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Fat-Loss Workouts: Five Circuits To Build Muscle

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Prolonged, moderate exercise is a highly effective way to lose fat, especially if you combine it with reducing the calories you eat as well as making your diet healthier. But there’s another piece of the fat loss puzzle which, if missing, will ruin your efforts, and that’s maintaining or building muscle.

When we asked Michael Gleeson, emeritus professor of exercise biochemistry in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, about weight loss and your metabolism, he explained that your body can adapt to a new regime of moderate exercise and reduced calorie intake, which in turn decreases your basic basal metabolic rate. That is, unless you keep your muscle mass up, which is what the workouts below will help you do.

Each will also help you burn fat as well as making you stronger, and the workouts use a range of equipment so you can find one that suits your situation as well as how much time you can spare.

The first workout is a long – and full-on – full-body session involving three different training blocks where there’s limited rest and exercises are completed at a fast pace. After that we have two shorter barbell complexes to try. A complex involves completing a series of exercises with no or very little rest between moves, in order to raise your heart rate so you burn fat while building muscle. There’s also a short 12-minute kettlebell circuit, in case all the barbells in your gym are taken.

To round off your options, we have a 10-minute finisher that you can tack on to any training session to increase its fat-burning effects. If you are looking to lose fat then using a finisher like this is a brilliant way to end your session with a bang – you’ll hit the showers knowing you’ve given it your all.

Dumbbell Fat-Loss Workout

You’re here to get strong and burn fat so let’s not delay you from getting to this excellent workout from fitness and nutrition coach David Birtwistle, founder of Endeavour Life (opens in new tab), which is going to help you do that. Have at it.

1 Warm-Up

Start with two rounds of the following.

1A Skipping

Time 3min

Skip on the spot or, if lacking a rope, jog on the spot instead.

1B Cat-cow

Reps 10

Get on all fours. Arch your spine up, then bow it down. Keep alternating between the two.

1C World’s greatest stretch

Reps 3 each side

Start in a press-up position. Bring your right foot up and place it outside your right hand, then bring your right elbow down to meet your right foot. Next twist your torso to raise your right arm so it points straight towards the ceiling, then reverse the twist. That’s one rep. Do all the reps on one side, then switch.

1D Bird-dog

Reps 8 each side

Start on your hands and knees. Raise and extend your right arm so it’s pointed straight out in front of you and simultaneously raise and extend your left leg behind you. Return to the start. Continue, alternating sides with each rep.

2 Movement Prep

Do three rounds of the following, resting as required.

2A Walkout

Reps 5

From standing, bend at your hips and place your hands on the floor. Walk your hands forwards until you’re in a high plank position, then walk them back and stand up again.

2B Cossack squat

Reps 5 each side

From standing, take a big step to your right side and sit your hips back to lower your torso, keeping your weight over your right foot and your left leg extended. Push through your right heel to rise and return to standing.

2C Lateral banded steps

Reps 20 each side

Loop a small resistance band, also known as a glute band, around your thighs and lower into a half squat position. Take 20 side-steps out to one side, then 20 back the other way.

3 Workout Block I

There are three blocks in the workout and you’ll be doing three exercises in each.

Complete three rounds of the following, resting for 60 seconds between rounds but moving between the exercises with as little rest as possible.

3A Goblet squat

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest with your elbows pointed downwards. Lower into a squat, then push back up to standing.

3B Dumbbell press-up

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Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Get into a press-up position with your hands on the dumbbells – hexagonal-shaped dumbbells are best for this if you have them. Lower your chest towards the floor, then press back up.

3C Single-leg glute bridge

Reps 12 each side Rest 60sec

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Holding the dumbbell on your left hip, raise your right leg off the floor and extend it. Push through your left heel to drive your hips up until you form a straight line from your left knee to your shoulders, keeping your right leg still raised, then come back down. Do all your reps on one side, then switch.

4 Workout Block II

Complete three rounds of the following, resting for 60 seconds between rounds but moving between the exercises with as little rest as possible.

4A Bulgarian split squat

Reps 12 each side Rest 0sec

“This is a fantastic exercise because you don’t need very much weight to get an excellent burn in the legs and glutes,” says Birtwistle. “It builds stability, strength and control.”

Start with your right foot on the floor and your left foot on a bench behind you, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Slowly lower yourself towards the floor, bending your right knee, until the left knee touches the floor. It is essential to keep the upper body as upright as possible. Drive through the middle/rear part of your right foot to rise back up.

Do all your reps on one side, then switch. Make sure your front knee doesn’t track past your toes. You may need to pause and adjust your foot position forwards or backwards.

4B Romanian deadlift

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

“One of the best things about the Romanian deadlift is that it activates muscles throughout the posterior chain,” says Birtwistle. “These are all the muscles along the back of your body.”

Stand holding the dumbbells. Hinge at your hips, driving your glutes backwards and lowering the dumbbells, keeping them close to your legs – you will start to feel a stretch in the hamstring. Stop at the point where the hamstring stops elongating. Hold this position for one second, then drive your hips forwards and stand back up. It is important to maintain a straight spine throughout in order to prevent flexion in the spine, which creates the risk of disc issues.

4C Single-arm dumbbell row

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Reps 12 each side Rest 60sec

Stand in a split stance with your right foot behind you, holding your dumbbell in your right hand. Bend forwards until your back is parallel with the floor, keeping your back straight. Rest your left arm on your left knee. Row the dumbbell up towards your chest, then slower lower it again. Do all your reps on one side, then switch.

5 Workout Block III

Complete five rounds of the following as quickly as you can, resting when required.

5A Walking dumbbell lunge

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Reps 20

Holding both dumbbells, take a big step forwards and lower until both knees are bent at 90°. Keeping your torso low, bring your back leg through and straight into another lunge. Walk forward like this for 20 steps.

5B Sit-up

Reps 20

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Use your abs to raise your head and shoulders off the floor, then lower back to the start.

5C Dumbbell thruster

burn fat

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Reps 20

Stand holding the dumbbells on your shoulders with your feet shoulder-width apart,” says Birtwistle. “Lower into a squat until your hips dip below your knees. Quickly stand up and drive the dumbbells overhead until your arms are vertical and your elbows are fully extended. Then lower the weights back to your shoulders.

20-Minute Barbell Fat-Loss Workout

If you want to get the maximum fat loss impact from a barbell, you want to make the metal move. The bigger the range of motion, the more work your body is completing. That’s why the moves in this circuit will see you shifting the load from low down to high above your head. The lower-body moves start with a squat, move on to a unilateral move and finish with another squat variation. For the overhead work, you use two versions of the behind-the-neck press, which means the bar can stay on your back throughout the circuit, and then finish with a move that’s much more subtle but will hit a new muscle group (and target your grip strength too). The good news is that you get to drop the bar once you’ve finished. Well, for three minutes. Enjoy!

How to do the workout

Do the six barbell exercises in order, sticking to the reps indicated. Don’t rest until you finish all the reps of the sixth and final move of the circuit. Then rest for three minutes and repeat the circuit. Do three or four circuits in total.

Back squat

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Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, rest the bar on your back and engage your abs. Bend at the knees and hips simultaneously to lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then press back up.

2 Behind-the-neck press

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Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, rest the bar on your back and engage your abs. Keeping your elbows directly below the bar, press the weight overhead until your arms are locked out, then lower back to the start.

Lunge

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Reps 5 each leg Rest 0sec

Standing with your feet just narrower than shoulder-width, rest the bar on your back and engage your abs. Take a big step forwards and bend both knees, keeping your front knee over your front foot, then push back to the start.

4 Behind-neck push press

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Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Start with the bar on your back. Engage your abs, then lower into a quarter squat while looking straight ahead. Drive up and press the bar straight up until your arms are locked out. Use leg drive to inject some momentum into the move.

Thruster

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Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Rest the bar on the front of your shoulders, then lower into a front squat, keeping your torso upright. Drive with your legs to straighten up, using that momentum to send the bar straight overhead until your arms are straight.

Shrug

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Reps 6 each side Rest 3min

Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, holding the barbell across the front of your thighs with your shoulder blades slightly retracted. Engage your trapezius muscles by pushing your shoulders up towards your ears. Pause at the top, then lower under control.

15-Minute Barbell Fat-Loss Workout

There isn’t one way to lose fat. Our suggestion is that you should pick up a barbell and do this circuit. It starts by you putting the bar on your back and it, er, finishes pretty much the same way. In between you do five different moves that will get your heart rate up, which forces your heart and lungs to work harder. You’ll also work pretty much every muscle in your lower body and a fair few in your upper body too – and it’ll only take about 15 minutes. So, go ahead and give it a try. You have nothing to lose but that spare tyre.

How to do the workout

Do the five exercises in order, sticking to the reps detailed, without resting until you finish all the reps of the fifth and final move of the circuit. Rest for two minutes, then repeat the circuit. Do three circuits in total. As you progress you can add another circuit or add weight to the bar.

Reverse lunge (right leg)

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Reps 8 Rest 0sec

Stand up straight with the bar on your back. Take a big step backwards with your right leg until your back knee is just above the floor and your front knee is bent at 90°. Push through your front foot to return to the start.

This is a real test of co-ordination so to help keep your balance, make sure you keep your head still and your eyes looking forwards.

2 Behind-neck push press

fat loss

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Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Hold the bar across your back with a double shoulder-width grip. Lower into a quarter squat, then push up explosively to press the weight directly overhead. Lower the bar back to the start and repeat the move without pausing.

Back squat

fat loss

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Reps 10 Rest 0sec

Rest the bar on your upper back, then bend at the hips and the waist simultaneously to lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Ensure that your knees remain in line with your toes. Then press back up to the start.

If you’re struggling to go deep in the squat that’s a sign of poor hamstring flexibility. Do some mobility work and stretching to help you get deeper into the move.

Reverse lunge (left leg)

fat loss

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Reps 8 Rest 0sec

Stand up straight with the bar on your back. Take a big step backwards with your left leg until your back knee is just above the floor and your front knee is bent at 90°. Push through your front foot to return to the start.

Good morning

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Reps 8 Rest 2min

Start with the bar on your back. Bend your knees slightly and push your backside back to hinge at the hips and lower your torso until you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings. Then return to the start and squeeze your glutes at the top of the move.

12-Minute Kettlebell Fat-Loss Workout

A kettlebell offers phenomenal fat-burning options that will get your muscles moving the way they were meant to – as one, for real-world functional strength. This circuit will help you move better and look great too.

This workout couldn’t be easier to follow, takes just 12 minutes, will send your heart rate soaring, and makes your body burn away fat stores for hours after you’ve taken off your trainers.

This circuit starts with three multi-joint compound lifts to work your major muscle groups, especially your legs, glutes and core, and get your heart rate sky-high. Then come two unilateral (single-arm) moves to increase the workload on your shoulders, chest and arms with the aim of building lean muscle mass. The result? A bigger, stronger and leaner you.

How to do the workout

Use a kettlebell that’s light enough for you to complete all reps of all moves with good form, but still heavy enough to provide a challenge. A 12kg bell is good for beginners, or 16kg if you’re more advanced. Do the five moves in order, sticking to the reps detailed. At the end of the circuit rest for 90sec, then repeat for a total of four circuits. For balanced gains, use your left arm to do the unilateral moves in circuits 1 and 3, and your right arm in circuits 2 and 4.

Swing

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Reps 20

Drive your hips forwards to push the kettlebell off your body to start the swing. As you lower the bell, hinge at the hips by pushing your glutes back. When you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, drive your hips forward, allowing the kettlebell to rise to head height.

Goblet squat

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Reps 20

Using both hands, hold the kettlebell by its handle in front of your chest, keeping your elbows tucked in close to your body. Keep your chest up as you lower into a squat, keeping your knees wide. Drive up to stand.

3 Alternating lunge with chest press

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Reps 10 each side

Hold the bell by its handle close to your chest and take a big stride forwards into a lunge. Lower your back knee until it’s just off the floor and, as you do so, press the bell forwards so that your arms end up parallel with the floor. Reverse the move to the start. Alternate legs.

Clean and press 

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Reps 10

With the bell in one hand, swing it in a similar way as with the two-arm swing but as it passes eye level on the way up, draw your elbow into your body, bend your legs and “catch” the weight on the top of your forearm at shoulder height. Now drive up and punch the bell overhead. Complete all the reps with one arm, then swap sides in the next circuit.

5 One-arm swing

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Reps 10

After the last clean and press, continue into the one-arm swing, driving your hips forwards to generate the momentum to raise the bell to eye level. Again, do all the reps with one arm then swap sides for the next circuit.

Three-Minute Fat-Burning Circuit

Here’s the fat-burning finisher that fitness model and online PT Alex Crockford (opens in new tab) uses to get in cover star shape. The moves work your entire body, drawing on strength, power and conditioning moves that’ll make every muscle fibre twitch and keep your heart rate high enough to keep burning calories for hours after you’re done.

How to do the workout

Set a timer for three minutes. Do all the reps of exercises 1-4, and then as many reps as possible of good-form burpees until the time is up. Rest for 60 seconds, then repeat the whole process for between two and four sets. Keep a tally of the total number of burpees you do. Next time around, beat it.

Pull-up

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Reps 5

Hold the bar with an overhand grip. Retract your shoulder blades to engage the muscles in your upper back. Brace your core and pull up until your chin is over the bar. Lower under control. Struggling? Jump to the top position, then lower slowly

Box jump

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Reps 10

Lower into a quarter squat, then explode up to jump and land on the box. Bend your legs to cushion your landing. Stand up, then step back down.

Barbell Thruster

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Reps 15

Squat down, keeping your chest up, back straight and the weight on your heels. Drive up powerfully and press the weight overhead.

Kettlebell swing

fat loss

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Reps 20

Drive your hips forward to start the swing. As you lower, hinge at the hips by pushing your glutes back. When you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, drive your hips forward powerfully.

Burpee

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Reps AMRAP

Drop to a crouch. Jump your feet back into a press-up position. Jump your feet forwards again, drive up and jump. Pro tip: Breathe in on the way down and out as you jump back up.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.

With contributions from