Fat-burning cardio: 5 super-high calorie-burning activities


running up stairs

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Despite what many Instagram sensations will tell you, you don’t have to spend seemingly countless hours in the gym to reach your goals.

Exercise efficiency is the name of the game. If you’re constantly spending two to three hours in the gym every day, then it’s likely that some other aspect(s) of your life could potentially be suffering and you may not even realize it.

Here are five simple, time-efficient activities that are designed to give you a fantastic workout without taking up a significant amount of time.


1. Barbell complex


Here’s the basic concept behind barbell complexes: pick up a lightly loaded bar, complete a sequential selection of different exercises without setting it down, resting as needed. That’s really all barbell complexes are in a nutshell, but like most things in life, you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want. The best part is that you never have to change plates. Few things are more frustrating than stripping four wheels off each side of the bar after you’re done deadlifting.

Barbell butler discussions aside, there are a few caveats you should keep in mind before you think about crushing your next complex:

  • Place technically intensive lifts first in the complex (for example, don’t put snatches last after four deadlift and squat variations).
  • Perform the most metabolically demanding movements first (such as thrusters or deadlift variations, typically depending on the emphasis of the complex).

That said, let’s review a few potential complexes that you can implement today.

            A1. Thruster x 5

            B1. Front Squat x 5

            C1. Push Press x 5

            D1. Back Squat x 5

            E1. Reverse Lunge x 5/Leg

If you want something a little more posterior chain dominant, try this one on for size (use straps if needed):

            A1. Conventional Deadlift x 4

            B1. Romanian Deadlift x 6

            C1. Bent Over Row x 8

            D1. Hang Clean x 1

            E1. Front Squat x 5


2. Stadiums (running stairs)


There is nothing simpler than finding a good set of stairs (or a hill for that matter), running up it, and then catching your breath as you walk back down. Stairs offer an advantage over flat ground, given there is no eccentric loading (i.e., the next step is always higher than the last). When you sprint, your body is subjected to forces three times those normally experienced under the effects of gravity and as such, it typically generates crippling soreness the next day if you’re not used to it.

Ever wonder why your legs hate life the day after you run a really hilly trail? Whenever you’re running downhill, you’ll have the largest eccentric load, which also correlates with the highest level of intra-muscular damage. This can be especially important if you’re the type of person who enjoys training your lower body with a relatively high frequency. More muscular damage results in increased DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and will most likely hamper your perceived exertion and force output.

Environment plays an important role as well. If you can find a good stadium or even a park with a set of stairs you’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone — plenty of vitamin D exposure coupled with a higher motivation to train given you’re out of the drab gym environment, which can be monotonous at times.


3. Car pushes


Have you ever had the unfortunate task of pushing a car that just ran out of gas? What was the first thing you noticed? Maybe it was the extreme elevation in heart rate or perhaps the fact that every muscle in your body was engaged from head to toe? Either way, car pushes are one of the easiest ways to accrue volume without overloading your joints.

With your doctor's blessing and provided you don't have any medical conditions that can be exacerbated by this exercise (and that you have one, of course), park your car in the less crowded section of the gym parking lot, throw it in neutral and get to work. Plus, the exercise can be tailored to everyone’s individual skill level by simply applying more resistance with the brakes to increase the difficulty.


4. Intervals on the rowing ergometer


If you’ve never had a run-in with a rowing machine, then prepare yourself for a set of burning lungs and an inability to speak for the two minutes following an interval.

Rowing is not only a great full-body workout but also, given its non-weight bearing by nature, it can take some stress off your joints.

Car pushes, sled work and rowing all limit eccentric stress, so they are all viable options for someone who trains their lower body with a relatively high frequency or participates in a sport that requires a high force output from their lower body on a consistent basis.

If you’ve been rowing for a while, here are a few ideas to keep things fresh and interesting:

  • 20 seconds on/40 seconds off for 8-10 intervals
  • Row for distance to your favorite pump-up song
  • 2,000 meters for time (Get your mind right, this one is terrible.)
  • Ten 100-meter intervals with 45 seconds rest periods

There are endless combinations but just be aware that as you extend the duration of the interval, you’ll obviously lose intensity and you’ll need to rest more to maintain your output throughout the rest of the intervals.


5. Wingate bike sprints


Wingates are typically used in a research setting as a means of measuring anaerobic capacity and power output (i.e., the amount of work you can perform in a certain amount of time, while utilizing an energy system that doesn’t require oxygen).

In a real wingate test, the participant begins by pedaling all out and then a predetermined resistance is added to the flywheel to generate friction and increase the difficulty.

However, you can simulate wingates if you have access to certain spin bikes (such as a Keiser) with adjustable resistance that isn’t electronic. Simply begin at a low level of resistance, pedal as hard as possible, then increase the resistance and try to maintain your RPMs (revolutions per minute) for a set duration of time.

This exercise may be non-weight bearing but it is very neurologically intensive and as such, you'll need extended rest periods between intervals and a fairly low volume overall to induce a training effect.

Remember, intensity and duration are inversely proportional. If someone claims they just finished a 60 minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) session, they probably weren’t working hard enough during their actual intervals to receive any of the physiological benefits associated with wingates. 

Ideally, you want to keep intervals to 10- to 20-second bouts and only shoot for 3 to 4 if it’s your first session. Eventually, you can work up to 5 to 6 intervals but keep rest periods somewhere in the 80- to 120-second range. I know it may seem like an excessively long time to rest but these are primarily designed to measure power output, not just make you exhausted.

Fatigue is the enemy of fitness; utilize your rest periods to maximize your performance.

Safety first! Please remember to get your doctor's green light when starting any exercise routine, regardless of your fitness level.

About the author

Mike Wines is a strength and conditioning coach and content editor for muscle and strength. He received his B.S. in exercise science from the University of South Carolina and seeks to combine personal experience with practical application to provide programming- and movement-based solutions to match each individual's goals.