Everyone is looking to get shredded for the summer—but many of us dread the thought of slaving away on the dreadmill, er, treadmill.
So what’s an abs-seeker to do? To find out, we tapped three diet, fitness, and weight-loss experts for their insight on getting lean without going cardio-crazy.
1. Do Heavy Total-Body Strength Circuits
Good news for cardio-haters: Strength training is better for achieving fat loss than is cardio is. That’s because, even though cardio tends to burn more calories in the gym, strength training increases the number of calories your body burns while recovering from your workout throughout the rest of the day, explains says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., registered dietitian, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in NYC. Plus, increasing muscle mass can increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the number of calories your churn through just to stay alive.
Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted
Still, when it comes to leaning out, some forms of strength training are better than others. Ideally, your sessions should involve lifting heavy, using your whole body, and taking as little rest as possible (without breaking form, of course), explains SoCal-based trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. That combo ensures you build the most lean muscle possible while also burning the most calories during your sweat sessions. Win-win. To make all three work at once, he recommends following his personal strength-training setup.
- One set of a big, compound lift, such as a squat, deadlift, bench press, or pull-up with a heavy load. Select a weight you can lift for six reps, max.
- One set of another compound lift (that works a different muscle group) with a medium-to-light load. Select a weight you can lift for 10 to 12 reps.
- One set of an isolation exercise, such as a bicep curl, triceps extension, or calf raise with a medium-to-heavy load. Select a weight you can lift for eight to 12 reps.
- One set of a bodyweight core exercise. Perform until fatigue.
- Rest for 30 to 90 seconds, and then repeat for a total of three to five rounds.
2. Cut Calories—Mostly from Refined Carbs
There’s no way around it: Leaning out requires a caloric deficit—burning more calories than you take in per day. However, when it comes to calories, most people don’t overdo it on protein (more on that next!) or even fat. That leaves one culprit: carbohydrates.
While they can and should be part of your daily diet, most people eat way more carbs— typically from refined foods such as white bread and pasta, cookies, and chips—than they need, which accounts for most of the excess fat on their frames, Matheny says. The current recommended daily allowance of carbs, which pinpoints the minimal amount that the average person needs for proper brain, central nervous system, and red blood cell function (with a little wiggle room for safe measure) is 130 grams per day. Aim for whole, natural carb sources such as fruit, veggies, and whole grains like oats and barley.
However, on days that you push it hard in the gym, you’ll need more carbs to power your workouts and fuel muscle recovery. As a general rule, high-intensity exercise burns through roughly 60 grams of carbs per hour. So on those intense exercise days, eat an extra 30 grams as part of both your pre- and post-workout snack. Consider it a mini form of carb cycling.
3. Eat More Protein
When people lose weight, they tend to lose not just fat, but muscle, too. Ideally, though, you want to lose fat while gaining metabolism-revving muscle, Spencer Nadolsky, D.O., a board-certified family and bariatric physician, diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, and author of The Fat Loss Prescription. To make that happen, you’re going to need to increase your protein intake, he says. Nadolsky recommends most people trying to lean out get roughly 30 percent of their daily calories from protein. (FYI, protein contains four calories per gram so, if you are eating 1,400 total calories per day, that works out to 105 grams of protein.)
Meanwhile, a 2015 review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that getting 25 to 35 grams of protein at every snack and meal is optimal for muscle-building.
4. Boost Your NEAT
One reason why cardio bunnies claim steady-state cardio is so great is because it puts you in the “fat-burning zone,” which is when your body burns a higher percentage of its calories from fat compared to carbs during low-intensity exercise.
Good news: You don’t have to climb an elliptical to burn fat grams.
Low-intensity daily activities—from walking to the supermarket instead of ordering groceries online to taking the stairs instead of the escalator—all count toward your fat-burning efforts, Nadolsky says. After all, the lower your activity’s intensity, the greater the percentage of your calories burned will be from fat. (Fun fact: You burn the greatest percentage of your calories from fat when you’re sleeping!)
In fact, these everyday activities, collectively known as “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” or NEAT, account for six to 10 percent of the total number of calories sedentary adults burn on any given day, according to German researchers. Meanwhile, they account for more than half of the daily calories burned by super-active adults. To lean out, you need to join the second group.
Try simple swaps such as parking at the far end of the parking lot, breaking up long hours hunched over a computer with stretch breaks, and trying to get in more steps than you did last week.
And, according to recent research out of New Zealand, walking for 10 minutes immediately after each meal is better for regulating blood sugar and insulin levels than one 30-minute walk at another time of day. Which is why one of Nadolsky’s favorite ways to get moving outside of the gym is with post-meal walks.