When you’re trying to lose weight, your gym time is all about the burn. But the kind of energy you're using to fuel your pounds-dropping fire isn't all the same. Actually, there's a big difference between blasting fat and chiseling away calories. Did we just blow your mind? Women's Health Magazine has the scoop below!
Fat and calories aren’t the same thing. Calories are a unit of energy, which can come from carbs, protein, or (you guessed it) fat, says Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., a registered dietitian and trainer at SoHo Strength Lab in NYC.
What this means for your workouts: Balls-to-the-wall, high-intensity workouts primarily burn calories from carbs stored in your muscles, called glycogen. Low-intensity workouts, where you can still carry on a conversation, burn mostly calories from fat, says Matheny. Your body also burns a greater chunk of fat calories when you work out in a fasted state, like first thing in the morning before breakfast. (Your body rarely burns calories from protein, which is good since protein is muscle. You don’t want to burn that!)
If your goal is to burn fat, it makes sense to work out at a low intensity, on an empty stomach, right? Not so fast. While working out at a lower intensity or in a fasted state will allow you to burn a greater proportion of calories from fat, sweating it out at a higher intensity means burning more calories overall, he says. For example, in one University of Wisconsin-La Crosse study, people who performed a 20-minute HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout burned a crazy 15 calories per minute—about twice as many as they did during long, low-intensity runs.
“If you want to lose weight, it’s the number of calories you burn overall that matters the most,” says Matheny. “It doesn’t matter if they are from carbs or fat.” That’s because after you burn a ton of calories from stored carbs during intense exercise, your body goes into overdrive to replace those carbs and repair your muscles. How does it do that? By breaking down fat and burning even more calories (the after burn effect), he says.
That explains why, in one "Journal of Sports Science and Medicine" study, runners who performed high-intensity sprints lost more belly fat than those who worked out for the same amount of time each week, but stuck to low-intensity running.
>> Read more: 5 Belly Fat Burning Strength Exercises
Set yourself up for fat burn. And don’t even think about trying to churn out high-intensity workouts on an empty stomach to burn both fat and calories, says Matheny. In a fasted state, you will feel like you are working freakishly hard, but the actual amount of calories you burn will be super-low. Carbs are your body’s fastest form of energy. By fueling up before your workouts, you have more energy to torch calories. “You're better able to achieve a caloric deficit and weight loss,” he says.