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Surprising Exercises That Will Help You Get Lean, Says Science

There are other options out there besides HIIT.

Building and maintaining one's ideal fitness can feel like a constant balancing act. You want muscles, but you might not want to look like a full-on bodybuilder. You want to be strong, without having to spend all of your free time in the gym. In other words, getting lean often is easier said than done.

"Carving out a lean and chiseled physique takes discipline and dedication. Getting the skinny, ripped look requires decreasing your body fat percentage while maintaining lean muscle mass. An intense strength-training program is key when it comes to fat loss, because muscle increases metabolism," Nicole Hogan-Jenkins, CPT, wrote for LiveStrong.

Indeed, a regular regimen of resistance training should be part of any strategy aiming to build lean muscle and shed excess body fat. Incorporating some HIIT (high-intensity interval training) isn't a bad idea either, as it's associated with tons of muscle-building, fat-burning benefits. But if those modalities aren't your cup of tea, there are plenty of other exercises and activities that can help you achieve the lean look you've always wanted. Here are some surprising exercises that will help you get lean. And for more workout ideas, don't miss: Build Muscle and Get Lean with This 4-Move At-Home Workout.

Jump rope

Close up of woman feet jumping, using skipping rope in park

If the idea of jump rope brings you back to days spent in school gymnasiums or summer camps, you're certainly not alone. Outside of boxers, very few adults incorporate jump rope into their fitness regimens—but that doesn't mean this activity can't help you reach your fitness goals.

"As a fitness professional for over 20 years, I've come to realize that jumping rope is one of the most effective cardio exercises out there," explains Guy Codio, CPT, of NYC Personal Training. "Jumping rope enables an individual to engage several muscles that you might not be able to recruit from other forms of cardio. This enables you to burn more calories per minute as a low-impact workout."

"In fact, jumping rope for 30 minutes burns about 300 calories. That's a total of 2,100 calories every week! Simple, but one of the most effective exercises available," adds Lana Evans, PT, of Total Shape.

There are lots of other benefits of jumping rope, Codio adds, including improved motor control and coordination, improved bone density, and increased cardio capacity. It's also a low-impact workout, he says, since the force of the jump is absorbed by both legs.

Still not convinced? Consider the findings of this study, published in The Research Quarterly. Researchers separated a group of college students into two groups. One group went for a 30-minute run each day for six weeks while the other group jumped rope for 10-minutes daily. By the end of the study it was determined that just 10 minutes of jumping rope is just as beneficial from a cardiovascular fitness and health perspective as a full half hour spent running. Want more fitness intel? Check out The Secret Trick for Walking to Get Lean, Says Study.



What workout allows you to surround yourself in nature, breathe in some fresh air, and work toward your lean body goals? If you guessed kayaking, you're right.

"A surprising way to promote a leaner physique is to weave exercise into activities that are also enjoyable. One option to get in a great exercise while also doing something enjoyable is kayaking," says Marty Kelly, founder and editor of Actively Outdoor. "An average person weighing 185 pounds can burn upwards of 440 calories every hour spent kayaking. Kayaking will work the upper body and core muscles, while burning calories at the same time. Plus, being outdoors on a lake or river is much better than a gym, garage or basement," she says.

Moreover, kayaking helps tone and strengthen back, arm, shoulder, and chest muscles (from moving the paddle). However, kayaking also works the torso and legs as well. Both rotating one's torso and utilizing significant leg pressure are major aspects of powering a kayak forward.

Long walks


If you're not a longtime ETNT Mind+Body reader, you may be surprised to learn that a long walk through your neighborhood or local park can also help you reach your fitness goals.

"One activity that can really improve leanness is going for long walks, 30-60 minutes, in the morning on an empty stomach multiple times a week," says TJ Mentus, CPT, of Garage Gym Reviews. A fast pace, he says, will keep your heart rate up and burn calories. Plus, taking a walk before breakfast "helps the body and mind wake up and increase metabolism before the body has consumed any calories. Adding this activity in but keeping caloric intake the same will help to put the body in a caloric deficit as well leading to manageable weight loss," he says.

There's research to back up the connection between walking and leanness as well. This study published in Preventive Medicine concluded that walking for 30 minutes per day five days each week improves aerobic fitness and decreases body fat percentage. Another study published in Clinical Cases in Mineral and Bone Metabolism found that the same amount of walking (30 minutes a day, five days per week) helps prevent loss of muscle size and strength among older adults. For more intel on walking's benefits, read more: Secret Side Effects of Walking Just 30 Minutes Per Day, Says Science.


Face of a female triathlete swimming

"One of the best forms of exercise is undoubtedly swimming since it builds muscle strength and endurance and can also be performed in a low-impact manner on many body parts," says Will Henry, Founder of Bike Smarts. "And with water resistance, swimming provides constant and long-lasting resistance throughout your whole body so you get an even-toned figure. This works perfectly for looking lean," he adds.

Swimming effectively checks off all the boxes in terms of building a lean, toned physique. And per the Mayo Clinic, if a 160-pound individual spends one hour swimming they'll burn roughly 423 calories. In comparison, an hour spent walking at 3.5 mph would only burn 314 calories. Read more: These Are the Workouts You Should Never Do Alone, Say Experts.

Squat curl press

"As a personal trainer, I'm always implementing unconventional exercises into my client's programs to help them get lean. They've got great results from modifying basic exercises such as squats and deadlifts to make them more conducive to building a toned physique," says James Jackson, PT, of Critical Body. One of his favorite moves for getting lean and fit is the squat curl press, a tweak on the traditional squat.

"This full-body, muscle-building movement burns a ton of calories to shred fat while also toning your legs, shoulders, and arms," he says. "You want to hold a pair of dumbbells by your sides—pick a weight that you can bicep curl 8-10 times—and then squat as low as you comfortably can. After the squat, push yourself back up and then curl the dumbbells to your shoulders while keeping your elbows still. Finish the rep by pressing the weights over your head explosively." If performed correctly, you should feel both out of breath and a serious burn in your shoulders, biceps, and thighs after completing a few sets. Looking for other lean-body workouts? Don't miss: Want a Lean Body? Do This One Exercise Over All Others, Say Experts.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more about John