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Calorie Burning: It’s Time To Think “Outside The Box”

Optimize energy expenditure with these 7 programs that burn a lot of calories.

Many people engage in aerobic activities to advance their health status, lessen disease risk, modify body composition, reduce stress and improve cardiovascular fitness.

There are numerous exercise devices and modes to choose from that help them achieve these goals. Fitness professionals and personal trainers are continually seeking new and better programs to help clients attain their aerobic activity goals and maximize the caloric expenditure in their endurance workouts. This article offers multiple calorie-burning program options that exercise specialists can use with their students.

Classification of
Aerobic Exercise Modalities

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM 2006) classifies aerobic exercise modes according to their skill demands. Activities are divided into three groups. Group 1 activities can be readily maintained at a consistent intensity, and energy expenditure does not vary much with skill level. Exercise modes in this group include walking, stationary cycling, running, machine-based stair climbing and elliptical training. Group 2
activities can also provide a constant intensity for a given individual, but the rate of energy expenditure varies a lot depending on the person’s performance ability; a person with higher skill levels can work harder and longer and will consequently burn more calories. Group 2 activities include high-low, step and water aerobics, outdoor cycling, hiking, swimming and inline skating. With Group 3 activities, both intensity and skill are highly variable, and performance demands greatly affect energy expenditure; examples of these activities include basketball, racquet sports and volleyball.

Other factors to consider when selecting a mode of exercise for a client include personal interest, equipment availability, physical needs and injury risk. For long-term cardiovascular health and caloric expenditure, it is practical to select a variety of physical activities and exercise modes that sufficiently stimulate the heart, lungs and muscles.

Exercise Intensity:
Optimizing Energy Expenditure

A major way to maximize energy expenditure is
to vary, and progressively increase, the intensity
of the exercise. (See the sidebars “Measuring Caloric Expenditure” and “Determining Caloric Expenditure During Exercise” for more detailed information about measuring and
determining caloric expenditure during exercise.) It is important to choose a mode of exercise that can be adjusted or graded to overload the cardiorespiratory system. For instance, treadmill walking can be made much more challenging by increasing the grade or speed. Cycling intensity can be made more demanding by increasing the pedaling resistance. In addition, choosing a mode that allows for high-intensity intervals to be rapidly interspersed with low- to moderate-intensity intervals is beneficial and effective.

It may be helpful to
educate clients and students that additional health and
fitness benefits will be attained as the exercise intensity increases (Swain & Franklin 2006). Swain and Franklin conclude that there are greater cardioprotective benefits (lowered risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes and other associated diseases) from higher aerobic exercise intensities than there are from moderate intensities. Practically sp-eaking, Swain and Franklin’s review indicates that introducing a progressive increase in exercise intensity as a client’s fitness level improves is a relevant health-promoting pro-gram design initiative to keep in mind when working with students of all fitness levels.

Upper- and Lower-Body Mode Considerations

Some exercise modes—such as swimming, rowing, simulated skiing and working with some elliptical cross-training products—involve both the upper- and lower-body muscles. Although these types of exercise engage more muscles, they do not necessarily engage as much muscle mass as running, a “lower-body-only” exercise mode, and so will burn fewer calories at a similar level of intensity (Kravitz et al. 1997b).

Some exercisers choose to carry handheld weights in the hope of enhancing energy expenditure when walking or running. Although the use of handheld weights slightly increases the exercise intensity, research reveals that this additional equipment does not elicit greater improvement in overall aerobic capacity (Kravitz et al. 1997a). On the other hand, swimmers, who incur much less pressure on the bones and joints, can exercise for a longer period of time, thus possibly meeting or exceeding the energy expenditure of some higher-intensity workouts. Some “upper- and lower-body” exercise modes, such as simulated skiing, require a fairly proficient skill development phase before the energy expenditure benefits can be fully realized.

Cycling and recumbent cycling are two very popular non-weight-bearing exercise modes, whereas walking and jogging are popular weight-bearing exercises. At the same level of intensity, most people will expend modestly more calories performing a weight-bearing activity (Kravitz et al. 1997b). An additional benefit of weight-bearing exercise is maintaining bone mass and preventing osteoporosis. With cycling and recumbent cycling, however, there is much less trauma to the muscles and joints, and heart rate is generally lower; thus, longer exercise bouts are possible. Alternating weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing activities, as well as “upper- and lower-body” and “lower-body-only” modes, may be the most beneficial strategy for preventing overuse problems, promoting positive health outcomes and motivating clients to adhere to their exercise programs.

7 Programs That Burn a Lot of Calories

There are countless ways to create, modify and combine exercise programs to burn an ample amount of calories. Seven are presented here. For each program presented, personal trainers and other fitness professionals are encouraged to modify the elements appropriately for clients’ fitness levels and specific needs. Workout frequency is not reported, in order to let each exercise professional determine what is suitable for his or her clients. Doing back-to-back, high-intensity workouts during a week of training is not recommended, as that can lead to overtraining and overuse injuries.

To bring together these seven different program ideas, widespread Internet searching in empirical and scientific databases was initially completed using several key words and phrases, such as interval training, high-intensity interval training, supramaximal interval training, best calorie-burning workouts, endurance training, optimal cardiovascular exercise workouts, excess postexercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), maximizing oxygen consumption and more.

High-intensity aerobic interval training (popularly known as HIT or HIIT) is described as a compromise between sustained moderate-intensity training (MIT) and sprint interval training (SIT).

Program 1: High-Intensity
Aerobic Interval Training

Study: Perry et al. 2008.

Protocol: Study subjects completed 10 exercise intervals lasting 4 minutes, interspersed with 2-minute exercise-free rest intervals.

Intensity: Subjects were at 95% of their actual heart rate max during the 4-minute intervals, which would be analogous to 17–18 on the RPE scale.

Mode: Most exercise modes can be used for this program.

Duration: This total workout takes close to 1 hour to complete.

Comments: Perry and colleagues demonstrated that this HIT program resulted in significant whole-body and skeletal muscle capacities to oxidize (burn) fat and carbohydrate in previously trained individuals. Other recent research with a similar protocol has shown very similar results (Talanian et al. 2007). During the 2-minute rest period, light exercise (as opposed to passive rest) may be a preferred option to consider. Modify intensity appropriately for clients.

Traditional circuit training programs incorporate 9–12 exercise stations per circuit. Participants move from one station to the next with little (15–30 seconds) or no rest, performing a 15- to 45-second work bout of 8–20 repetitions at each station. Resistances range from 40% to 60% of one-repetition maximum (1–RM).

Program 2: High-Volume Continuous Circuit Resistance Training

Study: Gotchalk, Berger & Kraemer 2004.

Protocol: In the study, the circuit consisted of 10 repetitions of the following: leg press, bench press, leg curl, latissimus pull-down, arm curl, seated shoulder press, triceps push-down, upright row, leg extension and seated row. Subjects completed 5 circuits. All repetitions were performed at a cadence of 40 reps per minute, with 2- to 5-second rests between exercises (the time needed to move quickly to the next station).

Intensity: Subjects trained at 40% of their 1-RM, analogous to training at a light to moderate perceived intensity level for each exercise.

Mode: This workout can be performed on most exercise equipment available in a weight training facility.

Duration: The total workout takes approximately 17–20 minutes to complete.

Comments: In designing high-volume continuous circuit resistance training programs, alternate upper- and lower-body joint actions to provide an optimal muscle recovery in this swiftly moving program. Since the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale is not defined for resistance training exercises, guide clients to their personal light to moderate level for each exercise. For muscular balance about a joint, try to incorporate opposite-action exercises (e.g., flexion and extension at the elbow). Giving preference to multijoint exercises (which involve more muscle mass) over single-joint exercises should result in a higher caloric yield. Gotchalk, Berger & Kraemer showed that performing this circuit of exercises at the specified level of intensity elicited oxygen consumption values (39%–51.5% of VO2max) that met ACSM’s exercise intensity guidelines (40%–85% of VO2maxR) for cardiorespiratory fitness (ACSM 2006).

Paton and Hopkins (2004) classify training bouts based on
intensity, with specific durations, as follows: supramaximal training (also known as sprint interval training) is all-out cardiovascular effort lasting less than 2 minutes. Maximal training is maximal-effort aerobic exercise lasting 2–10 minutes. Submaximal exercise is an exertion lasting more than 10 minutes at a pace close to the anaerobic threshold. These authors further describe the anaerobic threshold as an intensity that can be sustained for approximately 45 minutes.

Program 3: Sprint Interval Training (SIT)

Study: Burgomaster et al. 2008.

Protocol: Subjects in this study completed 4–6 sprint (or supramaximal) intervals lasting 30 seconds each, interspersed with 4.5 minutes of light exercise at a self-selected pace.

Intensity: Subjects performed the sprint intervals at an all-out effort, which suggests an 18–20 RPE level.

Mode: Most exercise modes can be used for this training.

Duration: This total workout takes 20–30 minutes for the 4–6 sprint intervals, respectively.

Comments: Burgomaster and colleagues demonstrated that short-duration SIT training produces cellular fat metabolism adaptations similar to those produced by traditional endurance programs. A secondary benefit of SIT training is that it elicits exercise-afterburn-of-calories (EPOC) values that are twice as great as those elicited by submaximal training bouts (Laforgia et al. 1997). Reminder: this workout involves a very forceful effort bout, which can easily be modified as needed to a much less vigorous exertion for clients. During the self-selected 4.5-minute recovery exercise period, an RPE of 8–9 units is appropriate.

Fartlek training was developed in the 1930s in Sweden. Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. The program combines bouts of continuous and interval training of various lengths and intensities. This type of training stresses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. There are many variations of this training, but little data-based research on it.

Program 4: Indoor Fartlek Play Training

Study: No citation.

Protocol: Randomize 2-, 4- or 6-minute bouts of exercise on different pieces of equipment, changing modes, intensities and
duration in an unstructured or random order. Below is an example with a treadmill, an elliptical trainer and a cycle ergometer:

Rotation 1: treadmill (2 minutes), elliptical trainer (4 minutes), cycle ergometer (6 minutes);

Rotation 2: elliptical trainer (6 minutes), cycle ergometer (4 minutes), treadmill (2 minutes);

Rotation 3: cycle ergometer (4 minutes), treadmill (4 minutes), cycle ergometer (4 minutes).

Intensity: For the 2-minute duration, the client trains at an RPE of 15 (hard); for the 4-minute duration, at an RPE of 13 (somewhat hard); and for the 6-minute duration, at an RPE of 12 (between light and somewhat hard).

Mode: Fartlek training uses multiple modes; specifics depend primarily on availability.

Duration: The duration should follow ACSM (2006) guidelines, which recommend 20–60 minutes of continuous cardiorespiratory exercise.

Comments: Indoor Fartlek play training adds variety and fun to a workout because it can be constantly changing. Fitness professionals are empowered to take this randomized and unstructured training concept and develop other variations.

Metabolic sports conditioning specifically addresses the intensity, the duration and the aerobic and anaerobic characteristics of the specific sport (Gamble 2007). Prolonged sessions of moderate-intensity exercise lasting ≥ 60 minutes at 65% of peak oxygen uptake have been shown to significantly improve endurance capacity and whole-body carbohydrate and fat oxidation (Burgomaster et al. 2008).

Program 5: Metabolic High-Volume Conditioning

Study: Burgomaster et al. 2008.

Protocol: Subjects performed continuous submaximal aerobic exercise on cycle ergometers.

Intensity: Intensity was 65% of VO2peak, equivalent to an RPE of about 14 (somewhat hard).

Mode: Most exercise modes can be used for this training.

Duration: The workout, consisting of sustained cardiorespiratory exercise, lasts 40–60 minutes.

Comments: Long, slow distance-training protocols are a foundation in strategies that elicit shifts toward improved fat and carbohydrate metabolism. Quinn, Vroman and Kertzer (1994) showed that 60 minutes of sustained aerobic exercise (at 70% VO2max) resulted in significantly higher EPOC than did 20- and 40-minute protocols at the same intensity.

The step-wise program proves to be an interesting new variation on endurance training.

Program 6: Step-Wise Interval Training

Study: Jacobs & Sjödin 1985.

Protocol: Subjects exercised on a cycle or treadmill for 5 minutes at a relatively easy workload (cardiovascular warm-up) and then increased intensity about 10%–15%. At the end of each subsequent 4-minute exercise stage, they again increased their workload about 10%–15%.

Intensity: The initial work intensity elicited an RPE of about 11. Then, the intensity increased roughly 1 RPE level for each subsequent 4-minute stage (i.e., the program started at an RPE of 11; after 4 minutes the intensity became a 12; after another 4 minutes the intensity became a 13; etc.). Intensity was increased by varying speed, grade or stride, depending on the mode used.

Mode: Most exercise modes can be used for this program.

Duration: Duration should follow ACSM (2006) guidelines, which recommend 20–60 minutes of continuous cardiorespiratory exercise.

Comments: The idea of employing a step-wise interval training program was of great interest to the researchers in terms of studying muscle enzyme and blood lactate responses to progressively increasing exercise intensities. As a training program this concept provides a unique interval program that adds variety and challenge to a
cardiorespiratory workout. This type of program can be halted when a particular intensity level is reached or a specific duration is attained.

The researchers in this investigation showed that vigorous-intensity exercise is more effective than moderate-intensity exercise for improving maximal aerobic capacity in a healthy adult population at low risk for cardiovascular disease. Also, this study adds to the mounting body of data indicating that higher-intensity exercise leads to potentially greater benefits in cardiovascular health compared with moderate-intensity exercise (Swain & Franklin 2006).

Program 7: Near-Maximal Interval Training

Study: Gormley et al. 2008.

Protocol: The subjects did a 5-minute cardiovascular warm-up, which transitioned into interval training consisting of 5-minute work intervals at a near-maximal intensity followed by 5-minute recovery intervals at a low level of work. In this study, the subjects repeated the near-maximal and recovery interval sequence 5 times (for a total of 55 minutes, including the warm-up).

Intensity: The 5-minute warm-up was completed at 75% of the subjects’ heart rate reserve (HRR), which would be almost 15 on the RPE scale. The near-maximal interval was at about 95% of the subjects’ HRR, or around 17–18 on the RPE scale. The
recovery interval was at 50% HRR, in the region of a 12–13 on the RPE scale.

Mode: Most exercise modes can be used for this program.

Duration: This total workout takes 55 minutes.

Comments: The researchers did 2 weeks of progressively increasing cardiovascular training before the subjects (aged 18–44), who had no more than one risk factor for coronary heart disease, completed this study. As has been stated a few times in this article, modify appropriately for the fitness-level needs of students and clients.

As researchers and practitioners continue to discover new ways to challenge the human body, novel and unique training programs will emerge. Go ahead—give these ideas a chance and “think outside the box.”

Rating of Perceived Exertion

In most scientific studies, researchers have the subjects train at a certain level of their maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max). Most recreational exercisers do not have that physiological data to simulate comparable workout intensities. Since the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is widely associated with percent maximal oxygen consumption values, RPE units are provided to guide the exercise intensity. RPE is frequently used to establish an exercise intensity using an exerciser’s overall feelings of exertion. An “adapted” 6-to-20 RPE scale rating is shown in Figure 1, which has additional subjective markers (to alleviate confusion) to help clients understand how to use this rating more effectively.

Figure 1. Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale

  1. no exertion at all: analogous to sitting and relaxing
  2. extremely light: very easy standing movement
  3. very light: an intensity similar to casual walking
  4. light: an intensity comparable to a light warm-up
  5. somewhat hard: an intensity that feels mildly challenging
  6. hard: an intensity that feels difficult
  7. very hard: a very demanding workout intensity
  8. extremely hard: a rigorous intensity that cannot be maintained
  9. maximal exertion: all-out exercise exertion
measuring caloric expenditure

When a person exercises and expends calories, the muscles use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide as they liberate energy from carbohydrates and fat. Therefore, quantifying the consumption of oxygen and the production of carbon dioxide is an indirect means of measuring the expended calories. The relationship between oxygen consumption and caloric expenditure is referred to as calorimetry.

Caloric expenditure can be determined directly by measuring the heat released by the body (direct calorimetry) or indirectly by measuring ventilation and the body’s exchange of oxygen and carbon (indirect calorimetry). For numerous methodological reasons, the method of indirect calorimetry is the most suitable and accurate for evaluating caloric expenditure during exercise.

The contributions of carbohydrate and fat to energy metabolism can be determined from the respiratory exchange ratio (RER) of carbon dioxide to oxygen consumption. There is greater carbon dioxide production from carbohydrate catabolism (metabolic breakdown) than from fat catabolism. The lower the carbon dioxide production is relative to oxygen consumption, the greater the contribution of fat catabolism to caloric expenditure. Oxygen and carbon dioxide analyzers are used in indirect calorimetry to determine the exercise energy expenditure and the relative contributions of carbohydrate and fat.

For detailed information on this topic, please go to www.ideafit.com and key “Calculating Caloric Expenditure” into the search bar.

Determining caloric expenditure during exercise

At rest, the body expends energy to maintain the functions of life-sustaining cells. The heart’s continual pumping of blood demands energy, as does the continual ventilation (movement of air into and out) of the lungs. Maintaining a life-supporting environment within and around cells requires a constant breakdown of certain energy-releasing molecules. This energy is also used to form the molecules necessary for repairing cells, storing energy (glycogen and triglycerides), fighting infection and processing nutrients obtained from digestion. These energy-demanding functions form the body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR), which can vary from approximately 800 to 1,500 kilocalories (kcal), depending on body size and temperature, muscle mass, percent body fat, diet, health status and glandular function.

The body uses adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as a chemical means to perform cellular work. Exercise adds to caloric expenditure, as muscle contraction involves the need to repeatedly form and break down ATP. The energy that is released fuels the contraction of skeletal muscle, thereby adding to the energy demands of the body. During exercise the increase in caloric expenditure is predominantly due to the contraction of skeletal muscle. A moderate energy increase comes from the energy demands of the heart and ventilatory muscles in the lungs.

Four Controversial Questions

1. How does high-intensity interval training (HIT) help burn fat?
As exercise intensity increases, the body uses more carbohydrate as fuel. However, scientists feel that at the cellular level this overloading stimulus also involves some of the same molecular signaling messages that induce increases in muscle capillary density, mitochondria proteins (energy factory of cells), fatty-acid oxidation (burning) enzymes and other regulatory proteins (Burgomaster et al. 2008; Baar 2006). So, the connection with HIT and improved fat metabolism appears to be associated with adaptation changes that occur at the molecular level of muscle.

2. How many more calories do you burn with the addition of each pound of muscle?
The scientific estimation is approximately 7 kcal per pound per day (Elia 1992). However, the key point is not so much that caloric yield increases from this additional muscle; rather, it is that the person becomes much more capable of working out longer and harder. It is this training effect that adds to the caloric deficit from exercise.

3. Will you burn more calories from fat if you exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach?
The substrate that most effectively powers your workout is carbohydrate. Fat contributes, but carbohydrates in the form of glucose are the main exercise fuel. After a night’s sleep, the muscles are greatly depleted of glycogen (stored glucose) and therefore lack the energy substrate they need for exercise. In addition, the brain utilizes glucose for all of its fuel needs. Consequently, exercising first thing in the morning on an empty stomach can impair the muscles and some brain functions. Clients should have a light carbohydrate snack (e.g., fresh fruit, yogurt and trail mix) before working out, to properly “fuel up” and safeguard themselves from bodily harm.

4. Why is caloric expenditure lower during upper-body exercises?
Upper-body exercise is generally complicated by the small muscle mass in the upper body relative to the lower body. This muscle mass is less effective at inducing the return of blood flow to the heart, thus decreasing the volume of blood pumped by the heart each beat. Also, for a given intensity, contraction of the upper-body musculature provides greater resistance to blood flow than occurs with lower-body exercise, resulting in a greater increase in blood pressure. These factors lead to a lower energy (caloric) expenditure from the upper-body muscles.


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04/cdp.htm; retrieved Jan. 17, 2009.
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Len Kravitz, PhD

Len Kravitz, PhD is a professor and program coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico where he recently received the Presidential Award of Distinction and the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. In addition to being a 2016 inductee into the National Fitness Hall of Fame, Dr. Kravitz was awarded the Fitness Educator of the Year by the American Council on Exercise. Just recently, ACSM honored him with writing the 'Paper of the Year' for the ACSM Health and Fitness Journal.

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