Top 5 calorie-burning exercises, according to research

By Liz Meszaros
Published February 13, 2020

Key Takeaways

If you’re looking for an exercise that burns the most calories, narrowing it down can be daunting because there are so many options available. But remember: You should not only choose an exercise for its calorie-burning potential, but also for its suitability for your body and fitness level as well as the ease with which you can incorporate it into your workout.

Before we look at which exercises will help you burn the most calories, let’s first explore what calorie burn is and how to achieve it. The number of calories you burn during physical activity depends on four factors: duration of the exercise, pace, intensity, and your weight and height. Because of these factors, the number of calories burned during exercise will vary from person to person.

As a general rule of thumb, cardio exercises will burn more calories than weight or strength training. Weight and strength training, however, will increase your muscle mass.

When choosing the best exercises to burn calories, remember that activities that use more muscle mass and involve some sort of resistance will burn more calories. With this in mind, here are some top calorie-burning exercises, ranked in order of effectiveness:

Jumping rope (667-990 calories/hr at 120 skips/min): Jumping rope isn’t just for little kidsgirls in the schoolyard. It’s a staple for many athletes—most notably, boxers. Believe it or not, jumping rope is a full-body workout that burns a lot of calories in a short time. It also brings a lot to the table as far as physical benefits. Not only does it burn major calories, jumping rope also improves bone density, cardiovascular health, breathing efficiency, and coordination (by making you focus on your footwork).

Another big plus is that you only need a flat surface and a jump rope to begin. And since most people cannot jump rope for an entire hour, experts recommend jumping in intervals: Jump rope vigorously for a few minutes followed by light jogging in place for a minute or two to recover. Another tip for extra calorie burn: Use a weighted jump rope. It’ll engage your arms and shoulders even more.

Stair sprints (up to 946 calories/hr): Because it targets some of the largest muscles in the body— including the glutes, quads, and calves—stair sprints are a major calorie burner. Stair sprints will also help build strength and power because they force you to work against gravity. Add in aerobic conditioning and increased speed and endurance, and stair sprints just about check all of the boxes.

And, sometimes, it’s just nice to mix it up with something new in your workout. Stair sprints are great because they force you to concentrate instead of mindlessly repeating the same moves over and over.

Here are a few tips as you dash up those stairs: Try to sprint at maximum effort, keeping up a pace that you can only maintain for about 20 seconds. Follow this with a recovery run at half the intensity for twice as long (40 seconds). Remember that the harder you sprint, the greater your post-exercise oxygen consumption will be and the longer you will sustain calorie burning.

Rowing machine (up to 713 calories/hr): Rowing machines can provide you with an efficient, low-impact, full-body workout. In fact, researchers found that a rowing machine engages 86% of the muscles in your body. Your rhomboids, trapezii, and lats all get a great workout, but rowing works the glutes, thighs, and calves as well. And because your feet are stationary throughout and don’t leave the rowing platform, rowing is a low-impact workout.

For maximum calorie expenditure, row in fast, 1-minute intervals, followed by 30- to 60-second active rest periods doing squats, pushups, or planks. Because rowing can be such an intense workout, proper technique is essential. When you start, work with a trainer for even just one or two sessions to help you fine-tune your technique.

Elliptical (up to 478 calories/hr): There’s a good reason why you have to wait in line to use the elliptical machine at the gym. It’s one of the most sought-after cardio machines around—and for good reason. Elliptical machines don’t just boost calorie burn—they also provide a good aerobic workout and strengthen your muscles and build stamina and endurance. These machines can accomplish all of this because they provide both an upper- and lower-body workout simultaneously.

The elliptical combines the movements of a stair stepper, a bicycle, and a cross-country ski machine. Your legs move in an elliptical pattern while your arms move back and forth. These machines are easy to use and versatile. You can do both high-intensity interval training and more steady cardio workouts on them. And they significantly reduce weight-bearing compared with running and similar workouts, for a low-impact, full-body workout.

Battle ropes (up to 421 calories/hr): Battle ropes may look intimidating, but they are an easy and fun exercise to incorporate into your workout. Some researchers have actually studied battle ropes and concluded that an intense 10-minute battle-rope session results in a “vigorous-intensity workout,” complete with high heart rates and high energy expenditure (which equals high caloric burn). They added that battle ropes require “higher acute metabolic demands than traditional resistance exercises.” All of this means greater energy expenditure. Plus, you get all of these benefits with little impact on your joints.

Working out with battle ropes will help you burn calories and fat, sculpt muscles, and increase your mobility. Plus, the likelihood of injuries is very low, and they’re really fun to use. Fundamental moves include the single-arm wave, the double-arm wave, and the double-arm slam. All of these work your upper body, but you can incorporate squats and lunges to bring your lower body into play and increase calorie burn.

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