The 8 Most Effective Fat-Burning Cardio Exercises

Melt fat with the best

When we want to burn fat, what’s the first thing most of us do? Turn the treadmill up to top speed, leap on the raging rubber belt, and hold on for dear life. Cue unflattering after shots for Instagram; complete with us doubled over the machine, wiping sweat from our dripping forehead with an equally drenched towel.

Either that or you go for an endless Groundhog Day jog that just won’t end! Seriously, has it been an hour yet? In a word – boring. In another – inefficient.

But are these time-honored treadmill rituals really the best route? Are there other ways to blitz fat than slogging endlessly on revolving rubber? Spoiler alert: you bet there is.

Here are the 8 most effect fat-burning cardio exercises to try instead.

What is cardio?

Cardio is pretty much any exercise that raises your heart rate. Running is the most obvious example, followed closely by swimming, hiking, and cycling. If you’ve done any of these, you’ll know they increase your rate of breathing and how fast your heart beats – which is exactly what cardio sets out to do.

Another, more scientific definition of cardio is aerobic exercise – aka the type that involves oxygen. Anaerobic, on the other hand, uses different metabolic pathways to produce energy. Think about how a steady morning jog (aerobic) compares to an explosive Olympic lift (anaerobic).

However, there does appear to be a cross-over, because extra-intense cardio can turn anaerobic. So, when most people say cardio, they mean a workout that challenges the cardiovascular system. Keeping this in mind can save a lot of confusion.

Like we mentioned, cardio is a surefire way to strengthen the heart and lungs. It can ramp up your red blood cell count too plus increase circulation. If you’re fit, it generally means your cardiovascular system is primed.

Cardio is also a crushing fat burning tool. Depending on intensity, it can either scorch or gently simmer through calories as well. After all, all that energy must come from somewhere, right? Providing you’re eating in a negative energy balance (kcal in<kcal out), why can’t it be your fat stores?

According to experts, you would need to clock in 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise to see worthwhile changes[1]. Genetics, metabolism, conditioning, and size can all influence results too.

Man tying shoes ready to perform cardio

Type of cardio training

Cardio typically falls into two camps. On the left, you’ve got old-faithful LISS, low-intensity steady state stuff. Then, on the right, is the hyper-active HIIT, properly known as high-intensity interval training.

Now, these two types are on complete opposite sides of the coin. Which one you choose all depends on your goals and circumstance too.

First, let’s look at LISS.

LISS – Low-Intensity Steady State

LISS – aka exactly what it says on the label. Low intensity, steady paced exercise. Think longer-distance activities like running, walking, cycling, and rowing, over sprinting and weightlifting.

Replay that morning jog we mentioned earlier. When you lace up your running shoes for a stride at sunrise, you probably take a relaxed approach. You could run harder, but you don’t want to.

Now, fitness fans have a love-hate relationship with LISS.

On the one hand, it’s not as impactful, less vigorous, and easy to get into. You don’t have to necessarily be pushing yourself into a sprint for a steady-state swim up and down the lanes. 

Plus, your body prefers to burn fat for fuel during aerobic exercise (40-85% MHR). Working out at 70-80%? Welcome to the world-famous fat-burning zone[2]. However, given that LISS doesn’t burn as many total calories per minute, this doesn’t make it better than HIIT.

One issue some find with LISS is it’s long. Yes, it burns a decent number of calories, but because it’s low intensity, they take longer to rack up. Another issue facing LISS is extended endurance exercise can promote muscle loss[3] too.

HIIT – High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT is the complete polar opposite of LISS. Forget about meandering down a country road on your bike, clip in and get ready for back-to-back sprints.

High intensity interval training is exactly what it says. Intense bursts of exercise (80+%) followed by a low-activity recovery time. The stopwatch blares, you hit it hard. It chimes again, you stop and recover.

One of HIITS biggest appeals is that it’s efficient. An average workout takes between 10-30 minutes, simultaneously burning 25-30% more calories than other types of exercise[4].

New research from Britain also suggests running sprints are far more effective for weight loss than traditional LISS (<10 MPH)[5]. According to the study, all genders can benefit from HIIT, no matter what age or weight they start from.

Interval training doesn’t just have to be on food either. You can take any type of cardio and turn it into a high-powered HIIT workout. All you need is a stopwatch, enough drive to push the pace, and an exercise that’s tailored to your needs.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t point out why some people don’t like HIIT. Firstly, it’s high intensity, meaning you’re going to get out of breath. And secondly, it can be high impact if you’re using exercises like sprints, which means you might need to alter exercises. Running, for example, can be swapped for rowing.

HIIT can be extremely taxing on the body. Recover well and come back to every workout stronger.

Cardio training for weight loss

Cardio is an effective weight-loss tool providing one thing – you’re in a calorie deficit.

A calorie deficit is when there’s a negative balance between the calories you eat, and the ones you use. The calories coming into your body are lower than the ones going out.

Exercise creates a need for energy. Your body looks to get this energy by either breaking down food calories, or the energy found in body fat. Calories are just a unit of energy – that’s it.

Now, imagine you’re out crushing your cardio workout. Your body is calling for calories and there’s no food from energy spare; what does it do? Start to breakdown body fat.

Unlocking fuel from stored fat cells is the healthiest way to lose weight. Performing the right amount of cardio can help instigate it.  

The most effective fat-burning cardio training exercises

All types of cardio can contribute to fat burning. It’s all about finding the one you enjoy and can commit to consistently.

That being said, some seem to be better than others. Here are the most effective fat-burning cardio training exercises.

1. Running HIIT sprints

Person about to set up in sprinting blocks

No, we’re not being contradictory. The picture we painted at the beginning of this article was you mindlessly running on a never-ending cycle until you dropped. Here, we’re talking HIIT tactics.

Running sprints is one of the best cardio exercises there is. Providing you’re fit and uninjured, they’re perfect for maintaining muscle, torching calories, and blitzing fat stores.

An average sprint session could rinse through a whopping 608 calories every 20 minutes. With totals like that, it doesn’t matter if they don’t hang out in the fat burning zone. You overtook that place a while ago!

Sprints require you to follow a HIIT protocol. So, make sure you go all out for either time or a short distance. A good work:rest ratio to hit is 2:1, which could be you sprinting for 20 seconds and resting for ten. Alternatively, you could try the Tabata protocol, of going 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off.

2. Rowing

Man using row machine to burn fat

Rowing scratches the itch that running just can’t reach. A blend of upper- and lower-body exercise, the row machine provides a great all-over session. You’ve also got a dose of resistance from pull thrown in there too.

Another great pro of the row is its low impact. So, if you’re suffering from a leg injury or sore knees, it offers a great alternative. There’s little to no impact at all during any of the phase, providing you’re strapped in tight.

The trick to rowing well is driving through the legs. Start by leaning forward slightly with your shoulders over your hips. Let your arms stay straight as you drive, swing your back with a braced core, and then pull the handle elbows horizontal and back toward your chest.

An average rowing session can burn between 255-377 calories every 30-minutes. You can even turn sprint rows into a challenging HIIT workout too.

3. Kickboxing

Woman kickboxing with man

Kick calories with a KO combo by taking up kickboxing. Your body fat won’t know what’s hit it.

Kickboxing is a full-body attack. Deliver a quick one-two engages everything from your calves and glutes, right through to your core, back and shoulders. When it comes to kicking ass – no muscle gets out untouched.

Plus, one of the great things about martial arts is it’s a great way to let out stress. If you’re carrying a little extra tension, it’s one of the safest and healthiest ways to release it. Reducing stress could also help you to lose fat too by reducing cortisol. Yes, being wound too tight can contribute to weight gain too.  

We’d recommend you don’t try to go alone with this one. Sign up to a class and take a friend along to train with. What’s more, you could both burn a blazing 750-900 calories in a single hour-long session.

4. Cycling  

Two women cycling for fat loss

Cycling uses most of the same muscles as running, without the jarring impact. So, if you’re interested in saving your joints or a little overweight, it could be for you.

Plus, you can either hit the road rolling or hide from the elements inside. Cycling can be done out in the open on a bicycle or inside on a stationary bike, making it incredibly versatile. One day you could be braving the elements, the next you could be home and dry away from the drizzle.

Another positive about cycling is you can change the resistance. As a result, it can be great for HIIT style sprints, or emulating varying inclines. You can also tailor the intensity to suit your personal fitness level.

An average pedal pushing hour could cost you 600 calories. Naturally, taking your intensity up a gear could burn through even more.

5. Kettlebell swings

Man performing kettlebell swing to burn fat

Time strapped but raring to go? Meet the kettlebell – a cannonball handle combo that’ll get you lean in twenty.

Our only cardio strength training hybrid on the list, kettlebell swings are a full body endeavor. Studies show they can attack fat from all angles and are especially effective for HIIT[6][7][8]. According to one of these studies, completing Tabata rounds of kettlebell swings crushes calories like nothing else[9]. You could wipe out 800 – 1200 in just one hour.

If all that wasn’t enough to get you grabbing the handle by both horns, they’re low impact and joint-friendly too. Plus, because kettlebell swings are a weighted full-body exercise, they’re incredible at building muscle. You might also find them easier to master than other strength moves.

Given that muscle has higher energy demands than fat, you can even boost your metabolism burn just by bulking up. We weren’t joking when we said swings come at you from all angles.

6. Climbing stairs

People running stairs to burn fat

Climbing stairs isn’t an easy feat – no matter how fit you are. But the calorie burning benefits far outweigh the blazing acid build-up.

One of the best things about climbing stairs is it’s an instant reward. Even trekking up at a slow and steady pace could burn three times as many calories as walking on a flat pavement[10]. So, you don’t need to move like Rocky to hike up your energy burn. 

Another reason to take the stairs is they’re low impact. Running or jogging when overweight isn’t great for your knees or back, whereas committing to an ascent can be more forgiving. You’ll also get an extra strength workout too, as you power from one step to the next.

Even if you’re in good shape, the stairs always present a challenge. Skip a step to lengthen your stride or create footwork combinations for running up them. There’s a reason stair climbing is a favorite among college athletes and professionals alike.

An average person can burn around 285 in half an hour from climbing stairs. But you can go above and beyond that by stepping up your intensity.

7.  Versa Climber

Man fat-burning using versa climber
Image: @VersaClimber

From ascending stairs, to climbing mountains. Well, strange metallic structures that replicate an almost vertical rockface.

If you exercised in the 80s, you’d have seen the Versa Climber at its peak. But unlike the perms and moustaches, this retro cardio machine is making a big comeback.

To use the Versa Climber you strap in your feet, grab the handles, and go! It only moves as fast as you do, so how hard you go is down to you. As your feet move up and down, your arms pull and push in a cross-body motion, just like climbing. One leg steps down, the opposite arm reaches up.

An average half-hour Versa Climber session could crush between 600 – 800 calories. The king himself LeBron James is a huge fan too, saying that if he ever had to choose just one training tool, this crazy machine would be it. There aren’t many men much leaner than LeBron – think about it.

If you’re ready for a challenge, try a Versa Climber class at your gym. Alternatively, use a mixture of short and long strokes to vary your very own workout.

8. Jumping Rope

jumping rope as a form of fat-burning cardio exercise

Jumping rope never goes out of style. It’s also one of the most convenient full body workouts around.

Bouncing on your toes and letting a rope wheel under your feet is so simple. Yet, it’s a great way to tone your calves, strengthen your core, and shape those shoulders. Given that every bound has you actively propelling your body skyward while spinning the rope, it’s also a real calorie crusher.

An average 150 lbs. person can tally up 200 burned calories in just 20 minutes. Bigger skippers should rack up more, because of their higher energy demands from moving a heavier frame. How much fuel you torch can be down to intensity too – pushing the pace always trumps slow and steady when time is matched.

Training exercise guidelines

The trick to turning cardio into a fat burning tool is starting gradually. You should definitely take it steady at the beginning too if you’re obese or overweight. See your training like a long-term project; ramping up to the hard stuff over weeks or months won’t hold you back. If anything, it’ll add to your longevity.

You should also wear a heartrate monitor if you have one. Hitting the sweet spot for a HIIT workout or maintaining moderate intensity is much easier when you’re monitoring. If you don’t want to or can’t, gauge how hard you’re working out of ten. Actively think about your RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion).

One last thing before you go, don’t overdo it. There is a point of diminishing returns when overtraining slows down your metabolism, makes you ill, and hits the brakes on fat loss. Try not to extend sessions over an hour unless you’re training for a specific sport or just enjoy long bike rides. A short workout between 20-45 minutes is enough to make an impact without overdoing it.

The Final Word

Now you’ll never get tired of those two-hour treadmill sessions again. In fact, just forget them completely – there’s a new army of fat-fighters in town.

Add any of these eight cardio exercises and rejuvenate your fat burning regime instantly. You can hit the easy ones right off the bat, but some might require an expert’s eye to guide you. We’d recommend hiring a trainer if you truly want to master your cardio craft.

You don’t have to just stop at our suggestions either. Flex your creative muscle and see what other exercises you can do. We’ve just picked out eight of the best, not all of them.


[1] https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf

[2] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-intensity/art-20046887?pg=2

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4792989/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25162652

[5] https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2019/01/23/bjsports-2018-099928

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4831858/

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20300022

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24345977

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4831858/

[10] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/walking-your-steps-to-health

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