Is this true, though?
The truth is, the fat burning zone is a thing...
...but it’s been misinterpreted.
When you train in the fat burning zone (heart rate between 50-75% of your max heart rate), your body burns a higher percentage of its calories from fat. But that doesn’t mean it burns more fat overall compared to higher intensity training.
The Mechanisms of Fat Loss
Ultimately, fat loss is dictated by calories in vs calories out.
This means, if you eat less calories than you burn on a daily basis, you will lose fat (the real fat burning zone).
I’ll use myself as an example.
On a daily basis, through metabolism, daily activity, and workouts, I burn roughly 3000-3200 calories.
If I eat 2500-2700 calories per day, 500-700 less than I need to maintain my weight, I’m going to lose fat.
Any exercise I do, whether it’s in the fat burning zone or not, is going to contribute to that fat burning process.
But let’s say I eat 3500 calories per day. 300-500 more than I need to maintain my body weight. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise I engage in, or what heart rate zone I’m training in. I’m going to gain weight.
Unless my exercise routine pushes my daily calorie burn over the 3500 calories I’m eating each day, I will not lose fat.
Calories in vs calories out.
During exercise, it doesn’t matter if you’re burning a higher percentage of your calories from fat or from carbs. What matters is how many calories you burn in total vs how many you eat.
So, What’s Best for Fat Loss?
“Your body is like a piece of dynamite. You can tap it with a pencil all day, but you'll never make it explode. You hit it once with a hammer: Bang!” - Jason Statham
Since fat loss is created by a caloric deficit (eating less calories than you burn), then your exercise should accomplish two things:
Burn more calories during your workout.
Increase your metabolic rate, so you burn more calories throughout the rest of your day.
Because training at a higher intensity burns more total calories than training in the ‘fat burning zone’- during and after the workout- then higher intensity training makes more sense.
“But Mitch, didn’t you say something about the fat burning zone burning a higher percentage of calories from fat?”
This is true. Lower intensity training will burn a higher percentage of its calories from fat compared to higher intensity training.
But since fat loss is a product of a caloric deficit, the type of exercise that burns the most calories (during and after the workout), will burn the most fat overall.
Whether your exercise burns more of its calories from fat or from carbs, ultimately, you’ll burn more fat from your body by 1) burning more calories during your workout and 2) increasing the speed of your metabolism.
Strength training: there’s no better way to add lean muscle, increase the speed of your metabolism, and change the overall shape of your body. Strength training is the foundation of a great fat loss plan.
High Intensity Interval Training: Interval training means you work hard for a period of time, and recover for a period of time. It can be done on any machine ( or just your own body), and you can use a variety of intervals for your workout.
Example: On an exercise bike, cycle as hard as you can (or about 90-95% effort) for 30 seconds, then cycle with 50-60% effort for 60 seconds. Repeat this process between 3-6 times.
This type of high intensity cardio will burn more calories during the workout, and create an ‘afterburn’ effect, meaning you continue to burn more calories than usual for a few hours after the workout.
Low Intensity Cardio (The Fat Burning Zone): Wait, what? I thought the fat burning zone was inferior for burning fat compared to strength and high intensity cardio? Why are we including it here?
It is. But I still love including it in a good fat loss plan. The beauty of low intensity cardio is it makes a great recovery day workout. It allows you to burn a few extra calories without overly taxing your ability to recover between workouts. In fact, it can help you recover faster.
It’s also one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety, which goes a long way when it comes to making good food choices, and living a happy life.
While the fat burning zone is mostly a myth, that doesn’t mean low intensity cardio is useless. A good fat burning plan will be built around strength training and high intensity cardio, but can include low intensity cardio with great benefit.
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