If you’re logging miles on the treadmill and hours in cycling class in the hopes of torching more calories, that’s seriously sucky news.
Here’s how your body makes up for the major calories you burn at the gym: As you get used to your workouts, you might not burn more calories—even if you’re consistently active, says California-based trainer Mike Donavanik, CSCS. “Think about your job. When you first started, there were some learning curves, it took more energy and more time, but you became more efficient,” he says. “Exercise works the same way. Your body adapts to a specific demand. So you naturally become more efficient, and use less energy [aka calories] to meet that demand.”
But that’s no reason to forgo exercise in the name of weight loss or, more importantly, fat loss. After all, you want to lose fat, not muscle. Right? One obesity study of 439 women found that those who ate healthy and exercised lost considerably more body fat than those who stuck with dieting alone.
So how do you make sure every sweat session helps you burn more? Follow these five rules of exercising for weight loss.
When it comes to making sure your body never gets too comfy with your workout, you’ve got to cozy up to the FITT principle. It stands for frequency, intensity, time, and type—the four factors that determine the exact stress you put on your body during a given workout, says Donavanik. Changing up any one of them “surprises” and challenges your body in a new way. Remember, as long as your body is forced to adapt to progressively challenging workouts, it’s going to burn more calories during every workout. It’s when your body gets used to your current workouts that things start to plateau. “Look to change one to two of these variables every 4 to 6 weeks and you’ll keep losing weight,” he says.
“High-intensity interval training is the way to go,” Donavanik says. In one 2013 study from the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, people who performed a 20-minute HIIT workout torched 15 calories per minute—about twice as many as they did during long runs. Plus, with HIIT workouts, you benefit from the “afterburn” effect, which steady-state cardio just won’t give you. “So instead of burning 250 calories from your 30-minute session, you can burn up to 40 more throughout the next day or so as your body recovers,” says Donavanik. Follow the study’s lead: Go all-out for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat until you’ve hit 4 minutes. Rest 1 minute, then repeat to complete a total of four rounds.
Prioritize Clean Eating
“If you don’t pay attention to your diet, you can work out every day as hard as you possibly can and not lose a single pound if your calories expended are equal to your calories consumed,” says Donavanik. What’s more, eating junk can make your workouts feel more difficult, so even if you think you’re pushing yourself to the max, you’re not, he says. And sub-max workouts, as you might have guessed, burn fewer calories. He recommends limiting added sugar and focusing on eating lean protein, healthy fats, and whole carbs from fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
Pick Up Some Weights
More muscle = more calories burned. After all, while a pound of fat burns only two calories per day, a pound of muscle burns six—and takes up a lot less room, he says. That’s why, in a 2015 Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 adults, people who strength trained for 20 minutes a day gained less belly fat over a period of 12 years, compared with cardio bunnies.
Don’t Forget to Fuel
While everyone thrives on a slightly different pre- and postworkout nutrition plan, research published in Sports Medicine shows that eating carbs before you hit the gym improves your performance during HIIT and endurance workouts alike. And tougher workouts burn more calories—both during and after your workout, Donavanik says.
That explains why recent research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that downing coffee(or any caffeine) an hour before your workout can boost your postworkout calorie burn by 15%. After your workout, Donavanik recommends eating a meal that’s about 40% carbs, 40% protein, and 20% fat. The combination will help your muscles recover, get your energy levels up, and have you burning more calories as your body repairs…and, yes, adapts.