Magazines like to dazzle us with articles about how to convert flab into ripped and toned muscle. Though it would be dreamy if muscle could simply turn to the fat next to it and sear it away, muscles burn fat in a more roundabout way. Having good muscle mass helps to burn fat but involves regular exercise and consistent effort.
Muscle and fat are two completely different types of cells in the body. Though they may be neighbors, their cellular structure makes it impossible for one to convert to the other. The function of muscle is to enable joint movements and to hold the skeleton together, not to actively seek out fat cells and burn them away. Fat cells change in two different ways: hypertrophy -- increase in the size of an existing fat cell -- and hyperplasia -- an increase in the number of fat cells within the body. High-fat diets most often feed existing fat cells through hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the most common fat battle our bodies fight, but genetics factor into whether or not your diet will induce hyperplasia.
Regular cardio exercise is one of the best ways to burn fat. Burning off more calories than you consume is the key to burning fat through cardio. If you’re grooving in a cardio class, cruising on a spin bike or covering mileage on the treadmill, the muscles of your legs, core and upper body all play a part in getting you to move and, thus, burn fat. Increasing your cardio capacity happens best when you’re exercising at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. The stronger your muscles are, the better you’ll be at getting yourself to and maintaining this heart rate range. Interval training, where you throw in short bursts of maximal effort at 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, is another great way to stoke your metabolism and shock your system into eating up more calories. It requires muscle strength and endurance to sprint your way through a minute at close to maximum heart rate, or to slog up an incline on the spin bike while your legs are screaming. Since muscles are the wheels that move your performance vehicle during cardio, muscles definitely help to burn fat by providing you the tools for an effective, calorie-burning cardio workout.
Sweating out repetitions and challenging yourself with weights burns calories in and of itself. But even beyond the immediacy of moving weights, strength training and lean muscle mass have a positive impact on your resting metabolism and your body’s ability to burn fat. After an effective weight-training workout, your metabolism can be elevated for as long as 36 hours post-workout. That means you get a bonus calorie burn even as you shower, head home and contemplate plans for the evening. Additionally, lean muscle mass requires far more calories to simply maintain than fat does, so the more muscle on your body, the higher your resting metabolism will run at all times, not just post-workout.
Fat-burning cardio gains can only happen with consistent cardio sessions, and muscle and strength gains can only happen if you’re moving enough weight to get your muscles to failure with the last few repetitions, forcing the fibers to grow. Making your efforts count with both cardio and strength training is a successful combination to burn off the fat.
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images