No one heads into the gym thinking, “how few calories can I burn today?” Nope, we want the maximum burn from every rep and bead of sweat.
To make that happen, you have to tune into two important exercise factors: the number of muscle fibers used and the intensity to which you work them, says Gavin McHale, a Winnipeg-based kinesiologist and certified exercise physiologist. After all, calories are nothing more than energy. So, if you work more muscles, and work them hard, you are going to churn through more energy.
Even better, exercise intensity is the main driver of excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. Commonly called “the after-burn,” EPOC refers to the number of calories you burn after you leave the gym as your body works to recover by lowering your body temperature, repairing muscles, and flushing metabolic byproducts from your system.
These five exercises are the perfect combination of both muscle recruitment and intensity, helping you to burn the max number of calories possible. That said, we don’t recommend performing them all in a row. They are all doozies on their own, so packing them all into one workout could wipe you out more than we want—and potentially lead to injury, says McHale.
Instead, try integrating one or two of these moves into each of your workouts. Ideally, you should perform them near the beginning of your workout, after your warm up, when your muscles are fresh and you’re ready to hit it hard.
1. Kettlebell Swing
“Kettlebell swings are one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises,” McHale says. “A perfect combination of strength and cardio, these will fry anyone’s posterior chain [think glutes, hammies, and lowback] and lungs when done correctly.” According to research from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, a high-intensity kettlebell workout can burn up to 20.2 calories per minute—that’s roughly the equivalent of running a ridiculously fast six-minute mile.
Instructions: Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and grab a kettlebell with your palms facing into your body. From here, push your hips back and bend your knees just slightly (most people bent their knees too much; this is not a squat) so that the kettlebell swings back behind your legs. Immediately squeeze your glutes and thrust your hips forward to stand up, sending the kettlebell directly in front of your chest until the handles parallel to the floor.
Get more burn: Swing the kettlebell using your glutes, not your arms. Choose a weight that allows you to perform 12 to 25 reps with proper form, McHale says. As soon as you catch your breath, start your next set. Perform two to four sets.
2. Turkish Get-Up
Another kettlebell staple, this exercise burns a ridiculous amount of calories because it literally works every muscle in your body, McHale says. And, for an exercise that’s just “getting up off of the floor,” it’s incredibly taxing.
Instructions: Lie flat on your back on the floor and hold a kettlebell by the handle with your right hand. Fully extend your arm toward the ceiling so the kettlebell is directly over your shoulder. Bend your right knee to place your right foot flat on the floor.
From here, lift your torso up onto your left elbow and then onto your left hand, your right shoulder pushing up off of the floor. Lift your hips off of the floor so that your body forms a straight line from left foot to right shoulder, and then swing your left leg under your body.
Raise your torso that it is vertical, the kettlebell still over your right shoulder, and you are in a half-kneeling position. Extend your legs to step your rear leg forward. Reverse the movement to return to start.
Confused? Check out this video:
Get more burn: Get the exercise steps down pat (this one is complicated!) before introducing the kettlebell. Then, it’s time to go heavy with the weight (not so heavy that you risk dropping it on your head) and perform two to four sets of two to four reps per side, McHale suggests.
Kettlebells are great. But sometimes, your own body weight is all you need to torch calories. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that pull-ups burn an average of 9.95 calories per minute (granted you perform 10 reps in a minute). By using your own body weight, the pull-up hammers your lats (the largest muscle group in your upper body)along with your shoulders, biceps, and core, for a nice caloric burn. “Also, having the arms in an overhead position ramps up the heart rate, which is great if you’re hoping to burn calories, McHale says.
Instructions: Stand in front of pull-up bar, and grab the bar with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Brace your core like you are about to get punched in the gut, then pull your shoulder blades together and bend your elbows to pull your body up to the bar. When your collarbones reach the bar, pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
Get more burn: A lot of exercisers can’t do multiple (or even a single) unassisted pull-ups. If that’s you, don’t worry; the less skilled your body is at a certain move, the more calories you’ll burn with each rep. Try performing pull-ups (aim for three sets of 10 reps) using an assisted pull-up machine, or with an exercise band wrapped around the bar and strung around your knees. Just don’t “drop” on the eccentric portion. Lower back down to the starting position slowly for an increased burn.
Related: The Right Way To Do A Lat Pulldown
4. Conventional Deadlift
“Because you can load these up with weight and they require input from so many major and meaty muscle groups, deadlifts are an excellent way to burn more calories both during and after a workout,” McHale says. Expect to feel the burn through your glutes, lats, quads, hamstrings, and core.
Instructions: Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet hip-width apart. Push your hips back and slightly bend your knees to grab the bar with your hands spaced shoulder-width apart, palms facing your body. (You can also use an alternated grip, one palm facing your body and the other facing away from you.) Your arms should be fully extended, shoulders slightly in front of the bar, with the bar about an inch from your shins. From here, keep your lats tight, thrust your hips forward and straighten your knees until you are fully standing and your hips are extended in front of the rest of your body. The bar should nearly scrape your body throughout the entire movement, and it should hang against the front of your thighs at the top of the movement. Pause, then reverse the movement, making sure not to round your back, to return to start.
Get more burn: Perform three to five sets of three to 10 reps, using an amount of weight that allows you to just eek out your last rep with proper form, McHale says. If you’re using a heavy weight for six or fewer reps, you can rest up to two minutes. Otherwise, keep the rest short, between 30 and 90 seconds.
5. Squat to Press
This move recruits major muscle groups throughout your lower and upper body for the greatest calorie-torching potential, he says. Meanwhile, by including a healthy dose of explosive power, it gives your heart rate a swift kick in the butt.
Instructions: Grab a racked barbell with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width. Position the barbell on the front your shoulders with elbows pointing straight out in front of you and your upper arms parallel to the floor. Bend your hips and knees to lower into a full squat, keeping the bar in line with the center of your feet. Once you reach the bottom of the squat, immediately reverse the movement. As you do so, rotate your arms so that your elbows point toward the floor. Press the bar overhead. Once you reach a full standing position, your arms should be extended straight overhead with the barbell just behind your ears. Lower the bar to your shoulders, then either repeat or return the bar to the power rack for rest.
Get more burn: Start by taking a quick 15- to 30-second break between reps. Then slowly reduce the rest periods until you move immediately from one rep to the next without rest. Perform three to five sets of five to eight reps.