If you're trying to burn fat, you may have heard that workouts like strength training and cardio can help. Because bodyweight workouts are popular, free, and convenient, we were curious if they could also help burn fat. To find out, POPSUGAR spoke to Heather Milton, MS, RCEP, CSCS, an exercise physiologist clinical specialist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center.
How Your Body Burns Calories
Before we go any further, we're going to quickly touch on how your body burns energy, also known as calories. "Ultimately, the way we burn calories is either breaking down carbohydrates, which would be like glycogen that's stored in our muscles or blood sugar in our bloodstream, or our liver will start to break down our carbohydrate stores in the liver," Heather told POPSUGAR. We know this sounds complicated, but stay with us.
The other way your body burns calories (or energy) is by using fat; this happens when you're doing light to moderate activity or no activity. Every time you move, stand up, go for a walk, and do other activities of daily living, you're switching from using fat as a source of fuel to carbohydrates because of the quick transition. If you maintain light activity, your body will return to using fat as a source of fuel. Heather explained that if you were to sprint down the street, your body would continue using carbohydrates since it's a high-intensity activity that needs fuel quickly. According to Heather, "Our bodies are always using a variety of different types of energy sources," and depending on the intensity of exercise one will be more dominant than the other.
When you do bodyweight exercises, your body will first burn fats if the movements are light/moderate. If you the bodyweight exercise is more intense, you'll end up using more carbs. Once you've finished your exercise and depleted your stores of carbohydrates, your body will replenish those stores (and provide you with energy) by utilizing fat as a source of fuel, she said.
Will Bodyweight Workouts Help You Burn Fat and Lose Weight?
You may be ready to cancel your gym membership and stick to bodyweight workouts, but according to Heather, burning fat is not that simple. Yes, technically your body will burn some fat with bodyweight workouts once your body depletes the stored carbohydrates, but it's not enough to help you lose weight because there isn't enough of a stressor on your muscles and you aren't burning enough calories.
If your goal is to lose weight and you're doing very light bodyweight exercises like air squats and Bird Dog all the time, you more than likely won't burn enough fat to lose weight. This is because your body will have adapted to doing those exercises easily. True beginners may notice a change in their muscles initially, but as you get stronger, bodyweight workouts won't be enough to continue getting stronger and to lose weight.
On the other hand, doing more intense bodyweight exercises like clapping push-ups, tuck jumps, burpees, mountain climbers, and squat jumps will challenge your body more because they're high-intensity movements. As a result, your body will be able to burn enough calories to continue with weight loss, Heather explained.
How to Burn Fat and Build Muscle
In order to burn fat and build muscle, you need progressive overload, Heather explained. Essentially, it's the gradual increase of a stressor or load (weight, for example) that's placed on your body during exercise. For example, a beginner would start with air squats and lunges to strengthen their muscles. Then they would progress to doing the same moves with a light weight and over time increase the stressor (weight) to build muscle.
Yes, bodyweight workouts will technically burn fat, but if your goal is to change your body composition and build muscle, bodyweight workouts alone won't cut it. To get started building muscle, try this four-week strength training program for beginners.