If you’re working out, you’re in a constant state of transforming your body. Whether your goal is to lose a few pounds, nail defined biceps, or tackle a Spartan Race, one thing is clear: as you put in the work, you want results. But losing body fat, a.k.a. getting lean, can be one of the most difficult challenges. Simply put, if you just can’t seem to shed the inches, your current workout may not be ‘cutting’ it. The solution? A lean muscle workout — or rather, tweaking what you’re already doing to be more effective in burning fat fast. Here, we tapped two of our fitness experts for their tips to lean-up (and clean up) your workout.
Related: How Much Protein Do You Need?
Essential Lean Muscle Workout Tweaks
#1: Swap out some of your usual cardio for strength training.
“Research consistently shows that minute-per-minute strength training is a better time investment when you’re trying to lose weight, lose fat, or improve body composition,” says K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, fitness trainer, and coach. “While a cardio session may (or may not) burn more calories in 30 minutes than a strength workout does, strength training sessions build muscle, allowing you to burn more calories at rest.”
Ultimately, strength training creates a snowball effect when it comes to developing stronger muscles that allow you to work harder during your workouts.
“Lean body mass (organs + bone + muscle — everything that’s not fat) is your number-one determiner of metabolic rate,” says Fetters. “You have control over your muscle mass, so use it to your advantage! Just as importantly, becoming stronger and developing more muscle will allow you to push yourself harder in all of your workouts, meaning you can burn more calories during each and every workout to help get you closer to your fat-loss goals.”
And when it comes to the best moves to add, Fetters suggests avoiding isolation exercises in place of compound ones. She says strength training should central to any fat-loss plan, recommending compound, multi-joint exercises, like squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, rows, and bench presses. “[Those] will always beat isolation exercises when it comes to fat loss,” says Fetters.
#2: Add in Tabata.
“Using an approach to a workout like Tabata protocol, where you do work intensely for a very short period of time, give your body a recovery phase, and then repeat, is a great tweak to burn more fat,” says Holly Perkins, BS, CSCS, author of Lift To Get Lean. “If you’re the person who goes to the gym and always does a straight-set protocol, like lat pulldown, reset; lat pulldown, reset; lat pulldown, rest; and then you go onto a different back exercise, switching that up and tweaking the intensity is going to help you burn more fat.”
While Tabata can work with any exercise, Perkins suggests trying it with cardio, calisthenics, and bootcamp-type exercises. To do it: work 10 seconds at high intensity, rest for 50 seconds.
#3: Follow a workout program.
When it comes to working out, you may hit different machines or try a class to mix things up. But according to Fetters, these will not result in the fat loss progress you may be hoping for. “Progressive overload is the concept of regularly and systematically increasing the challenge of a given workout. This not only keeps the body challenged but also forces it to adapt,” says Fetters. “Outside of burning X number of calories during your workout, your workouts will really spur little adaptation in terms of aerobic fitness, endurance, lean muscle mass, or strength — all things that promote a healthy body composition.
The concept of “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is true here, according to Fetters. To avoid falling into the what-do-I-do trap, she suggests following a structured exercise routine targeted toward your goals, as opposed to winging it. True, while any movement is better than no movement when you’re trying to lose fat, follow a program.
Working with a certified trainer is certainly one way to go, says Fetters. “But people can create their own plans with a little bit of know-how — and even if they aren’t ‘perfect’, doing something consistently will pay off,” says Fetters. She recommends to focus on the big picture, working the body’s basic movement patterns: hinge, squat, lunge, push, pull, carry, and rotate. “Focus on compound exercises, train to fatigue, and add some progressive challenges with the FITT principle [frequency, intensity, time and type], every month or two, and you’ll go far.”
#4: Add in rest between sets.
“There is such a popularity around high-intensity no-rest workouts that look like circuit training, bootcamp or CrossFit, but you’re going to build muscle in a more economical way if you allow yourself to have some rest in between sets,” says Perkins. So don’t think taking breaks is a cop-out—in fact, it may help you in the long haul. “When people are doing an hour of non-stop movement, by nature of your heart rate, you’re not going to be able to lift as much weight,” says Perkins. Instead, she recommends getting at least 30 seconds of rest to allow your muscles to recover and go back into your exercise ready for the next set. “You’re ultimately going to get more out of your workout (and more out of your strength training workout) if you give yourself some rest,” says Perkins.
#5: Train to fatigue…. occasionally failure.
Here’s the thing — if you’re not spent after most of your workouts, it may be a good indicator that your body isn’t going to burn the fat you want. “Your workouts should be enjoyable, but they should also be challenging,” says Fetters. “During workouts, you need to regularly get to that place where your muscles are burning like mad and knocking out your last couple of reps takes everything you’ve got.” Training to fatigue should apply to any rep/set and exercise, she says, because you essentially disrupt the cellular environment of your muscles which builds strength, and allows you to burn more calories during exercise and recovery.
“For most people, it takes longer or more weight to get to fatigue than assumed,” says Fetters. “Most people are stronger than they think they are, especially if they are new to a certain exercise. So, for a lot of people, this tweak will also translate to lifting heavier than they are currently.”