How to Become a Fat Burning Machine – Part II

In Part I of How to Become a Fat Burning Machine, we touched on metabolism and energy systems and how we can manipulate it to our advantage.  In Part II, we’ll actually lay out a program for you to follow.  Now keep in mind, when training to become a fat burning machine, you’re gonna have to stick to the game plan… and the game plan is LONG and BORING!  That’s just the way it is.  Only when you become efficient and things become easier will the runs be any fun.

At the beginning, they’re just long and slow and boring, but that’s the only way we can ensure that you’re building a solid aerobic base.  The better your aerobic base, the more oxygen you can utilize, the easier things get… and as if I haven’t already said it enough:  the easier things get, the more fat you’ll burn.

The Game Plan

Attached is a graph of my first ever metabolic assessment (at a time when I never did any cardiovascular training… I know, I know… I’m making excuses for a horrible showing). In Zone 1 (131-141bpm, low intensity) I am burning 5.3 calories from fat per minute and 9.9 calories total per minute. As my intensity gets harder, I burn less calories from fat but more calories overall.

New Leaf Graph

Goal is to use just as many calories from fat at the high intensities as you are at the low intensities.

Zone 2 (141-160bpm, moderate intensity) shows me burning 4 calories from fat and 12.5 calories total per minute.

Zone 3 (160-180bpm, high intensity) shows me burning only 2.9 calories from fat but 16.1 calories per minute overall. These zones represent a training intensity of 50% to 85% of my heart rate reserve (HRR). For your cardiovascular system to see any improvements, you must train within these intensities.

Not everyone has access to a metabolic assessment so the next best thing is to use the Karvonen formula to figure out your (HRR). By using your resting heart rate (RHR) and age, we’ll make this program as unique to you as possible. The formula is as follows:

HRR  = 220 – Age – RHR

Let’s say I have a 30 year old client whose RHR is 60bpm. Her HRR would be:

HHR = 220 – 30 – 60
HHR = 130bpm

To figure out her target heart rate (THR) at 50%:

THR = (HRR x .50) + RHR
THR = (130bpm x .50) + 60bpm
THR = 125bpm

And at 70%:

THR = (130bpm x .70) + 60bpm
THR = 151bpm

We now have the lower and upper ends of the target training zone at 50% and 70%. I used 70% instead of 85% because I want my client to ease into her cardio program. Setting lofty goals will only lead to failure and potentially giving up completely. Remember, you gotta learn how to crawl before you walk!  Subsequent programs will include higher intensities.

All we’re missing now is our moderate intensity zone which we’ll set at 60%. What would her THR at 60% be?

The Program

Now that we’ve figured out the THR for three different intensities, we need to set up the actual program.


If you want this template in Excel format, leave a comment to this post with a valid email address!

I’ve included spaces for you to record your incline and speed for the purpose of monitoring your progress. If you track your speed you might notice on day 1 it took a level 4 speed to reach 125bpm. After 6 weeks of training, it might take you a level 6 to reach the same THR. Do you see what is happening? You’ve increased your cardiovascular efficiency and your capacity to do work. Pretty soon, your 10 minute per mile pace will become a 6 minute per mile pace, all while keeping the same heart rate! Does this make any sense? After several months of training, what you should see on your metabolic re-assessment is higher fat utilization in all Zones, with the ultimate goal being a straight line from your aerobic base to your anaerobic threshold.

An extreme example is Lance Armstrong. His metabolic assessment on a bike shows him utilizing nearly the same amount of fat in Zone 1 as he is in Zone 4/5. Now that’s what you call CARDIOVASCULAR EFFICIENCY! However, throw him on a treadmill and his efficiency is nowhere near the same levels. Because his training is primarily in cycling, he’s really really good at it which means it’s so easy for him that fat is utilized much more highly than if he were running. This is why you should stick with one modality. If you want to be a fat burning machine, do not mix biking with running with swimming. Pick one and stick with it.  Didn’t I say it was gonna be boring?

Taking aerodynamic to the next level.

Taking aerodynamic to the next level.

After you complete this 6 week program, you should retake your RHR. If you’ve kept up with the program, your RHR should actually be lower. Using your new RHR, create a new 6 week program with higher target training zones. Eventually, you’ll start to introduce intervals and sprints into your program which will train your anaerobic threshold. Once you get to this point, your workouts will be more fun.

New Leaf Report

To be an efficient fat burning machine, you need to train in all zones.

Guestimate to Your Advantage, Eat What You Want

I am definitely not a calorie counter but if you are, you should stop.  You’re just gonna drive yourself nuts.  But if you insist, then this is how you can use it to your advantage:

Using my own metabolic assessment, I can estimate the amount of fat calories and total calories I am expending. In my Zone 1, if I am burning 5 fat calories per minute and 10 total calories per minute, that would equate to 300 fat calories and 600 total calories on day 1 (60 min cardio sesh). Considering that a slice of pizza might be 300-500 calories, are you willing to sacrifice 60 minutes doing cardio to eat a slice? (I do it all the time, pizza… not cardio).

Obviously, if you are more efficient than I am, then you’ll be burning more calories.  I’m only giving you this as an example.  The only way to know how many calories you’re burning per minute is by getting a metabolic assessment.

For your reference:

  • Weight loss is contingent on calories in versus calories out. You consume more than you expend, you gain weight. You expend more than you consume, you lose weight.
  • 3500 calories = 1lb.
  • Protein = 4 calories/gram
  • Carbs = 4 calories/gram
  • Fat = 9 calories/gram
  • Alcohol = 7 calories/gram (so lay off the liquid diet!)
  • You can safely lose 1-2lbs. per week
  • Shoot for a deficit of 500 calories per day if you’re looking to lose weight.
  • A combination of cardio and dieting to achieve this 500 calorie deficit is much easier than trying to burn 500 calories through working out or depriving yourself of 500 calories through dieting.

So let’s recap…

  • Get yourself a heart rate monitor. Do you really need one? No, but it just makes things easier. Since we are focusing on heart rate training, we’ll need a way to monitor it (and no, holding onto the heart rate monitors is not accurate because it actually slows your heart rate down).
  • Pick one modality and stick with it. If you’re gonna run, run. If you’re gonna bike, bike. Don’t mix up your modalities. Unlike strength training, you don’t want to confuse your body. Confusion won’t make you efficient at burning fat. Keep with one modality and be really good at it. Remember, the easier it is, the more fat is used as an energy resource…blah, blah, blah.
  • Be consistent. Again, I can’t stress this enough… the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the easier it becomes, the more fat you’ll burn…blah, blah, blah.

Aaaannnnnnddd…. we’re done!  But let me leave you with this one last bit of advice:


You might get thinner, but without muscle, all you really are is SKINNY FAT!

Oxymoronic?  Not at all.  We’ll save that for another day though…

Please submit comments to this post instead of to Facebook! Thanks!

show hide 16 comments

Mog - So, Lance Armstrong looks awesome naked? Cool.

I think personal trainers’ clients would benefit from hearing ‘the plan’ during their first week or two of training. Not just the part about RHR and traget zones, but also the part about the “reward” at six weeks if you reach those goals – more variation / less boredom in the program!

I wonder if motivational interviewing techniques (developed from work with substance abusing counseling clients) would be useful in the overweight/obese population when it comes to maintaining an exercise regimen…

John H - Awesome write up’s Quoc. Great information in an easy to read format.

Justin - What are some good inexpensive heart rate monitors you recommend? This is alot of great information I was not aware of. I thought all that bullcrap I watched on Biggest Loser was good? You probably will not like this but I love Jillian. She kicks ass. Can I leave work early today? Don’t tell Dave….

Bridget Le Loup - Quoc, I’m inspired. Can you send me the excel format?

Brandon - Hey Quoc, keep up the great work! This is really interesting information and it keeps me motivated to progress my fitness routine.

i have a question relating to part I when you talked about energy stores. When your body uses fat stores for energy, where does it pull from first? Is it based on the body parts you’re training, or is it a universal pool of fat stores across your body?

yeahmanh - Most trainers don’t know this info and most clients don’t care to hear. Sad to say but the majority of the clients that I’ve trained don’t care about me educating them, they just want me to kick their asses. I guess that’s why joke of a trainers like Jillian Michaels are so popular… they thrive on making people throw up.

yeahmanh - I use the heart rate monitors from Polar but any brand will do. Just make sure you get the monitors that come with the chest strap as they are the most accurate.

yeahmanh - Program sent! Looking forward to seeing what you put together.

yeahmanh - You can’t pick and choose where you burn fat. The general rule is that the first place you gain weight will be the last place you lose it. Think of fat as several layers of full body suits. When you’re burning fat, you’re essentially taking off these layers. However, there has been research stating otherwise where you’re burning more fat in the areas that are actually doing the work. How much truth there is to this? I have no idea… but I do know that the more muscle you have, the less cellulite you have.

Don’t get me started on chicks who want to lose weight everywhere but their asses.

marcie - What’s up Q! Good stuff. I’m excited you have this blog! I do have some questions. Maybe you could help me out…

It sounds like the program you put together advocates for training at 50%-70% intensity, which is basically a low-intensity (Zone 1) work out. I agree, there is a “fat burning zone,” but that zone is so low that our bodies don’t burn a whole lot of calories in it — it’s not really all that magical as people make it out to be. I like how you recommend some progression in the program, but it also sounds like the program calls for long “boring” bouts of the same type of cardio so that our bodies can become efficient and burn more calories.

This is actually contradictory to my reasoning. Once our bodies adapt, they become more efficient and actually end up burning less calories (principle of specificity or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands, or SAID principle — check out My next step would be to progress to interval training to enhance the anaerobic threshold and actually train in all three HR zones to maximize caloric burn and the potential for EPOC (exercise post oxygen consumption). The only real way to “burn fat,” is to burn more calories than we consume — bottom line, right? We can’t really do this if we let our bodies adapt to the same “long boring” exercise.

I think you’re totally right in the sense that by improving our cardiovascular endurance, we will be able to utilize more of our fat stores during workouts, but by sticking with the same type of cardio workout after workout can lead to a plateau (not to mention the potential for overtraining and muscle imbalance).

Thoughts? Thanks!

yeahmanh - Marcie! Some good points you bring up… so good that I’m gonna address it (amongst other questions) in a separate post. I didn’t want to touch on EPOC but since you brought it up, I’m gonna have to get into pyruvate, muscle glycogen, etc. If you’ve read my other posts, you’d have seen that I do talk about EPOC, though I don’t refer to it as that… great questions! Stay tuned!

Angela C. - Okay, okay, okay.

I’ll do it.


Can you please send me the excel spreadsheet, too? Also, I’m going to refer my friend to you to attend the free kettlebell training in LA. He should be getting his in a few days!

Keep up the great work. You’re so knowledgable!!!!!

Emerson - Good posts! That pic of Lance Armstrong is ridiculous. I’m thinking about trying out the “concentrating on one modality” piece. I already ride my bike a lot and love it, so might as well push myself farther and longer- it’s a great way to explore the city. I also ride a fixed-gear bike, so I’m hoping that the fact that I’m never really “coasting” or resting because there is no free-wheel mechanism, will be an added bonus for fitness and fat burning.

I do have to say though that there are a of people out there buying super-high end road bikes, saving grams here and there, carbon fiber this and carbon fiber that, this many gears, etc thinking that’s how they’re going to get ripped like Lance…. It’s kind of funny, because a lot of times the majority of the weight they’re carrying is in their belly, and unless they’re going up some treacherous hills I’m thinking maybe they just need a less efficient bike and more riding.

Looking forward to reading more posts.

steph g - damn good article q ! i want that spreadsheet!!! keep em comin… i’ll keep on readin!!!


(fyi- got a nike chest strap heartrate monitor fr. costco $30)

» Blog Archive » WYWS – Mailbag, Fitness Gimmicks… Ranting - [...] With all that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty gritty with my answers to questions that readers have asked since my posts on “How to Become a Fat Burning Machine, Parts I & II” [...]

Heart Rate in the 808 | - [...] I decided to try out the new heart monitor that my trainer taught me to use. After all of these years in Education, I just learned that there is a specific target heart  rate that I can aim  for in order to maximize my workout. (Thanks, Quoc!) [...]

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