The Best (and Worst) Exercises for Weight Loss

Weight loss exercises is one of the most popular topics in the world, in fact if you pop it into Google, you’ll be met with more than 1 billion results! The problem is that there’s an absolute boatload of poor-quality information out there, not to mention thousands of people trying to sell you some magical new exercise device.

This article is written to cut through all the noise and provide you with the best (and worst) exercises for your weight loss journey.

We’ll start by going over a poor choice of exercise, then we’ll look at why it’s a poor choice before moving onto some better alternatives and the reasons why they’re a better pick.

Worst Exercise Number One: Running

When it comes to weight loss the first thing that almost everyone thinks of is running. To be fair, running is cheap, it’s simple and it does burn plenty of calories, so it CAN be a great way to lose weight. The major problem is that it’s a high impact activity, meaning it puts a lot of stress through your ankles, knees and hips. Worse still, the heavier you are the more stressful running is, and since trying to lose weight generally means you’re carrying a bit extra to begin with, it could be a high risk activity for you.

Over time, the stress of repeated impacts could lead to shin splints, knee joint pain, ankle pain and hip pain, which could put a stop to your weight loss efforts.

Best and worst exercises
Running is good for losing weight; not so good for your joints

Best Exercise Alternatives


Walking is just as cheap and simple as running, but it provides far less impact, making it much safer for your joints. You can use the time to listen to a podcast and learn something new, plus there are also a bunch of useful apps for phones as well as smart watches that can track your daily and weekly step count.

And there’s even more good news; a recent analysis (Hall et al. 2020) reviewed 17 studies, some 30,000 people, and found that walking more steps per day was significantly correlated with lower all-cause mortality. By walking as little as 1000 extra steps per day you’re reducing your risk of heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and a whole range of potential illnesses.


Although not as cheap and accessible as walking, swimming is the ultimate no-impact weight loss exercise. You’ll be able to burn a load of calories without putting any stress through your legs. It’s also a great choice due to the variety of styles you can use. Breaststroke, front crawl, backstroke and butterfly all provide slightly different training effects, so you’ll be able to keep your workouts fresh and interesting.


When most people think of cycling they tend to think of elite athletes tackling the Tour De France on incredibly expensive bikes. If that’s your scene then go for it. However, if you’re just testing the waters you can grab yourself a cheap second-hand bike online and build up some stamina cycling around your local area. You’ll burn plenty of calories, plus it’s very low impact.

Worst Exercise Number Two: Isolation Resistance Exercises

Okay so this is more like a broad category of exercises. Isolation exercises are exercises that only target a single muscle or joint. Some examples include…

  • Bicep Curls
  • Tricep Kickbacks
  • Leg extensions

The problem with these types of exercises is that they’re an incredibly inefficient way to burn calories and lose weight. You would have to spend hours upon hours in the gym every single week just to get any kind of useful results.

Best Exercise Alternatives – Compound Exercises

Compound exercises use multiple muscles and joints at the same time; therefore they burn a lot more calories and help you lose more weight quicker. They’re also a great way of building some muscle, which not only makes you look more toned/defined, but also makes your body burn more calories even when it’s resting.


Good squats train your quads, adductors, glutes and even your hamstrings. They also help you to develop core stability, coordination and balance. As anyone who squats regularly will tell you, 3 or 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps of moderately heavy squats will get your heart pumping and make your legs burn. All of which means you’re getting a lot of workout done in a small amount of time.

Barbell squat
Squats are an excellent way to burn a tonne of calories in a short period of time


Press-Ups are an incredibly versatile upper body exercise that works your chest, shoulders and triceps simultaneously. You can perform them for a given number of sets and reps or aim for as many reps as possible in a certain timeframe. You can also regress and progress them to your ability level. If you need to make them easier you can drop your knees to the floor, and if you need to make them harder you can add weight by wearing a backpack. All in all, a great way to burn plenty of calories.

Barbell Rows

Barbell rows work your lats and rhomboids at the same time, plus because you have to hold a hinged hip position they also work your lower back and spinal erectors, providing an incredibly effective and time-efficient workout. They’re also a great counter-balance to pushing movements like press-ups, allowing you to keep a good posture.

*Pro Tip: If you’re looking to maximise your resistance workouts, why not check out our article on boosting your calorie burn during weight sessions.

The Best and Worst Exercises for Weight Loss

Weight loss is a long term game, and it’s hard enough already without using ineffective methods of achieving it.

If you want to maximize your chances of losing weight then stay away from exercises such as running and isolation resistance training due to the injury risk and lack of time-efficiency respectively. Instead, focus your efforts on a combination of low-impact cardio (walking, swimming, cycling) and compound resistance training.


Hall, K.S., Hyde, E.T., Bassett, D.R. et al. (2020) Systematic review of the prospective association of daily step counts with risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, and dysglycemia. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 17, 78.