Are Brief Workouts Effective for Fat Loss as You Get Older?

There is something to be said for brief workouts. Back in the 80’s, when I joined my first gym, it was common for workouts to last over 90 minutes.

In college I would train up to 2 hours per day with a group of friends. We would spend 90 minutes lifting and 30 minutes on cardio. The routine was “3 days on and 1 day off”. Although that was WAY too much time in the gym, each of us was in great condition. With that much time sweating and burning calories, it was bound to work.

The problem was that our workouts weren’t time efficient. With a few less beers per week and less calories, we could have got the same results with about 1/2 the amount of time spent in the gym. In fact, with enough intensity and with a proper diet I believe I could have maintained a low body fat percentage just training a few times per week.

Although a few intense brief workouts are enough for a 20 year old to stay ripped, I believe the rules are different for a 40 year old.

Brief Workouts
[The time element of training is rarely discussed. Usually it is just assumed that less time training is better. If you are in your mid 30’s or older, I think you might need to question this assumption.]

Raging Hormones, High Metabolism, and “Naturally Active”…

This past August, I spent the majority of the month on a West Coast road trip (one of the reasons I haven’t posted in a while). About a week into our road trip we reached Huntington Beach, CA.

This is one of California’s prime surf beaches. Anyway, one thing I noticed was how the majority of the young surfers were lean and fit just as a natural result of their circumstances. Not only did these young surfers have higher levels of HGH than the older people on the beach, they were out in the water for 4-6 hours at a time.

No wonder why they were in such outstanding shape. This isn’t a big breakthrough or anything, but it made me think more about age and fitness.

Why Are Young People Typically Lean Without Trying?

I know this is a generalization, but people in their early 20’s are typically lean with very little effort. On our road trip, we stayed in Sedona, AZ for a few days and went to a cliff diving spot called “Grasshopper Point”.

There was a group of college kids chugging beer and then doing crazy flips off of some pretty darn high cliffs. With only 1-2 exceptions all of these young people were in outstanding condition. You could tell they probably did a bit of training, but staying lean was probably as easy deal for them.

Again, not a huge discovery or anything, it just made me think about age and fat loss a bit more.

Grasshopper Point

[Grasshopper Point is an amazing swimming hole. On one side of the river is a beach and the other side is a steep cliff. You swim across, climb up as high as you want up the red colored cliffs, and simply jump back into the water. A perfect summer day!]

Let’s Discuss What Young People Have in Their Favor

So I am going to generalize a lot here. We have all seen overweight teens and naturally lean 50 year old’s. I’m talking about averages here.

1) More Natural Physical Activity Each Week:

I will use myself as an example. Back in college I didn’t have a car and walked everywhere.

Heck, just walking to and from class took up over an hour of my day, 5 days a week. In addition to that, I would play volleyball or pickup basketball 2-3 times per week for 1-2 hours at a time. I would estimate that I spent 8-9 hours per week of exercise outside of my gym workouts.

These days I’m lucky to get in 2 hours per week of exercise outside of my gym workouts. So 7 more hours of activity per week, even at a low intensity level, is significant. Now wonder it was a breeze to stay lean back then!

2) High HGH Levels

Young people are fat burning machines compared to their older counterparts. A big reason for this is the high levels of HGH in younger folk. HGH is a natural fat burning hormone and declines as one ages. Exercise can slow down this decline, but can’t stop it from happening completely.

Not only are the normal HGH levels higher in young people, my belief is that the “HGH response” to a workout is greater in younger people as well (not proven by a scientific study as far as I know, just a belief of mine based on experience).

3) A Higher Metabolism

The combination of being more active and producing more HGH typically means younger folk are burning more calories even when they aren’t active.

The average 20 year old also has more lean muscle than the average 40 year old and this helps a bit as well. No matter how you look at it, the typical 20 year old is burning more calories day to day than the average 40 year old.

Whether it is attributed to hormones, muscle mass, activity, etc…it all adds up to more calories being burned over the course of a day by a 20 year old compared to a 40 year old.

[San Francisco is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. I could easily see living here. A big city in an amazing location.]

Let’s Examine if LESS Time Training is What You Need

I like the idea of brief and intense workouts, but is that going to get the job done? If you are over 30 and struggling to get as lean as you were in your teens and 20’s, it could be that you simply aren’t active enough each week. Is training less the smartest approach to dropping that excess body fat?

In my opinion there is a very good possibility that you need to spend a little bit more time in the gym, not less…especially if you aren’t as active as you were in your younger days.

You Can Only Diet So Hard Before You Are Starving Yourself

I do believe that diet is the first thing to look at when you are trying to get lean, but there is a lower limit. If you cut back the calories too far, you will become malnourished.

It is okay to eat slightly less than maintenance levels, but much lower than that for long periods of time is a terrible strategy. When reducing calories there is a lower limit. Even if you still need to lose body fat, it isn’t wise to go far below this lower limit for long periods of time.

There is An Upper Limit to Workout Intensity

If you perform too many intense workouts per week, you will over-train. You will break your body down at a faster rate than it can repair itself. To be honest, even a few ultra intense workouts per week can result in over-training. There is an upper limit to intensity that can’t be breached, even if you still have a lot of fat to lose.


[“Redlining” is a term I like to use when someone is eating below maintenance level calories and training intensely, but is unable to lose any more weight.]

When You Reach the Limits of Diet and Workout Intensity?

What variable can you adjust if you are at your limits with diet and workout intensity?

You can adjust the amount of time you train. This is logical, but it isn’t discussed much. If you are stuck at a certain body weight, simply add in 30-90 minutes per week to your training and you will lose weight again.

This has to be lower intensity training, if you are close to your upper limits already in terms of training intensity.

Why Cardio Is a Potent Tool for Fat Loss, In My Opinion

Cardio, whether it means walking outside or on a treadmill, is the perfect way to add in more activity without over-training. I like body weight circuits and HIIT and other versions of intense intervals, but there is a limit to how much I can do before I over-train.

If I am still not losing as much body fat as I would like, I can’t simply increase the intensity or I will burn out. What I can do is extend the amount of time I do steady state cardio after I do HIIT, or I can add in walking for 1-2 hours per week.

What Training in the 80’s Taught Me

The big thing in the 80’s was to bulk up in the winter and cut down right before summer. I don’t think this is a great strategy, but it taught me quite a bit about dropping body fat.

One thing I learned about fat loss was, given enough time on the treadmill or exercise bike and you can get as lean as you desire. This was before HIIT was known by the fitness community. Back then you would do steady state cardio for an hour per day, while eating a low fat diet to get extremely lean.

It wasn’t time efficient, but it worked. I even read about bodybuilders who would walk on a treadmill an hour in the morning and an hour at night to reach ultra-low body fat levels.

Weird Science

Steady State Cardio is the Great Equalizer

Unlike the 80’s, I don’t think it is smart to use steady state cardio as your main method of losing body fat. It simply isn’t as time efficient as HIIT or other form of interval training.

What I am saying is that if you are dieting properly and doing brief intense training along with HIIT, then it makes sense to add in lower intensity steady state cardio. Steady state cardio is one way a 40 year old can get as lean as a 20 year old.

Steady state cardio will make up for the fact that you are less active and your HGH levels aren’t as high, etc…this is why I call it the great equalizer. It is the ideal supplementary exercise to give that small extra push needed to burn off that little bit of stubborn body fat that many can’t seem to lose when they get older.

If You Are Training Hard, But Are Stuck at a Certain Weight

So if you are training hard already and your diet is dialed in, then my advice is to train a little more than you are training now. It doesn’t have to be time spent in the gym…it could be walking 2-3 times per week, in addition to what you are doing now.

Another approach is to just add 15 more minutes of steady state cardio to what you are doing now. Again, make sure you get everything optimum and as time efficient as possible before adding in additional steady state cardio.

The goal isn’t to live in the gym or train non-stop. It is to get in shape.


75 thoughts on “Are Brief Workouts Effective for Fat Loss as You Get Older?”

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  2. great article and very true. at age 47, time has caught up with me and i’m really made to work for my results as opposed to 20 years ago when a couple of sprints per week and the occasional session at the gym would sort me out nicely. however, age has its rewards and i’m far more tuned in to my body’s requirements with a much better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. as a result i’m in far better shape now, simply as a result of being more focused on what i require from my workout sessions. diet becomes less important as you age, just make sure you eat an even mix of healthy macros at maintenance; instead, my focus nowadays is on how i train, which is at high frequency and intensity with low volume and duration, or in other words short, sharp and often. at 6’1″ i’ve maintained a steady weight at 175lbs with 11% b/f since i turned 40 and my training is now a groove which has become a positive habit, nice one. as rusty said, focus less on your diet and more on your training, cheers and good luck!

  3. It’s like an athlete with natural ability that loses out to an athlete that works harder. I wasn’t lazy when I was younger, but I definitely didn’t have the work ethic that I have now.

  4. The great thing is that you’re not expected to look as toned when you’re 40 as when you’re 20.

  5. Thank you for the article. It really hit home for me. The whole 20 vs 40 scenario is so true. In my 20’s i didnt have to workout to maintain my weight and i can eat whatever whenever. But now that im 30, alot of discipline has to be put in because my weight can drastically increase in 3days.

  6. Hello,

    yes workout is one of best exercise for loosing the over weight. I like your blog post very much. I like your way of expressing articles through excellent words.Your way of expressing things is best and informative.Keep sharing articles like this.A great article with best possible effects.I am great fan of your blog.Every time i come here i see something very new.Thanks for sharing the information.

    sharon baker, NY

  7. It’s true that there are certain limits in dieting. There can be danger if you don’t observe properly. Everything that is too much will give a negative result. So it is best to be knowledgeable when it comes to your diet.

  8. Oh, how I remember those college days,when I was 5’9″ and weighed 121 lbs. I did everything I could to gain wieght,, several milkshakes a day,any junk food and pop available in the dorm. I REALLY HATED TO BE SKINNY. I would love to relive those skinny days. Now at 62 it is difficult to loose the weight I have put on. It seems to creep up on you when you are not expecting it. you just think you will always be skinny and eat the same foods. NOPE.

  9. Razwell, your statement doesnt make sense sorry, when you say intense workouts are too short and what you need in all day active life, no one doubts that all day activity helps, but its not intense enough to blitze excess fat except you are already slim and have good genes

  10. Hi Rusty!!! i hope you still get the chance to respond to this!! what you say makes sense, i just wanted to know that if by increasing cardio as we get older also means we cant substitute cardio with bodyweight intervals anymore????

  11. Rusty
    Thanks so much for the blog. As a personal trainer how many days a week do you suggest someone a bit older get into the gym with this higher intensity workout with weights? I only ask because these shorty workouts in the gym must be at a higher intensity and I wonder if you should scale back on the number of times they train in the gym to ensure you don’t over train.

  12. Hi lynn,
    Thanks a lot for your advice, i am surely going to follow it. i am really concerned about the way i look. I am 40 kg in weight but I have a lot of fat around my hips and its really heart breaking cause its impossible to wear skinny jeans. I did not have muscular legs but when i did the recumbent bike in just 4 days i got thigh muscle pumped and it looks ugly. i tried HIIT and my thigh looks worse due to muscularity. my body tends to develop muscle really fast……

    I will follow your suggestion about jogging lightly for 45 mins….but is it a gurantee that i will loose thigh muscle for sure? also i am planning to go on a protein deficiency.

    Thank you very much for understanding me ….. i will follow your suggestion. 🙂

    God bless

  13. Rusty
    For the past 4 months , I have been following a routine similar to yours. 20 mins Hiit on the treadmill followed by 20-25 mins of
    steady state cardio. I have cut out lower body weight work and focus on less reps, more weight for the upper body , 3 times a week.
    To my dismay , I have seen my thighs increase in size and some weight gain around the middle. My diet is fairly clean and I practice ESE 1-2 days a week. I am not sure if this is because I am hitting perimenopause .I am thinking of going back to the longer SS cardio routines. I feel that those workouts were more effective for me. Any thoughts?

  14. You’re wrong Rusty. The foundation is ALL DAY low intensity movement – ALL DAY ACTIVE LIVING. Sprints are a SUPPLEMENT.

    Intense workouts alone aren’t worth a damn for fat loss. They are too short. FORGET workin out. Just do active living. Fotmal exercise results in about a one pound weight loss yaaay.

    Look into DR. LINDA BACON PhD

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