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Metabolism

Think you know about metabolism? Chances are, your understanding varies greatly from reality. Throw aside the common excuses attached to metabolism and learn how to finally get your under control, once and for all.

Metabolism & Exercise: The Strong Link Between the Two

Does lifting weights increase metabolism? What about full-body, intense exercises that elevate heart rate? These questions and more explored here!

Metabolism & Exercise: The Strong Link Between the Two


You might not be able to exercise yourself out of a poor diet, but you can strategically optimize metabolism through exercise. While exercise will not profoundly affect metabolism like diet, metabolism and exercise are undoubtedly connected. 

Learn the low down about the most metabolic exercises to maintain a high metabolism in the long run.

Quick Metabolism Review

Metabolism encompasses all the chemical reactions within the body that help it maintain function. Well-known metabolic reactions include maintaining blood pressure, burning or storing fat, and delivering oxygen to working muscles. 

These reactions are catabolic or anabolic in nature. Burning carbohydrate to facilitate a squat is catabolic (breaking down), whereas growing the muscle after a workout is anabolic (building). Maintaining a high metabolism is a delicate dance between inducing catabolic and anabolic reactions.

Moreover, while genetics provide the foundation for metabolic rate, variables like diet, sleep, and exercise further impact it positively or negatively. There is a common misconception that genetics account for the majority of metabolic rate, but this is not necessarily accurate. Everyone has the ability to influence their metabolism through healthy or poor lifestyle habits.

Of all the factors that affect metabolism, a healthy, nutrient-dense diet inexplicably maximizes it most. However, exercise also plays a large role.

The Connection Between Exercise and Metabolism

There is a clear connection between exercise and metabolism, but it is probably more complex than people realize! 

First of all, distinctive types of exercise affect metabolism differently.

For this purpose, exercise can be categorized into three different groups: Aerobic exercise (also known as cardio), anaerobic exercise (like resistance and strength training), and one we will call the 'lactate threshold' or in other words, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) - an example of the latter group would be powerlifting a one-rep max or sprinting 60 meters. 

Depending on the intensity of the first group, the body will burn either carbs or fat for fuel, while it will use carbs for strength training and a mixture of creatine and lactate for the lactate threshold style.

Incorporating a mixture of all these styles can create a high metabolism because it essentially keeps the body on its toes. Instead of becoming too efficient at only using carbohydrates to fuel exercise, it learns to use different fuel sources that maintain metabolic function. Furthermore, each of the different styles induces different metabolic adaptations.

Strength Training

Of the three different types, strength training likely increases metabolism most. This is because strength or resistance training aims to increase muscle mass, which is the most metabolic tissue. 

Having more muscle tissue, aka lean mass, allows one to burn more calories at rest. 

Additionally, strength training is intense enough to cause meaningful metabolic adaptations, but not so intense that it is unsustainable or stresses the body too much.

Lactate Threshold

On another hand, lactate threshold or HIIT workouts also develop a high metabolic rate because they increase exercise post oxygen consumption (EPOC), a fancy term to describe burning calories hours after exercise actually stops. Though, this is fundamentally different than the mechanism of increasing muscle mass to burn more calories at rest described in the previous paragraph. 

EPOC relies on using a very high-intensity level of exercise to increase metabolic rate. However, HIIT exercise is likely too intense to exploit every day, and doing so increases the risk of stressing the body so much that it cannot recover properly. When this happens, stress hormone production increases and this typically leads to a slower metabolism over time.

Cardio

Finally, while cardio exercise still has benefits like improving circulation and mood, stress reduction, energy input balance, and other heart and brain benefits, it technically assists metabolism least. 

Steady-state cardio like jogging, cycling, or swimming does not meaningfully increase muscle mass. It often is not intense enough to elicit EPOC, unless you are an Olympian swimmer and the like.

Plus, overtraining cardio runs the highest risk of overstressing the body and increasing the stress hormone cortisol too much. This effect is compounded by under-fueling, which is an all-too-common pairing, especially amongst female endurance athletes. In the long run, this lowers metabolism, causes the body to store nearly all caloric input and reduces non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which helps maintain a higher metabolic rate.

Conversely, many long endurance athletes are able to maintain a very high metabolism by strategically incorporating strength training and some HIIT that caters to their individual sport. Still, for the average athlete, only doing cardio is the least effective way to optimize metabolism. 

So all in all, does exercise increase metabolism? Yes! But the type, frequency, duration, and intensity matter and will impact metabolism differently.

The Most Metabolic Exercises

As was briefly stated, the most metabolic exercises aim to increase muscle mass or EPOC. Thus, resistance and HIIT exercises improve metabolism most. 

However, one way to improve the metabolic burn of cardio exercise is to add an incline. This is because an incline recruits the glutes more and burns extra calories.

Moreover, in terms of strength training, the most metabolic exercises utilize the biggest and most muscle groups. Perhaps the most metabolic exercise of all is the deadlift, which utilizes glute, leg, back, and core muscles at the same time. Compare this to an exercise like the bicep curl that isolates only one arm muscle, and it is hopefully obvious why big movements have a bigger capacity to affect metabolism. 

Other very metabolic strength exercises include:

• Squat varieties
• Lunge varieties
• Hip thrusters
• Pull-ups
• Shoulder presses sitting down
• Chest press varieties
• Compound movements like:

o Side lunges + chest press with a weighted plate
o Squat into shoulder press
o Single leg (pistol) squats with a bicep curl
o Many powerlifting and CrossFit moves

Even more important than the specific types of exercises is engaging the principle of progressive overload. The body is very efficient at adapting, so it is important to continually challenge it by adding more weight, more reps, and/or less recovery in between singular sets. Working with a qualified trainer is wise because they program workouts to naturally include progressive overloading.

In terms of HIIT training, the most metabolic exercises are quite difficult and essentially cause the body to work to near exhaustion. Yet, it is important to remember that HIIT exercise is intended to be short in duration.

The body can only truly work to exhaustion for a few seconds at a time and for a short amount of total time, and this is also the correct way to induce the metabolic adaptation called EPOC. 

Exemplary lactate threshold exercises include:

• Sprinting (running) on an incline or in sand
• 10-20 second all-out sprints (running, cycling, rowing, etc.)
• Burpees with pushups
• Plyometric jumps like box jumps
• Weighted jumps like jumping lunges holding 10 lb weights
• Compound movements

o Burpees into kettlebell swings
o Tuck jump burpees
o Ladder exercises
o Pushing or pulling a weighted sled

Weekly Metabolic Exercise Routine Example

Monday – Strength Training

• 3 sets of 10-15 reps: front squats
• 3 sets of 10-15 reps: closed leg squat into shoulder press
• 3 sets of 10-15 reps: inch worm push-ups
• 3 sets of 10-15 reps: weighted or banded pull ups
• 4 sets of 15 reps: leg lifts (abdominal exercise)
• 4 sets of 15 reps: triceps dips 

Tuesday - HIIT

• EMOM (every minute on the minute): do 10 reps as hard and fast as possible and repeat 3 times

o Burpee with pushup
o Weighted squat jump
o Jumping lunge over a barbell
o Mountain climbers
o Clapping push-ups

Wednesday – Rest Day

Thursday – Cardio + Strength Training

• 30 min steady state cardio of choice
• 3 sets of 15 reps: walking lunges
• 3 sets of 15 reps: back rows
• 4 sets of 15 reps: bicep curl into shoulder press
• 4 sets of 10-15 reps: around-the-worlds with kettlebell 

Friday – Strength Training

4 sets of 8-10 reps: deadlift
4 sets of 8-10 reps: incline chest press
4 sets of 8-10 reps: bent over flies
2 sets of a 1-minute plank
2 sets of 30 reps: cat-cows

Saturday – HIIT

• Sprint on an incline (add more resistance if cycling or on the elliptical, etc.) for 15-20 seconds with 45-60 seconds rest and repeat 12-20 times

• Total workout should be 20 minutes or less not including a short 5 minute warm up to prepare muscles

Sunday – Rest Day

Tips to Create a 'Metabolic Exercise Plan'

1. Include at least two different styles of exercise per week to keep metabolism "on its toes" and avoid over-adapting. 

2. If doing steady state cardio, add an incline, weighted vest, or ankle or wrist weights or add intervals of hard effort followed by easier effort to mimic high-intensity interval training.

3. Make the majority of strength exercises big or compound exercises that utilize multiple large muscle groups.

4. Keep HIIT workouts to 15-20 minutes so you can put 100% effort into the movements and induce EPOC correctly.

5. Recover properly and fuel enough to avoid over-stressing the body.

6. Utilize progressive overload principles by consistently adding more weight and/or reps onto the same movements or reduce rest time in between sets.

7. Choose exercises that you enjoy so you will complete it consistently and not need to rely on tons of extrinsic motivation.

The Big Takeaways

Even though diet impacts metabolism most, exercise is an effective tool to further optimize it. 

Strength training has the ability to increase muscle tissue, which is the most metabolic type of tissue. Therefore, consistently and strategically including resistance exercises that use major muscle groups like the thighs, glutes, and back and practicing progressive overload principles will increase metabolism most.

In addition, incorporating some HIIT can provide further metabolic benefits. However, it is important not to overdo any type of exercise as overtraining can increase stress hormones that ultimately slow metabolism.

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on February 18, 2022. Updated on March 04, 2022.

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