When you think about burning calories, you probably think about burning calories during your workouts—like while you’re on the treadmill or under the squat rack.
Depending on your workout, however, you also continue to burn calories after you leave the gym—especially important if you’re trying to shed fat. These calories, which you’ve probably heard referred to as the ‘after-burn,’ come from excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC.
EPOC, simply put, is the amount of oxygen (and therefore calories) that your body churns through after your workout to restore your body to its previous state. Your body uses this post-exercise oxygen to restore the glycogen (energy) in your muscles, lower your body temp, and repair damage to your muscles, says Pam Geisel, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery’s Tisch Sports Performance Center in New York City. EPOC gives your metabolism gets a nice little boost, which can last anywhere from three to 24 hours after you leave the gym.
The Higher Your Intensity, The Higher Your EPOC
To really ramp up your EPOC, how hard you work out is more important than how long you work out for and what type of exercise you choose.
For instance, according to one 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when guys performed sprints and other high-intensity intervals, they burned 110 and 82.5 calories in the three hours after their workouts, respectively. Meanwhile, when they performed longer bouts of steady-state cardio, they burned just 64 calories in the three hours afterward.
“Think of intense exercise like trashing a hotel room and jogging like dropping the TV remote on the floor,” says Anna Swisher, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., director of education and performance at Eleiko. “It will take hours to repair the whole hotel room, but just a few seconds to pick up the remote. More damage takes more energy to clean up.”
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While your age, sex, and fitness level do affect how long your after-burn lasts, exercise intensity is still your best tool for maxing it out. Incorporate these six must-try strategies into your workout plan to really ‘trash the hotel room.’ (Just take it slow if you’re used to lower-intensity, steady-state exercise, and think about ramping up bit by bit from week to week.)
1. Focus On Your Body’s Biggest Muscles
Moves that work larger muscles, like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and pullups, require more energy to perform and create a greater EPOC compared to moves that hit just one or two smaller muscles, like bicep curls, Swisher says. So focus your strength training efforts on these large compound moves as much as possible.
One Sports Medicine review found that when exercisers performed three sets of eight moves with 80 to 90 percent of their 1RM (one-rep max, or the most weight they could lift for a single rep), they had significantly greater EPOC compared to when they performed four sets of eight moves with 50 percent of their 1RM.
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What that means for you: When performing these big lifts, make sure you’re picking up something (really) heavy, Swisher says. You should only be able to pull off four to eight reps per set.
3. Perform Isolation Moves As Supersets
Isolation work—like bicep curls and tricep extensions—can still have a place in your routine. To reap the most EPOC benefit, save them for the second half of your workouts, after you’ve given your more demanding lifts your all. Superset moves that work opposing muscle groups and perform them back-to-back, with no rest in between, to up the intensity, suggests Geisel. (Since isolation moves tend to put all their stress on one joint, use a weight light enough that you can perform more than six reps.)
4. Slow Down Your Lifts
Performing strength exercises slowly and under control cuts down on how much momentum you use and increases the demand placed on your muscles to boost your after-burn. Eccentric movements (a.k.a. the lowering or ‘negative’ part of a move) cause greater muscle damage, and can increase both the intensity and duration of your EPOC, according to one ISRN Physiology review. Pay special attention to slowing down the eccentric phase—like lowering into a squat or raising the lat pulldown bar back to start—of each exercise.
5. Increase Cardio Speed And Resistance
If you’re more into cardio than weights, swap your regular steady-state jogs for all-out sprints or turn the nob on your spin bike way to the right. Doing so increases the resistance against which your muscles have to work—and how hard your body will have to work to recover, Geisel says.
6. Cut Back On Rest Intervals
Whether you’re a lifting lover or a cardio bunny, reducing the amount of time that you rest between sets and sprints ups how hard your anaerobic energy systems have to work to fuel your workouts, Geisel says. As a general rule, your rest periods should be just long enough that you’re able to give each set or sprint your all while maintaining proper form, she says. Any longer and you’re limiting your EPOC potential.