Burn more calories by forcing your body to be inefficient at the gym

I have a boss who routinely tells us to work smarter, not harder. His theory is that working more efficiently will position us to achieve more. For our 9-5 jobs in Eagan, it works great.

In the gym, however, the exact opposite is usually true. Forcing your body to be inefficient will help you burn more calories during your workout.

If your goals are to burn calories and build muscle, being inefficient is the most effective thing you can do. (That said, if running marathons is your goal, stick with efficiency.)

So what exactly do I mean by efficiency and inefficiency? When you’re talking about working out, it refers to how efficiently your body is able to complete an exercise. When your body is not accustomed to an exercise, it needs to work harder to complete the movement. As a result, you will burn more calories – both during your workout and when you’re recovering.

Conversely, when you get in the habit of doing the same workout every day, your body becomes more efficient. As we mentioned at the beginning, if your goal is to run marathons, that’s a good thing. If your goal is to get leaner, you’ll have a hard time achieving that goal when all you’re doing is building endurance.

As your body becomes more efficient at an exercise, it requires fewer calories per unit of exercise. Lou Schuler explains the principle well in his book, The New Rules of Lifting for Women:

“Endurance exercise makes your body more efficient, which is to say better at going longer distances with less fuel. If you’re trying to get your body to burn more fuel, you can see the problem here.”

The same thing is true with weight lifting. If you routinely lift the same amount of weight and do the same number of repetitions, your body will get more efficient at completing the exercises. Heavier weights require more energy because your body is less efficient at lifting them. Moreover, they also require more energy as your body recovers from the exercise.

We like routine, but we also like burning calories. Force your muscles to be inefficient when you’re working out, and you’ll see the best results.

Writer Becky Spurbeck

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

8 Comments on “Burn more calories by forcing your body to be inefficient at the gym

  1. Hmm. Interesting, especially since I am a (pretty bad) marathoner. I am left wondering what I should do about the problem of increased efficency. How often should I switch things up? When can I increase resistance?

    • I’ll let Becky answer your question as she did the research on this, but wanted to give you my two cents as well. If you are a marathon runner you should definitely keep doing exercises that will build your endurance. But if you feel you are too efficient at a lift or exercise, that is a good indication you are ready to switch it up. If you are weight training and doing between 8-12 reps, mix it up by adding more weight and doing fewer reps, between 5-7. After doing that for a time, you can switch back, or switch exercises entirely. Also, shortening rest time between sets is a great way to mix it up. If your body is used to 2 minutes of rest, it’ll be a great challenge to perform the same exercise with 30 seconds of rest.

      Training cycles probably should last somewhere between 1-2 months, but a 4-6 weeks is the sweet spot I’ve found success with. I wouldn’t be worried if someone was mixing it up even more often than that.

      Many trainers will tell you to keep your body guessing. I read once that ‘everything works, but only for a while.’ Try some work out classes like yoga or pilates, tabata exercises, interval training. Do some variations of the exercises you currently do. Meeting with a certified trainer can help you make sure that your new workouts are safe and that you are doing them correctly.

      Thanks for reading Tom!

    • Hey Tom,

      Mark’s answer is spot on about changing workout routines every six weeks, or so. To reiterate what he said, if you’re lifting 3 sets of 12 reps, it’s probably time to increase your resistance.

      Regarding marathons — good for you for training your body to that. That’s awesome. If you want to keep running marathons, it’s important to keep doing exercises that will help you stay in shape for that. That said, if you want a good running workout that will burn extra calories, try running intervals once a week. Run at about 90 percent of your maximum, then jog or walk briefly to recover. A ratio of 1:2 is good place to start, so if you’re running for 30 seconds, walk/jog for a minute to recover. After doing that for a few weeks, try increasing your ratio to 1:1.

      Let us know if we didn’t answer your questions. Thanks for reading, and I hope you keep checking out the new information we post.

  2. Is this similar to that of “Muscle Confusion” as Tony Horton calls it in p90x? I’m not trying to lose calories, but I’m just curious

    • Hey Ryan,

      Exactly. Inefficiency, muscle confusion, perturbation — they’re all different names for the same thing. Adding variety or changing your workout are good ways to make sure you’re consistently getting good results. Even if you’re not looking to burn calories, forcing your body to be inefficient can help build muscle.

      Thanks for reading. Hope you keep learning from our posts.

  3. I should add that your specific goals will be fundamental in signaling when and how to change your routine. If your goals are to build more muscle mass compared to building endurance or shedding pounds, you’re going to want to change up your exercises in different ways.

    Here’s a good article I found that you may want to check out.


  4. Pingback: BOSU – A great way to increase stability and balance | FIT TWIN CITIES

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