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What is the Fat Burning Zone?

Burn Fat Effectively

Okay guys, so there’s a lot of people out there who work out at 110% every time, but who then come and ask me, “why can’t I get my body fat down? and What is the burning zone? How do I burn fat?”

So I ask them, “Are you working out in your fat-burning zone?”. To which they reply “…Eh??? How do I do that?!”

So let’s take a look at this “fat-burning zone”, the mysterious exercise secret that personal trainers and fitness pioneers have struggled for decades to pin down. What exactly is it? And more importantly, how do we make sure our workouts are within it?

Hopefully by the time you finish reading this blog, you’ll know the best way to discover your personal fat-burning zone, and how to burn fat effectively.

How Does the Body Make Energy?

Let’s keep this simple, because I’m a simple guy and I like to make things simple for my clients to understand!

Your body relies on fat as a primary fuel, but because the body is a complex machine it’s able to make energy from other fuel sources too—such as protein and carbohydrates. Throughout the day, each person uses a combination of carbohydrate, fat, and protein fuel sources to create the energy necessary to get out of bed, climb the stairs, make the heart to beat, make the lung muscles function, filter blood in through kidneys—and even lift that cup of coffee you have in the morning.

Fat: the Most Efficient Energy Source

As crazy as it might sound, fast is the most efficient energy source. One pound of stored fat can provide 3,600 calories of energy, far more than most people burn in a single day—in comparison, one pound of storage protein or carbohydrate provides less than half that much energy.

But because fat provides so much energy, the body relies primarily on fat during rest and during relatively slow and easy physical activity. From an evolutionary standpoint this makes perfect sense, as most people can only store about 2,000 calories of carbohydrate in their entire body. Burn your carbohydrate as your primary fuel instead, and you’d have to be finding food and eating all day long. Burn protein as your primary fuel source, and your body would have to break down muscle and other organs to get the fuel it needs.  This is why monitoring your body fat percentage and muscle mass is so important, as it ensures that your workouts and your day-to-day lifestyle aren’t making your body eat away at your muscle, but burn fat instead.

Burn Fat weight measure

How the Body Uses Carbohydrates

Taking your fuel from fat is great when it comes to everyday slow movements, but as soon as you begin to move quickly you suddenly present your body with a fuel paradox.

Though fat is plentiful in your body and provides many calories for exercise energy (even a 150-pound person with 5% body fat has 27,000 calories of stored fat energy!) it simply doesn’t provide that energy as quickly as carbohydrates. When the body needs to get from point A to point B quickly, it needs immediate energy, and that’s where carbohydrates come in. They may not provide as much energy, but they certainly provide it far faster than fat.

So as you progress from a standstill, to a walk, to a jog, to an all-out sprint, your body begins to tap into carbohydrates more and more, while reducing its use of fat as a fuel. You’re burning more calories overall, of course, so while the percentage of fat used as a fuel is decreasing, the total fat calories you burn might still be increasing.

What Is the Fat-Burning Zone?

So say you burn 200 calories per hour while walking, 60% of which are from fat. That way, you burn 120 fat calories per hour.

But if you burn 600 calories per hour while jogging and only 40% of those might come from fat, you would still burn 240 calories of fat per hour—twice as much as when you were walking. Based around this concept, the point at which fat-burning peaks during exercise is called the peak “fat-burning zone”—and research shows that both cardio intervals and resistance training help you lose weight faster when you exercise in your peak fat-burning zone.

Burn Fat

How to Find Your Fat-Burning Zone

In most people, the fat-burning zone comes into play at around 45-65% of the maximum heart rate, and that’s the range typically used by personal trainers:

they’ll take the number 220, and subtract your age to find your maximum heart rate, then take 45-65% of that number to find your maximum fat-burning zone.

But this figure is highly variable, and can prove misleading—largely because different people’s maximum heart rates are themselves highly variable. So instead, here’s a quick and dirty tip for finding your personalised fat-burning zone far more accurately:

  • Warm up on a bike for 10 minutes.
  • Pedal at your maximum sustainable pace for 20 minutes. You should be breathing hard and your legs should be burning, but you should be able to maintain the same intensity for the full 20 minutes.
  • Record your average heart rate during those 20 minutes.
  • Subtract 20 beats from that average heart rate, then add and subtract 3 beats from that to give you a range—and that is your peak fat-burning zone.

So for example, say your average heart rate was 160. Taking 20 from 160 leaves 140. 140 plus 3 is 143; 140 minus 3 is 147—so your peak fat-burning zone would be when you have a heart rate of 137–143 beats per minute.

This is a really quick way of finding your fat-burning zone, without spending hundreds of pounds going to through expensive laboratory fitness testing! (Although if you did want a laboratory test to find your personal fat-burning zone, you would be looking for something called an Exercise Metabolic Rate test, also known as a VO2 Max Test…)

So now we’ve figured out how and what this fat-burning zone is all about, the next question is:

How to Exercise with the Fat-Burning Zone?

It’s worth remembering, as I mentioned earlier, that the fat-burning zone doesn’t necessarily burn a lot of calories. Moreover, if you do all your exercise in the fat-burning zone, you won’t develop strong lungs, muscles, or do much in the way of improving your overall fitness and athleticism.

As a result, it’s best to exercise in your fat-burning zone and burn fat alongside all the other elements of your session, like H.I.I.T training and strength training, to get the most out of your time. And this is where your Personal Trainer comes in to create the best program and the best perfect weekly plan for you.

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