One of the most disappointing feelings is going to a class or the gym and feeling like you didn't get your best workout. Why bother, right? So how do you make the most of your exercise time — and make sure you're burning as many calories as possible?
We called on our expert exercise scientist Nicole Aurigemma, M.S. physiology at Women's Health and Exercise Lab at Penn State, to give us some tips for making our workouts even more effective for calorie burning. Her tips? Coffee, leg work, weights first, and group fitness. Here's why!
1. Drink Caffeine Beforehand
Did you know that caffeine can be a serious performance enhancer — and can help you burn more calories? "Both coffee and green tea contain bioactive compounds (coffee has caffeine and green tea has polyphenolic catechins like epigallocatechin gallate), which have been shown to increase metabolic rate and fat oxidation, which leads to an overall increase in energy expenditure — meaning more calories are burned — at rest and after exercise," said Nicole.
This caffeine essentially can help you burn through fat stores and use more calories. "Catechins [found in tea] increase fat oxidation through the upregulation (or, increased production) of lipid-metabolizing enzymes (these are special proteins that help start the reaction to break down fat for fuel)."
Nicole also told us that caffeine can also help nourish your muscles by allowing for more oxygen-rich blood to be delivered to working muscles, meaning your pre-workout coffee is actually helping your workout.
But there's a small catch, she said. "Do not consume protein at the same time as drinking tea, because they can react and form protein-polyphenol complexes that reduce the absorption of these beneficial metabolites." In plain English, protein and tea together decrease the good effects of caffeine.
She also noted that "if you habitually consume caffeinated drinks (more than 300 milligrams of caffeine per day), this could counteract these positive effects," as well.
2. Focus on Big Muscle Groups
Leg day is more important than you think! Big muscles need big energy, and they use up a lot of calories when you're using them. "Large muscles are not only made up of more muscle fibers, the muscle fibers are also longer — therefore, they contain more energy-dependent contractile units," said Nicole. When strength training, be sure to focus on the largest muscle groups in the body: the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
This is good news for your metabolism, and your body's natural protein production. "You actually creating more protein up to 24 hours after lifting, but the process of creating protein requires energy as well [meaning calories need to be burned], so your metabolism is certainly going to be ramped up," she explained.
It's a good idea to add some lower-body work into your workouts. "By targeting the larger muscle groups through squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc., you are using more energy stores to fuel the movements, therefore burning more than if you targeted smaller muscle groups."
3. But First, Weights (Then LISS Cardio)
Because each exercise affects your cells and your metabolism differently, the order of your exercise is important. Nicole notes that weight should be done first. "Weight lifting and resistance training utilizes anaerobic glycolysis to fuel quick, explosive movements," she said (don't worry, she'll explain). "This means your muscles will be primarily fueled by free glucose and intramuscular glycogen stores — carbohydrates."
"After a good lifting session, you should theoretically use up a majority of those glycogen (carbohydrate) stores," she said. "This is a great time to do some low-intensity jogging or cycling — low-intensity exercise primarily uses fat as energy, and you can start breaking down intramuscular fat and visceral (the fat around your belly)." Yay for breaking down belly fat!
This means more calorie burning! "Remember that protein synthesis is ramped up significantly four hours after your resistance exercise, and it's maintained up to 24 hours — because energy is necessary to support protein synthesis, you will continue burn calories even after exercise. Just remember to refuel!"
4. Do a Group Fitness Class
Apparently group fitness classes are more than just fun — they're super effective. "Research from Penn State University in partnership with Les Mills International demonstrated that a 30-week group exercise program resulted in not only decreased body fat, cholesterol and depression in participants, but also lead to increases in lean body mass (fat-free muscle mass)," said Nicole.