These workouts maximize your afterburn effect.
You just pulled into your driveway after a long road trip — 12 gnarly hours of driving, in fact. You shut off the ignition, trudge inside, and relax a moment before heading back out to unpack. A few minutes later, you walk back to your car and pat the hood, thanking it for being such a trusty vehicle.
The hood’s still warm.
“Duh,” you’re probably thinking.
Well, good. Since you clearly understand that your car engine doesn’t revert to cold and dormant after a road trip, you’ll be able to understand that the same is true for your body.
After a workout, your body needs time to return to its natural resting state. Your heart rate doesn’t go from 150 beats per minute back to 80 like it’s nothing. Your breathing rate doesn’t slow down immediately. Your muscles don’t stop tremoring right away.
When you slump onto the floor into a sweaty heap, your body revs into repair mode.
And during repair mode, lots of stuff starts to happen to bring your body back to homeostasis (balance) and all that stuff requires oxygen, which scientists have dubbed “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,” or EPOC — alternatively known as the “afterburn effect.”
What is the afterburn effect?
“Afterburn effect” is the colloquial term for EPOC.
It refers to your body’s heightened metabolism — thanks to increased oxygen consumption — after a workout. EPOC is also termed “oxygen debt,” which describes the manner in which your body uses oxygen after a workout. Your muscles used up so much oxygen and energy during exercise, so now your body has to produce extra to “repay” the debt.
EPOC is the amount of oxygen needed to return your body to its resting state.
Related: 5 of the Most Outlandish Fitness Myths to Plague the Industry
Understanding EPOC During the immediate post-workout recovery period, your body must perform a number of tasks:
Your body requires oxygen to slash all these tasks off its list. Thus, your body consumes extra oxygen after a workout and burns extra calories during this recovery period.
Related: Less Is More: The Risks of Overtraining, as Told by a Frazzled Fitness Trainer
How long does the afterburn effect last?
Look, we don’t like being the “bad guys” who bust fitness myths into oblivion and, in the process, kinda break hearts by making people realize everything they believe is a lie. (OK, we kinda do like it. Can’t lie.)
Anyway, the afterburn effect is another one of those things. It’s not a lie or a myth — the afterburn effect does exist and it’s well-documented. However, the afterburn effect has been so over-glamorized and exaggerated that what most people believe about EPOC is, in fact, mythical.
Lots of articles cite scientific studies saying EPOC lasts for up to 38 hours, or even 72 hours, after exercise. What people fail to mention in such articles is this:
If you look at those numbers over the course of a week, then sure, you’ve got significant extra calorie burn. I won’t argue that 300 to 500 extra calories burned in a week is nothing — it most certainly can help you reach weight loss and physique goals. But that’s assuming you exercise for 30 minutes or more — at 75 percent VO2 max or higher — four to six times per week.
One study from 2006 puts it just right: “... Earlier research optimism regarding an important role for the EPOC in weight loss is generally unfounded. This is further reinforced by acknowledging that the exercise stimuli required to promote a prolonged EPOC are unlikely to be tolerated by non-athletic individuals.”
The point? Focus on the actual exercise, not the afterburn.
Related: 7 Fitness Myths That are Outdated and Wrong, Cleared Up by a Frazzled Fitness Coach
How to achieve the afterburn effect
You can’t burn calories after a workout if you don’t work out. So that’s the first step. Any form of exercise will yield some EPOC because that’s physiology. If you want to achieve maximum EPOC, though, take into account the research findings on the afterburn effect.
Studies have identified four factors that influence your post-workout metabolism:
Based on those findings, the best type of workout for achieving an afterburn effect is one that:
Biological sex and training status also affect EPOC. Males tend to burn more calories post-exercise simply because they generally have larger bodies and more muscle mass, which requires them to consume more oxygen to complete recovery tasks. Very fit people have lower EPOC than less fit people because their bodies are more efficient at fluctuating between metabolic states.
Try this afterburn workout
Here’s an example of a workout that could produce significant EPOC.
Complete as many rounds as possible in 40 minutes:
Smarter Sweat takeaways
The afterburn effect, or EPOC, does exist. It’s rather simple: When you exercise, your body undergoes physiological changes to support the work you’re doing. When you finish exercising, it takes a while for your body to return to its resting state because it has to kickstart the recovery process and provide energy while your muscles and nervous system wind down.
The more intense the workout, generally the more significant the afterburn effect. Factors other than intensity, including modality (weights versus HIIT versus cardio) and duration, also influence total EPOC. Completing a few high-intensity workouts each week can result in a couple hundred extra calories burned over the course of a week.
However, chasing the afterburn is dangerous. If you’re exercising solely to burn calories or to chase an asethetic, you can and will burn yourself out by trying to maximize calorie burn or fat loss with every single workout.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having aesthetic fitness goals — You’re a human. It’s normal to want to like the way you look and feel comfortable in your body. But remember that fitness is about so much more than looking good, which is subjective anyway.
Instead of chasing the afterburn, focus on how the contents of your workouts make you feel. Do you feel stronger, faster? Do you feel energized, invigorated? And pay attention to the 23 hours of your day during which you’re not exercising. Optimizing those hours — by eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep, and managing stress — will do more for your overall health and physique than prioritizing the afterburn effect.
By Amanda Capritto
Amanda is the co-founder of Smarter Sweat. She's a certified personal trainer, health coach, and functional fitness coach. She also owns another business, where she writes about all things fitness, nutrition, travel and lifestyle.
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About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.