Here at How To Bulk Muscle, we tend to focus on – well – bulking muscle. However, we also understand that a lot of people who get into the sport are also interested in burning fat. So, what are the best fat burning exercises for people who also want to build muscle?
You Can’t Actually Turn Fat into Muscle
Before we get started, let’s kick a common misconception: You can’t “turn fat into muscle.”
This is a handy figure of speech to describe the honorable pursuit of losing weight from fat while gaining weight from muscle. However, fat and muscle are very biologically different tissues. Trying to literally turn fat into muscle would be like trying to turn skin into bone.
Understanding Fat, Muscles and Weight
With that out of the way, how do muscle and fat actually stack up when you step on the scales and take your measurements?
We often think of weight and fat as being one-to-one. However, the already successful bodybuilder will likely understand that this isn’t strictly the case.
Muscle is more dense than fat. As a result, if you’re here to “turn fat into muscle,” you may notice your weight overtime make a U-shaped curve. Your bodyweight may decrease as you burn fat and then increase as you build muscle.
Muscle being more dense also means that the same mass of muscle takes up less space. That’s why the distance around your middle can tell your doctors more than your Body Mass Index. Because your BMI is a ratio of your height to your weight, and muscle is more dense than fat, it’s possible for a healthy weight lifter or body builder to clock an “obese” BMI.
The Energy Balance Equation
A final note before we dive into the exercises: You can, technically, build muscle by lifting weights and eating trash. Burning fat doesn’t work that way.
Fat is how your body stores energy that you take in through your diet but don’t burn through physical activity. You only lose fat when you burn more energy through exercise than you take in through diet (Pope et al., p. 338).
We won’t dive into diet any more than this, but if you’re serious about burning fat then you should also be looking at your carbohydrate, fat, and simple sugar intake.
Of course, this article is geared toward healthy people who want to slim down and bulk up. If you’re interested in burning fat for health reasons, that’s a conversation that should start with your doctor. Drastic diet and exercise changes, even with the best intentions, can be hazardous to your health if you have certain medical conditions.
The Best Fat Burning Exercises
As mentioned above, you lose fat when your body burns stored energy. As a result, any and all activities that require energy are potentially fat burning activities.
The amount of energy required to perform an activity is that activity’s energy cost and the activities with the highest energy cost are those that involve the whole body or the largest possible muscle groups (Abernathy et al, p. 176).
You might not think of swimming as an exercise at all. And, if you’re looking to bulk muscle, it isn’t much of one.
Rather than overcoming the weight of gravity by lifting weights or working against your own body weight, swimming requires working against the drag force of the water. However, the reason that swimming is so great at using energy isn’t because of the resistance that is being overcome but the muscles that are being used to overcome it.
Jogging is largely a lower body activity, though it does use more of the core and lower back muscles than most people realise. Even so, these are large muscle groups that require a lot of energy, making walking, running, and jogging pretty good fat-burning activities.
If you do want to incorporate your upper body more, consider getting additional weights like a weight vest or wrist weights that you can use. These amp up the intensity of the whole exercise but also help to incorporate muscle groups that might otherwise feel left-out.
The “Burpee” is a great composite exercise. You start out in a crouched position with your fingers on the ground just in front of your toes. Then, you kick your feet back into the top of a pushup. From there, you do (at least) one pushup, rise to a standing position, jump, and land back at the starting position for the next one.
This exercise can be modified with wearable weights like jogging can, but you can also increase the difficulty by trying to increase your speed.
Mountain Climbers landed on our list of the Best Body Resistance Exercises as well.
Start from a plank position, and alternately bring one knee and then the other up toward your chest. This might sound like a lower-body exercise, but a lot of the muscles being activated are actually in your core. Meanwhile, your arms and upper back are working to keep you supported and off the ground.
As we’ve seen with other exercises in this list, add speed and/or wearable weights to increase the difficulty if you see fit.
Sports and Other Activities
As it happens, something doesn’t have to happen in the gym to be an exercise. In fact, some of the best full-body exercises out there are sports that can happen wherever. Think about things like basketball, or even more casual games like frisbee.
Any time that you’re up and moving, you’re burning calories. So,
- Walk or bike instead of driving or taking public transportation
- Pick up active outdoor hobbies, like hiking
- Join (or start) community sports leagues
How to Turn Fat into Muscle
You can’t turn fat into muscle. But, the closest that you can get is combining some of the key takeaways from this article.
If you craft a diet that focuses on limiting the energy-rich nutrients that you take in through your diet and craft an exercise regimen that focuses on building up your core muscle groups, you can burn fat and build muscle at the same time. And, isn’t that the dream?
Abernathy, Bruce; Kippers, Vaughan; Hanrahan, Stephanie J.; Pandy, Marcus G.; McManus, Alison M.; Mackinnon, Laurel. “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement” 3 ed. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL. 2013.