Does calorie burn during workouts really matter?

October 6, 2012

Q: I’m a little confused about the importance and accuracy of the calorie burn display on many of the machines at the local gym. I noticed that sometimes when I think I had a great workout, the calorie burn is less than I expected. I also noticed that the guy next to me did the same level, time and speed on the machine, but he burned a lot more calories than me. Are the machines accurate and does calorie burn matter if my goal is to burn fat and get in better shape?

A: Many people believe that calorie burn is the gold standard for gauging success, but the truth of the matter is it’s sometime inaccurate, and there are many better ways to get track progress. Here are several reasons why you should consider other methods.

Machines overestimate calorie expenditure

It’s nice to be able to see how many calories you are burning per workout, but it’s important to understand that the calorie expenditure you see on your screen is nothing more than a rough estimate based on a predetermined formula. Recent studies suggest that cardio machines can be off as much as 25 percent, which means a person who spends 30 minutes on the elliptical and burns 400 calories may really only have burned around 300, and to make matters worse there is little to no consistency among different types of machines, so comparing them will only lead to more confusion.

Calorie burn depends on gender and size

Men have a natural advantage when it comes to calorie burn because they are bigger and carry more muscle mass than their female counterparts. Scientifically speaking, the more muscle you have on your frame, the more calories it takes to get you moving and fuel you through your workouts. This explains why a woman who weighs 130 pounds can do the exact same machine, level, program and intensity as a man who weighs more and still come up on the short end of the stick when it comes to total calories expended.

People with lower body fat burn more calories

People with lower body fat naturally burn more calories because their ratio of muscle to fat is higher than average, and they require more calories to fuel their muscles than someone with more body fat would need to do the same workout. Cardio machines will not take this into consideration and will give inaccurate results.

Calorie burn does not determine fat burn

Calorie burn is not an accurate way to determine if you’re burning fat, because all calories are not considered equal. Studies have proven that intensity has a lot more to do with burning fat than how many minutes of cardio you do and how many calories you burn. For example, doing 30 minutes of interval training and burning a grueling 300 calories is much more productive for incinerating fat stores than doing 60 minutes of steady state, easier cardio and burning 600 calories. In fact, a reduction in the amount of cardio and an increase in intensity is usually the solution for people who have reached a plateau and are having trouble losing more weight.

There are better ways to determine success

Body fat testing, measurements and weight loss are all valid ways to determine if your program is working and you’re losing body fat. These indicators will help you find the best overall fitness level for you and your body, and help you maintain it. Don’t waste time counting calories, because they are not an accurate gauge of progress.

Remember, calorie burn is just one of the many ways to track the success of your workout, and many factors can cause it to be inaccurate. For more accuracy, try using other methods to track the success of your program, and you’ll experience much better results.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out