The Myth of Fat-Burning Workouts: How the Body Fights Back, and What That Means for You

This week we are giving Telly a ‘public rest.’

What I would like to share with you is probably one of the most important communications I’ve ever shared.

I recently read an article from a well-respected trainer based in the UK – Christian Finn. What he had to say, resinated with me. So much so, I have taken the liberty of sharing his general message and including my own thoughts and experience in the following paragraphs:

The Myth of Fat-Burning Workouts: How the Body Fights Back, and What That Means for You


Thrive Fitness Testimonial - Sue


(Photo – Sue Smith. Previous client of mine)

Your body and brain are programmed to compensate for the calories you burn in the gym, and all the “fat-blasting” exercises in the world won’t change that.

As an industry, It’s time to stop promising instant results and focus on what really matters for long-term success.

When assessing potential new clients who’s main goal is to lose weight, I always ask: ‘What exercise have you done in the past?’ Their answer usually involves lots of burpees, kettlebell swings, box jumps, thrusters, and skater jumps.

“I’ve been doing it instead of lifting weights, because I want to lose weight. Is this effective?”

If one of my clients wants to lose fat, conventional wisdom says that I should put them through the type of workout described above, running frantically from one heart-pounding exercise to the next until they’re left on their knees, exhausted, in a puddle of their own sweat.

Metabolisms will be revved, bellies will be melted, and kg’s will be lost. A million fitness-article headlines couldn’t be wrong. Or could they?

Not entirely. These workouts may well burn lots of calories. Done consistently, they’ll also offer long-term benefits, like increasing aerobic fitness and work capacity. But they’re not necessarily going to make you any leaner.

Let me explain why.

How the Body Fights Back

(Christian Finn’s words). Back in 2012, a team of researchers in Denmark ran a very simple experiment. They recruited a group of overweight young men to run or cycle six days a week for 13 weeks. Half of them exercised for 30 minutes a day, burning around 300 calories in each workout. The others exercised for twice as long, burning roughly 600 calories each time.

You might expect, not unreasonably, that those who burned the most calories would lose the most fat. But you’d be wrong. In fact, the fat loss was virtually identical. Men in the 600-calorie-per-workout group ended the study no leaner than those who did half as much exercise.

How is that possible?

The first thing to consider is the effect a workout has on hunger. If it stimulates your appetite, you end up replacing the calories you worked so hard to burn, if not more.

Research has shown that some of us are compensators (we eat more following exercise) while others are non-compensators (we don’t eat more, or may even eat less).

I have seen this many times at the Surge gym. The harder my clients work with me, the hungrier they get, and the more they eat, thus reducing (if not negating) the calorie deficit created by my program.

That’s just one way exercise is linked to more food consumption. There’s also a phenomenon known as moral licensing, where being “good” gives you permission to be “bad.”

Here’s an example from my own experience:

Way back in the 80’s, when I commenced ‘bodybuilding.’ I trained 6, sometimes 7 days per week. I was obsessed with exercise – the buzz it gave me – training up to 3 hours daily.

With all the calories I was burning, you’d think I would have lost weight. But I didn’t, for a simple reason: I ate massive amounts of food at the end of each day, in part because I felt I deserved it. I told myself I could eat whatever I wanted after all those hours on the gym.

But increased appetite isn’t the only way your body can compensate for exercise. It can also downregulate the amount of movement you do between workouts.

A NEAT Trick

(Christian Finn’s words). You’ve probably heard of non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT for short. First described by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in the early 2000s, it refers to the calories you burn during physical activities other than sleeping, eating, or structured exercise—things like typing, cooking, gardening, housework, or even just shifting around in your chair.

It may sound trivial, but you’d be surprised at how much NEAT contributes to our daily calorie expenditure. The difference between two people could be as much as 2,000 calories a day.

At rest, on average, most of us will burn about a calorie per kilogram of body weight per hour. That’s your resting metabolic rate, or RMR. If you’re sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, you’re burning about 5 percent more calories, or an extra 10 to 20 per hour, according to the Levine study. 

Get up and walk around and you’re burning about 10 percent more. Even the most innocuous physical activities, like fidgeting, can increase your energy expenditure by 20 to 40 percent above your RMR.

Here’s how it relates to your YOU:

Workouts that burn a lot of calories are physically and mentally taxing. They’ll often leave you tired, exhausted, and sore—which, of course, is exactly what many of us want.

And I must admit, that’s what I have given my clients in the past, simply because that’s what they asked for (Guilty My lord). But there are consequences to “go hard or go home” workout. 

Once you leave the gym, you’ll move much less than you otherwise would have. You simply won’t have the energy.

So instead of cooking a meal from scratch, you’ll get a takeout. Instead of doing household chores, they’ll put them off, or pay someone else to do them. Instead of taking a walk after dinner, you’ll binge on Netflix.

It’s another form of compensation, only instead of eating more between workouts, you burn fewer calories. Either way, your energy balance stays about the same despite performing your gruelling workouts.

Turning Down the Metabolic Dial

(Christian Finn’s words) More interesting still, a growing body of research shows that if you burn lots of calories via exercise, your body adjusts by spending less energy elsewhere, independent of NEAT or your energy intake.

Let’s say I have a new female client who’s moderately active. Training with me increases her overall activity level, but it doesn’t increase her daily calorie expenditure. 

The human body, for reasons we don’t yet understand, appears to put a cap on the number of calories it will burn from physical activity.

If you push your body hard enough, you can increase your energy expenditure, at least in the short term.

But our bodies are complex, dynamic machines, shaped over millions of years of evolution in environments where resources were usually limited; our bodies adapt to our daily routines and find ways to keep overall energy expenditure in check.

Recent research believes that your body budgets for the cost of additional activity by cutting back on the calories it would ordinarily use on the moment-to-moment metabolic tasks that keep you alive.

What This Means for You and me

Diet and exercise are different tools with different strengths. When it comes to losing fat, the food we eat (or don’t eat) is a lot more important than what we do in the gym.

But human metabolism is too complex to allow us to manipulate any aspect of it without affecting other aspects.

Once you understand that, it’s not really a surprise that the workouts we so-called experts describe as “fat-blasting” don’t work as advertised.

Yes, they may burn a large number of calories. But they also cause your body to fight back by adjusting the dials on your appetite, activity levels, and metabolism, making the quest to lose fat increasingly difficult.

Here’s the big take-away

Don’t think of a workout as a way to burn fat. The amount of fat a given workout burns is not the only or even the most important way to judge its effectiveness.

Focus instead on increase strength, endurance, and muscle tone, all of which will contribute to a longer, healthier life, and all of which, over time, will help you get leaner.
Need A Helping Hand?

If you are confused/unsure about how to achieve a standard of health and a body to be proud of, give me a shout and let’s make both accountable towards your success.  
If you want to make 2018 your best year ever, please consider joining either my Face-to-face PT:
or my online training groups.

There are Two to choose from:

Ideal for those that have been wanting to make a change, but are unsure where to start. You’ll get immediate access to:

  • Supercharged fat burning workouts you can complete even under the most demanding time constraints.
  • Done-for-you nutrition guidelines to help you eat healthily at home or on the go.
  • Mindset ‘hacks’ for limitless motivation, and
  • Weekly group class (if a member at Surge).

All for Just $50 per month. 

The Personal Transformation Program is for those that have certain requirements or are working towards a specific goal and need that extra bit of accountability. You will get:

  • Unlimited email access/VIP support group, a Skype/phone planning session.
  • Weekly accountability catch ups.
  • Personalised meal plans.
  • Unlimited online training sessions. I will work with you one on one and ensure you reach your goals. No excuses!

VIP treatment for just $33 per week (Numbers limited)

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