6 Great Exercises for Losing Fat and Building Strength

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The old conundrum: fat loss or strength gain? Do you want to get stronger or lose inches? How about both! Fitness doesn’t have to be a trade-off between Lifting and Cardio or between Strength and Fat Loss. Here’s the count down of my top 6 exercises for muscle gain and fat loss!

These moves were chosen because they burn a lot of calories and build a lot of lean muscle mass when done properly. Any movements which mimic these will likely result in the same types of gains, so long as your body is doing the work (and not a machine or other assistance apparatus). You could easily build a workout plan which just used these movements and see tremendous gains!


6. Hanging Knee Raises

Hanging Knee Raises

These are great for the core and upper body. Hanging forces you to use more support muscles to complete the tucking motion. The trick is to minimize the amount of swing you do to complete the motion, that way your abs are truly the prime mover.

How To: Hang from a sturdy bar/support at full extension with arms and legs straight. With slow control, lift your knees as high as they will go and tuck towards your chest. Flex your abs hard to bring the legs in tight. Slowly lower back to extension.

Progression: Work on keeping the legs as straight as possible while still lifting the knees as high above the plane of the hips as you can. When the feet are further from the body, it becomes more difficult to lift the legs and thus works the core more thoroughly.


5. Mountain Climbers

Mountain Climbers

This is another combination workout involving the core and upper body. Much like the hanging knee/leg raise, you start extended and contract your abs to bring the knees into the chest. The major difference is that with mountain climbers you are doing one leg at a time while the rest of your body supports a push-up plank. Instead of working the “pulling” muscle set in the hang, you’re working the “pushing” muscle set in the plank.

How To: Get down into a push-up position, arms and legs locked straight. Elevate your hips slightly, and tighten your abs/back. Bring one leg forward until your knee touches your chest, then reverse and repeat with the opposite knee. These can be done pretty quickly once you’ve practiced the motion, and are a great cardio workout.

Progression: In addition to adding speed, you can add a few bonus motions:

  • On the contraction, twist your hips so that the knee travels under the body and towards the opposite side. This hits your obliques and main abs even more.
  • Slow down the motion a bit. Now, when you bring up your knee, lift the opposite side hand off the floor to really challenge your core stability. Once you master this, start making it faster!
  • After every two reps, add a push-up.
  • Lift one hand off the floor and stabilize on one arm throughout the motion. Work both sides equally.

4. Push-ups

Close Grip Push-ups

If you tell someone you workout, one of the first questions out of their mouth will probably be “how many push-ups can you do?” These have survived as the quintessential test of fitness for so long because in order to be good at them you need to have a certain amount of strength in most of the body. Get good at push-ups and you’ll get better at almost everything else!

How To: Start with your hands and feet on the floor with the body suspended in a plank. Your hands should be directly beneath your shoulders. Contract your abs, back, and butt so that your core remains tight throughout the whole motion. Bend your elbows so that your arms track back towards your hips, keeping them tight in towards your ribs, until your chest touches the floor. Push hard and return to the top plank position. There is no reason – other than bad form – for your stomach/hips to touch the floor before your chest.

Note: I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, that “Girl Push-ups” aren’t a thing. Women can – and should – do regular push-ups and strive for perfect form just like men. If you think women can’t do regular push-ups, come on in and meet some of our ladies at CrossFit Catonsville who do them with 45lbs weights on their back with excellent form!

Progression:

  • If you can’t yet do one good push-up, you can start building strength by doing only the lowering portion with good form. Start as normal, and then extend the lowering phase so that it takes 4-5 full seconds of good control to go from top to bottom. These are called Negatives. Every set, try to do one good push-up (or more!) and then finish with Negatives.
  • If you’re hitting negatives without issue but can’t seem to make the leap to push-ups with good form, you can elevate your hands to reduce the weight on your torso. Perform the push-up as normal, except elevated, and slowly reduce the elevation over a few weeks until you are back to the floor.
  • For added challenge, increase the weight on your torso with weight vests or weight plates balanced on your shoulders.
  • If you don’t have weights, you can also elevate your feet which will place more of your body weight onto your arms/chest. You can progress this all way to handstand push-ups!

3. Squats

Balanced Squat

When you do a good squat you work the legs and core simultaneously. Since your legs are such a powerhouse of muscle, and since muscle requires more calories to maintain, it follows that building more lean mass in your legs will be a great way to maintain a leaner physique.

QED: When in doubt, squat it out!

How To: Begin standing, with your feet about shoulder width apart, feet pointing forward, and core tight (abs, back, glutes). Push the hips back and down, as though you’re trying to sit on a low stool without falling forward. Keep your weight in your heels, and as you go down don’t let your knees track past your toes. Keep the torso upright. Once your hips go down past your knees, push with your legs to return to the starting position.

The picture to the side shows a side view of Knee Dominant (KD), Hip Dominant (HD), and Balanced (BL) squats. KD squats have the knees tracking past the toes causing a forward lean and, often, the weight to shift onto the toes. These can be bad for your knees. HD squats have the hips tracking too far back, usually causing the torso to bend forward towards the floor and lose core tightness. These can be bad for your back. The balanced squat is the happy medium wherein your knees bend at a healthy angle while also keeping your core engaged and your weight centered in your heels.

Progression:

  • More, faster! Increase reps and speed of completion, all while focusing on good form for every rep.
  • Add weight. Some examples include holding gallons of water or kettlebells to your chest (goblet squats), placing a loaded Olympic bar across your shoulders (back squats, front squats), or holding a medicine ball above your head.
  • Add a jump after every squat, which builds explosive strength in the legs. Progress to higher jumps as you get stronger.

2. Sprint / HIIT

Olympians Sprinting

Have you looked at Olympic-level sprinters? They’re solidly built with strong, lean mass and it’s basically all from sprint-style workouts. Also called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), these workouts focus on putting out maximum effort over a short period of time (usually less than 45 seconds). This style has many benefits, including improving short term cardio, improving long term cardio, increasing strength, and burning a ton of calories.

How To/Progression: You can do HIIT training with just about any movement; the secret is to maintain good form for the duration of the workout. Some examples include:

  • Running: Jog for 50 seconds, sprint for 10 seconds at your maximal speed, then drop back to a jog. Repeat for 4+ cycles. As you progress, reduce the recovery time between sprints and increase the time spent sprinting.
  • Bodyweight Movements: Pick a movement – e.g. sit-ups – and do as many reps as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat for 4 minutes total. You can do this for any movement which can be started/stopped without injury within 1-2 seconds. Progress by increasing work time per set. Try not to drop rest time lower than 10 seconds; with longer work periods you will likely need higher rest periods as well. A good general rule is rest half as much as you work. A 40/20 (work/rest) split can be very challenging.
  • You can also make this process a little more dynamic by varying the work/rest cycles during a single workout. For instance with running, you could have a person time you and call out sprint/rest in different intervals, maybe interspersing 50sec/10sec with splits of 30sec/30sec or 40sec/20sec. This can help force further adaptation and gains.

1. Burpees

Burpees

If you know me, you know I love burpees (no seriously!). As a movement it is an excellent gauge of physical fitness and a fantastic training tool. If I had to do one movement with maybe 2-3 variations for every workout for the rest of my life, it would be the burpee. The movement hits the legs, core, chest, and back in every rep. Add a push-up + jump and you’ve struck exercise gold!

How To: The standard burpee is performed as pictured. Start standing with body full extended upright. Squat and place your hands on the floor, then kick both feet out simultaneously into the top of a push-up position. Jump both feet back into the squat with a big ab contraction, then reverse the squat to standing.

I should preface the next section with the note that I have created several dozen burpee variations of differing difficulties. These are just a few ideas and they can further be combined for added difficulty.

Progression:

  • Add a push-up at the bottom of the movement, after kicking your feet out. This is often shown as part of the standard burpee, but is technically an addition to the original move.
  • Add a small hop to the top of the movement as you come out of the squat. Also usually included as the standard, but also technically an addition. You can progress to bigger jumps as you need to increase the challenge. Jumping over a bar, or onto a box, is a great way to build explosive leg strength and core stability.
  • Add a two-count mountain climber to the bottom
  • Normal burpee, holding a medicine ball.
  • Do a back handspring as part of the standing motion (No, seriously!)

And that’s all I’ve got today. Enjoy!