If you have a weight loss goal and you’re doing lots of high-intensity exercises (like running, squat jumps, burpees, mountain climbers, and more), then put down your HIIT timer and please read carefully.

Feeling super “beat up,” sweaty, exhausted, or fried after workouts is not a good indicator that you’re using the “right” exercises for weight loss.

Instead, you might just be fatiguing your central nervous system to the max, predisposing yourself to injury, and not setting yourself up for positive body composition change.

When it comes to weight loss, we’ve probably all heard the joke that the best exercise is “one rep of pushing your chair away from the table.”


While nutrition plays an important role in fat loss, I constantly tell my clients that exercise cannot be overlooked.

Research shows that a huge part of weight loss maintenance (i.e., keeping the lost weight off) is exercise. But this doesn’t work for people if – in the process of weight loss – they over-exercise in a way that they can’t possibly keep up long-term. We have to make sure that the habits we’re forming are sustainable.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to share with you three types of exercise that will give you the most bang for your buck over the long haul, so that you don’t have to be chained to a treadmill to keep the weight off once you’ve lost it. These exercises will promote muscle gain and fat loss, while avoiding over-stressing the nervous system and connective tissues in the body.

Here we go!

Exercise #1: Walking

Walking – and other forms of low-intensity cardio movement that you enjoy – are powerful agents of change. Walking seems like such a humble activity, that it’s easily overlooked as an effective fat loss strategy. But it’s incredibly potent.

Because walking is de-stressing, it doesn’t place the same tax on the body for recovery that running does. This means that you can do more of it without predisposing yourself to injury, excessive food cravings, hormonal imbalances, or to weight loss plateaus. But it has many of the benefits of harder cardio, like improved blood sugar.

Plus, walking is something that most people generally enjoy. It’s something that’s often easy to organically weave into daily life. It doesn’t require special equipment or gear. It can be done in many different situations.

I highly recommend walking 30 minutes per day.

Exercise #2: Compound Lifts Like Squats

Heavy (or heavier) compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, bench presses, and push-ups test your maximal strength. When you do an exercise that pushes you to the edge for a short amount of time (for just 3-5 reps, for example), your body releases hormones that encourage you to burn belly fat.

The definition of a “compound” lift is one that uses several different muscle groups / joint areas. These exercises engage your whole body, even if you’re apparently only working one part of your body. For example, when you do a squat, you’re not just working your legs – your hips, knees, and ankles all move in tandem, and your core has to maintain good posture. The heavier the load you place on yourself during the squat, the harder all these muscles have to work.

This is good, because if you have a weight loss goal, you definitely want lots of large muscle groups working hard when you lift weights. Big muscles like the glutes (butt) and quads (fronts of legs) and lats (upper back) expend a lot of energy during heavy lifts. Doing bicep curls simply can’t compare.

This doesn’t mean you can’t work out at home with dumbbells – but I recommend buying dumbbells or kettlebells that are heavy enough to provide this stimulus.

By lifting weights outside your comfort zone but not totally zapping your endurance/control, you can effectively harness your body’s willingness to build muscle and burn fat.

Exercise #3: Single Leg Exercises

Finally, the third type of movement I would emphasize in a fat loss program is single-leg work.

To piggy-back on the previous point, we get more metabolic bang for our buck when large muscle groups are utilized. You don’t necessarily need to exercise until you’re completely exhausted, but it helps with weight loss if larger muscles are being pushed. Single leg exercises are absolute gold for this, because they split up which leg is handling the weight/challenge, and makes those big muscle groups like glutes and quads work almost twice as hard.

Weighted exercises like lunges, splits squats, Bulgarian split squats, side squats, curtsey lunges, pistol squats, skater squats, and more all deliver a tremendous challenge to the body and pay noticeable dividends in body composition.

Plus, single leg exercises are very practical for home workouts, where your equipment might be more limited.

How to Apply This

An example workout could look like this:

  • Compound Lift: Barbell (or heavy dumbbell/kettlebell) squats – 3-4 sets of 5 reps (after warmup sets)
  • Single Leg Exercise: Alternating side squats – 3-4 sets of 8 reps/side
  • (a few more exercises like rows, chest presses, leg extensions, etc., all in the 8-15 rep range)
  • Walking: Finish with 20 minutes of very high incline walking

Of course, the secret ingredient is consistency and repetition.

A Word of Advice

If you’re aiming for weight loss and you’re making the wise decision to incorporate exercise into your efforts, I can’t recommend highly enough that you loosen your expectations of specific weight loss goals.

I frequently talk about this with clients – what we want is more muscle, less fat, better function, and improved health. There is no magic to achieving a highly specific number on the scale.

It is better to lose a modest amount of weight and keep it off, than to lose an aggressive amount of weight and struggle to maintain your new weight.

If you strength train at least twice a week (but more like 3-4 times a week regularly), walk daily, improve your eating habits, and straighten out self-care routines like sleep and de-stressing, your body will likely settle at a weight that is ideal for you.

Want to read more about designing workouts that work? Check out this blog post for more ideas.

You can also get in touch to talk through what you’re currently doing with your exercise and what plan would be ideal for your goals.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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