Learning the best workout for weight loss could be all it takes to slim down and be who you want to be.
But what is that? Should you be running, or cycling, or swimming? How many calories do those even burn per minute?
No, what you need is to start with something else. The best workout for weight loss is a good diet. The best exercise is sitting down with your grocery list and making a change you can stick with!
You can line up every workout ever developed and none of them stack up to changing your diet, for weight loss and burning fat.
You can do any workout you want and – if your diet is correct – you’ll lose weight. People have lost weight with every kind of workout for hundreds of years, but only one diet has worked: the calorie deficit.
This means that you can and should focus on what you eat before you worry about what exercise you take. But it also means you’re free to choose whatever form of exercise you want - and we’re going to look at which burns the most calories, and what else they offer you.
Let’s look at what you can do to get more weight loss from your diet, and then the best and most popular workouts for fat loss…
Caloric deficit: the science of burning fat
The deciding factor in whether you lose or gain weight is calorie balance: are you eating more, or fewer, calories than you need?
Understanding calorie deficit starts with calorie maintenance. Your TDEE is an estimate of the number of calories you use on a daily basis.
If you eat fewer calories than your maintenance, you’ll lose weight – such as with fat loss. If you eat more calories than your maintenance, you’ll gain weight – which is typically either fat or muscle, depending on your lifestyle.
Getting a good idea of your TDEE using a TDEE calculator online can help you understand your needs.
This is only an estimate, but it’s a great starting point for taking control of your diet. It gives you a target to aim for, it’s flexible to changes in weight or exercise, and it’s a good piece of accountability if you’ve struggled with dieting in the past.
TDEE lets you start making changes and gives you a measure for calorie deficit, which is the key to fat loss.
Calorie deficit is what we call it when you consistently eat fewer calories – on average – than your maintenance.
For practical reasons, this is usually day by day, but also applies to weeks and months. Weekly averages, in particular, are a good place to look for calorie deficit as a way of balancing out the ‘highs and lows’ of weekly eating.
Any calorie deficit is likely to lead to fat loss and weight loss. This is because your body can’t magic up energy out of nowhere. It has to produce energy for things like movement and organ maintenance from food.
Calorie deficit is about energy and isn’t healthy or unhealthy by itself. Losing excess weight is healthy, but just eating less isn’t the best way to control health. To do that, you should also consider what you’re eating – and how that impacts changes to your body.
Common myth: the best way to lose weight isn’t just to eat less – calorie deficits are only good up until a point. You need to remain fuelled for your daily activities. Your body needs calories, and the best way to lose weight is patiently - not by starving yourself!
Macronutrients and weight loss
Macronutrients are the 3 main types of compounds in food that provide energy: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Proteins: The Most Important Macronutrient
Proteins are the building blocks your body needs to make and repair tissues. Carbs are ‘fast’ energy and fats are ‘slow’ energy, as well as crucial for hormonal health.
Protein is the most important macronutrient for weight loss. It’s essential – you’re literally made out of proteins that need replacing – and it also has a strong metabolic effect. Protein-rich foods are typically filling, great for your health, and make weight loss much easier.
Common myth: protein isn’t just for getting jacked like a bodybuilder. It’s the most important macronutrient and high protein diets also improve fat loss, reduce injury risks, and keep us metabolically healthy!
Carbohydrates: Fuel Workouts
Carbs are an important part of your daily energy levels. Weight loss is easier when you focus on ‘slower’ carbs like wholegrains and vegetables. These fill you up more, help regulate health (like broccoli), and keep you energized for longer.
Common myth: carbs aren’t bad for you and they don’t make you fat – but they are pretty moreish. Carbs aren’t unhealthy, we just tend to eat too many of the wrong ones, or they fill a ‘comfort eating’ role that is dangerous for our physical and mental health!
Fats Don’t Make You Fat
Fats are important for health, but they’re also calorie dense.
This means you need fewer of them in total and each choice of fats will be important. They contain more than 200% more calories per gram than carbs or protein. This makes it essential to focus on fat quality – getting them from fatty fish, avocados, olives, coconut oil, and other healthy sources.
Common myth: dietary fats don’t make you fat. Your body will only store them if you’re in a calorie surplus, otherwise they’re used up as fuel!
Sustainability over intensity
To lose weight, you need to be consistent. You can’t lose 20lbs this week no matter what you do.
This means that sustainability is key, not intensity. You don’t need to go cold turkey on every food you enjoy, and you don’t need to spend 25 hours in the gym this week. You just need to make good changes that you could see yourself sticking to for at least 6-12 months.
Why live on chicken salads when you could just make your diet a bit healthier, reduce some portion sizes, and still achieve your goals?
Patience and realistic expectations get you further than short-term enthusiasm. Don’t worry about perfection from day one – just focus on making small changes as often as possible and making sure that they stick.
Successful weight loss comes from changes you live with month on month. You should improve your staple meals, your exercise habits, and your sleep schedule. Focus on slowly improving these day by day and you’ll see excellent weight loss along the way.
Most effective calorie-burning workouts
Every workout will burn calories – even some non-exercise activities you enjoy doing. The question is how many calories does each type of exercise burn? What is the best workout for weight loss?
We’re going to look at some of the best weight loss workouts, and some of the most popular. We’ll also look at why some are better or worse than others, and how you decide which is best for you.
Remember: the amount of each exercise you perform, and the intensity you perform it at, will contribute. These are just average calorie burning estimates and they might not apply perfectly. You may also prefer x or y type of exercise – and that’s okay, preferences are a good reason to choose!
Running: how many calories does running burn?
Running burns roughly 600-700 calories per hour, roughly 10-12 per minute, or 100 per mile.
Running is the most efficient form of ‘cardio’: middle intensity exercise that you can perform for longer to burn more calories. That’s why it’s the poster-child of weight loss workouts!
Running is quite demanding compared to alternatives, however, as it can be high-impact on the joints, and you need to build up your mileage patiently. These make running a great choice, but also an investment. You have to get good at running to get the best effects.
If you like running – and take it at the right speed – it’s one of the best weight loss workouts.
Swimming: how many calories does swimming burn?
Swimming burns up to 600 calories per hour, or 10 per minute. This is based on a competent swimmer burning laps for an hour,which is pretty rare!
Swimming is great because it’s a low-impact form of exercise, which makes it a great option for those with knee or hip discomfort. It also uses more of the upper body muscles than other forms of cardio, hence the ‘swimmer’s physique’. This can help build the shoulders, arms, and lats while you burn calories.
Swimming – or at least aqua jogging – is a great choice for strengthening the body and losing weight without hurting the joints. This can be a perfect choice after an injury or in older age.
Cycling: how many calories does cycling burn?
Cycling burns 450 calories per hour, or 7.5 per minute, on average. The range is around 300-600 per hour, depending on how fast you’re going.
Cycling is great for burning lots of calories while keeping the knees and hips healthy. It has less impact on these joints than running or HIIT, though slightly more than swimming.
Cycling can actively strengthen the lower body, is accessible, and can be done either on a stationary bike or a road bike. It’s a great way to burn calories and can obviously be a good way to add more exercise to your day as a form of transport for shorter distances.
HIIT: how many calories does HIIT burn?
HIIT can burn up to 900 calories per hour, or 15 per minute. However, you can’t sustain HIIT for an hour. More realistically, HIIT burns around 250-450 calories in 20-30 minutes, which is a more realistic HIIT session.
It depends heavily on the type of exercise you’re using, the intensity of that exercise, and your experience with it.
HIIT is easy to customize because it’s just about doing intense workouts, then resting or lowering the intensity, then repeating the cycle. It can use any simple exercise, where you’re just focusing on trying hard.
This makes HIIT options popular because you can also build any other athletic traits you want. You could use strength training HIIT to build more muscle, you could add in power exercise to build power, or you could go all-cardio for maximum fat loss and endurance gains.
HIIT does take some preparation. You shouldn’t perform HIIT with exercises unless you’re very confident with them. High intensity and fatigue can make them more challenging and it’s easy to mess up more-complex exercises.
Keep it simple, focus on really pushing pace, and you’ll be able to burn calories and build performance at the same time.
Strength training: how many calories does strength training burn?
Strength training burns 250-350 calories per hour, or around 4-5 calories per minute, on average. This is lower than others, but it also boosts your resting energy expenditure while recovering – and has other benefits.
Strength training is the best way to improve the end result of weight loss.
While it may not burn as many calories per minute as running, it builds muscle mass. This is an important way of changing how you look (if you’re training to improve your physique) – but also makes you stronger and more injury-resilient.
Building muscle mass isn’t just for vanity. Remember that, instead of just looking good on the beach, muscles are there to move your joints. They stabilize them and help you move, keeping you pain-free for longer and becoming even more important as you age.
Crucially, muscle mass is one of the biggest factors in your calorie maintenance levels! Muscular people have a higher calorie maintenance and can eat more while losing weight, and their metabolisms are more resilient because of this higher ‘basal metabolic rate’.
Strength training helps you build muscle and lose fat, so consider adding 1-2 sessions per week to your existing weight loss ‘cardio’.
Efficiency: HIIT for more burn-per-minute
Efficiency and preferences are two factors that you need to consider when it comes to workouts for weight loss. You want to make sure that any exercise you choose:
- They are exercises you enjoy – or tolerate – enough to keep doing them, and
- They fit your schedule and offer the results you want in the time you have free
These are important. A weight loss routine doesn’t work if it can’t fit into your life and you have to give it up after 1 week because you’re exhausted. Equally, if you hate the exercise you’re doing, then it’s not as good as one you’d enjoy – even if it burns a few more calories per hour!
HIIT is time-efficient exercise because you’re trying really hard for a short amount of time. This can also make it a demanding exercise choice. Perhaps you’d rather be on the recumbent bike for a relaxed time. That will take longer to burn as many calories, but maybe you have the time, and that suits you better.
This balancing act is a personal one. Only you can and should make that decision. It’s important to find a lifestyle – as well as a diet – that is sustainable. You can use this free online consultation if you feel like you need more guidance, and want a personalised HIIT option.
HIIT also burns calories after exercise, during recovery (EPOC), at a higher rate than other forms of exercise.
FAQ: Important Questions and Myth-Busting
There are lots of ways to exercise – and lots of questions about them. Let’s take a look at the most common questions and most important myths around the best weight loss workouts, and how you should plan your routine.
Is it better to eat less or exercise more for weight loss?
It’s better to eat slightly less for weight loss: eating 200 fewer calories per day is easy, but that’s the same as around 20 minutes of running. Most people would rather avoid a chocolate bar than burn it off.
You shouldn’t restrict yourself too hard, but exercise is definitely a harder time than reducing food intake.
What is the best workout for weight loss?
There is no best workout for weight loss, but HIIT and high intensity running have the highest calorie burn per hour. That’s not the same as being the best, though.
The best workout for weight loss is whichever one you find most rewarding, and which fits your schedule. That’s because consistency is the best way to lose weight, and you’re going to burn more calories over the long run if you’re invested in getting better and pushing yourself.
Choosing the right exercise for you is about finding what you enjoy – as long as you approach it with enough intensity. You’re not going to lose weight by playing darts, but you should choose your favorite exercise – such as choosing swimming over running, e.g.
How many calories should I eat to lose weight?
Most people should eat at a calorie deficit of 300-800 calories. The idea is simple: if you have more mass (taller, higher fat mass, or more muscular), you can afford a higher deficit!
should err towards the lower end, and bigger people can use larger deficits. The average person should use around a 500 calorie deficit, depending on lifestyle.
This is enough to consistently lose a pound per week of fat, without drastically depleting energy levels. You can feel good and move well on this calorie deficit, while still getting closer to your goals.
Excessive calorie deficits are going to tank your energy levels and ruin your experience. On the other end, calorie deficits below 300 can be disheartening as you won’t see yourself changing as quickly, which can make your goals feel ‘out of reach’.
Weight loss is about lifestyle – not just picking the right workout based on the number of calories burned. Sure, you want to burn calories, but you also need to look at what you're going to try hardest with, what fits your life, and which workouts you will stick with forever.
Finding a type of workout, exercise, or activity you love and invest in emotionally makes weight loss much easier. If you’re an optimiser, then go for whatever has the highest calorie burn – probably HIIT or high-intensity running.
However, the real focus for most people should be on workouts and diets that fit their long-term plans. No workout is more effective than years of building momentum, eating well, and finding fulfillment in your workout choices. Find what suits you and, as long as it burns calories and you can get better at it over time, the diet will do the rest!