Anyone can Google the average caloric burn for the major forms of exercise and easily discover that on average a person can burn 500 to 700 calories per hour. That research would indicate that on the surface it doesn’t matter whether we are running,, swimming, lifting weights or engaged in some form of high-intensity interval training. We all get the same number of calories burned based on heart rate. If that were the case, then a person could simply pick a random form of exercise and be just as fit as everyone else. We all know that isn’t true. So what’s the reality of caloric burn?
If all we’re doing is measuring caloric burn, then just go get active and you’ll burn calories. Very few people are going to be satisfied with that simple objective. Some want to build physical strength. Others will want to build endurance. Competitors will want to improve performance in their athletic events. Obviously, that list could go on forever, so what I want to talk about today is how to maximize your exercise routine by understanding what processes in the body burn calories.
I spent over two decades of my life running. To be transparent, it was a function of being a member of the United States Army more so than trying to be physically fit in and of itself. I noticed after just a few years that I could run faster, which is a function of performance, and my endurance was greater, which is a function of cardiorespiratory fitness, but I wasn’t any stronger per se. I didn’t really look different. I suppose if I had been a cross-country runner or a sprinter, that exercise would have been a little more meaningful to me personally.
I’ve spent over three decades in martial arts. In the beginning I was uncoordinated and lacked both speed and power. As time went by, my technique improved, which is a function of performance skill. I was able to punch and kick with more power, which is a function of coordination and muscle recruitment more so than an increase in physical strength. Even though we did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups, I never really felt like I gained much physical strength and I didn’t look much different.
Now that I serve as a personal trainer (specializing in strength training) I have seen an increase in muscle mass, as well as muscular endurance. I am now starting to look quite different. The interesting realization is that many weightlifters don’t have a significant increase in body temperature like I had running or training in martial arts. In many cases their bodies never enter a thermogenic state.
So, for the lay person, a thermogenic state is simply where our exercise causes an increase in body temperature. The most obvious sign is in the form of sweat. Another good indicator is an increase in respiration and heart rate. In simple terms, if you’re breathing heavy and sweating you’re probably in a thermogenic state.
As I circle back to strength training, what I have seen in the gym varies from person to person. There are a few who lift weights and at the end of their set continue to perform some sort of intermediate exercise. The guy on the bench press finishes 10 repetitions and then gets up, while his muscles are recuperating, he might include jumping jacks or sit-ups to stay hot. In my experience, most weightlifters allow their bodies to cool down.
If I were to end the article here, a reader might tend to think it’s just better to be a runner or a because bodies stay hot while performing a continuous exercise. If the goal is to burn calories that would make sense. The interesting fact to remember is that as we build muscle, we also increase metabolism. In essence, more muscle means an increase in resting metabolic rate. Most weightlifters understand this even if they don’t enter a thermogenic state in between weightlifting exercises or sets.
What really burns calories? While we’re resting, we’re still pumping blood with our heart and moving air with our lungs, which takes muscle movement of the heart and diaphragm among other things. While we’re resting, we are still digesting food and healing injuries or wounds which take energy (and protein). If we know that about our body, then it makes sense for us to burn more calories when we increase those processes. It also takes energy to regulate (increase) body temperature and sweat.
The balance for general health and fitness is to increase lean muscle mass, cardiorespiratory endurance, and even bone density. The body does this quite naturally when we understand how it functions. Strength training helps us with lean muscle mass and bone density for sure. When we take breaks between sets of body cools down, we lose the thermogenic effect and cardiorespiratory fitness doesn’t yield great improvement.
The solution must be some form of strength, cardio, interval training blend. Typically, a good personal trainer will program routines to fit the needs of the individual. Those programs require specificity in variation, among other things, maintain high results. The following tips can be managed by the individual without personal trainer constantly present.
Strength trainers know this and typically give 2448 hours rest after fully working out a particular muscle group. One day is typically set aside for chest, shoulders, triceps, and another day is set aside for back and biceps. Let’s not forget our favorite…leg day.
Second, we don’t want to burn all the fuel a specific muscle needs for strength training by engaging in intermediate exercises between sets. One example would be choosing not to do push-ups in between sets of bench press. That would defeat the goal of recharging the chest, shoulders and tricep muscles in between sets of bench press. You could perform crunches instead to stay thermogenic.
So, where does running, swimming, biking, and other cardio programs to play? Those are excellent exercises on non–strength training days, or as a fat burner after strength training. Depending on your goals, if losing weight is part of your plan, then 30 to 60 minutes of strength training can burn the carbohydrates and use protein in the body as fuel with the cardio-fitness exercises burning fat for another 30 minutes afterward. It must be in that order to perform strength training with glycogen and cardio training with fats.
Ultimately, we want to increase that lean muscle with strength training, then increase cardiorespiratory fitness with intermediate exercises between sets. Cardio is best performed on the off days or after strength training, which gives us the maximum benefit from thermogenic state.
Curtiss Robinson, MA, NSCA-CPT