In recent years, the high-intensity interval training (HIIT) approach has exploded with popularity, and for good reason. Short bursts of high-intensity exercise have been shown to be effective for fat loss and improving various health markers. HIIT workouts can also be completed effectively over a short duration. This makes them appealing and doable in today’s busy modern lifestyles.
But are they always the best answer? Qualified personal trainers are well versed in the knowledge that one size does not fit all when it comes to fitness programs. Just because something is ‘trendy’ or backed by scientific studies, it doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the best choice for any given client. There are so many factors to consider in program design, from the person’s medical and injury history and current status to their goals, preferences and lifestyle considerations.
So is there still a place for the ‘less sexy’ steady-state cardio in your 2019-2020 fitness plan? Let’s take a look at the benefits of each type of cardio, side by side.
What’s the difference between HIIT and steady-state cardio?
HIIT training involves alternating between short bursts of high-intensity exercise and recovery periods. There are various protocols that can be used when it comes to the length of the high-intensity exercise portion and the recovery portion.
Tabata is one well known HIIT protocol that involves 20 seconds of high intensity followed by 10 seconds of recovery and repeated for four minutes. This is known as a 2:1 work/rest ratio. HIIT work/rest ratios can vary greatly. For example, you could use a 1:3 protocol or even a 1:12 protocol depending on your objective.
Intensity levels and examples
The ‘work’ portion in HIIT training could range from just a few seconds, up until about 2 minutes, to ensure that it’s primarily an anaerobic activity. It’s generally performed at around 85-100% of maximum capacity. A HIIT cardio session could be completed in a number of ways including varying the resistance level and/or speed on one piece of cardio equipment or performing various bodyweight cardio-based exercises such as mountain climbers and burpees.
Conversely, steady-state cardio involves maintaining a steady energy output (usually at around 50-70% of maximal capacity) during your cardio session. Energy output remains relatively consistent and the intensity of the ‘work’ is comparatively lower because the work portion is continuous. Examples could include going for a jog or swim where you don’t vary your intensity by much.
The benefits of cardio exercise
Cardio exercise can also be known as ‘huffy puffy’ exercise. It’s the type of activity that really gets your heart rate elevated. It’s important to recognise that both steady-state and HIIT training can be effective forms of cardio training. Both forms of cardio can be beneficial for lowering blood pressure, burning body fat, improving insulin sensitivity and improving oxygen consumption.
Studies vary in their findings in terms of which type is ‘better’ in terms of improving any given health marker. Therefore, let’s focus on the most consistent findings associated with each type of training.
Pros and cons of HIIT cardio
Some of the potential benefits of HIIT include:
- Effective workouts can be completed quickly, and are therefore more easy to fit into a busy lifestyle. HIIT workouts usually fall within the range of 10 and 30 minutes
- Shorter, varied workouts may help combat boredom for some people
- Provides the potential to burn more calories than steady-state cardio over a shorter period of time
- Although resistance training should be your number one go-to when it comes to building muscle, HIIT training may have the advantage over steady-state when it comes to the potential to build lean muscle and enjoy the associated fat burning effects of doing so
- There is evidence that HIIT sessions can produce a higher metabolic rate and help you to burn fat for several hours after a workout, as compared to steady-state training. This is due to a concept called EPOC (post-exercise oxygen consumption).
Potential downsides and considerations of HIIT include:
- It’s not beginner-friendly and can increase the potential for injury and overtraining
- May be unsafe for certain populations
- Can feel painful, grueling and ‘tough’ and therefore can be harder to adhere to for some people
Pros and cons of steady-state cardio
Potential benefits of steady-state cardio include:
- Better than HIIT for building endurance (e.g. via long, slow distance training), and is therefore specific to endurance based goals such as completing a half marathon, or lasting for a full 90-minute sports game
- You can enjoy working out and maintaining a conversation with a friend at the same time! It can also be nice to ‘zone out’ and enjoy listening to a podcast or similar while you work out, which might be a bit more difficult with HIIT cardio
- Steady-state exercise can play an important role in recovery from high-intensity cardio or resistance training sessions. If it’s all back to back high-intensity training you may end up getting weaker and less fit due to inadequate recovery time
- It can be safer for beginners, those who are recovering from an injury or illness, or for those who have a medical condition. May reduce the potential for injury as compared to HIIT cardio.
- Consistency is one of the most important aspects when it comes to an effective exercise program. If HIIT feels like torture then you’re less likely to repeat it enough to get the results you’re after. Remember that you will still burn calories and get fitter with steady-state training!
Potential downsides of steady-state cardio include:
- You may need to plan more carefully to avoid both performance-related and weight loss plateaus
- More training time is generally required
- Variety needs to be more carefully planned in to minimize the chance of overuse injuries and boredom
Which type of cardio should I choose?
Both types of cardio have their merits and both can have a place in your program. Ultimately, your program design depends on a number of important factors including enjoyment, past and current medical and injury history, specificity in terms of your goals, and your lifestyle considerations.
Our at-home personal trainers can help you make sense of it all and design your program with all these factors in mind. They’ll help you create a balanced program that has just the right mix of variables for where you’re at right now, and what you want to achieve.
Get in touch so we can help you get the best results and enjoyment from a cardio program that is tailored to your needs.
Do you do HIIT, steady-state or both types of cardio in your program? Leave a comment below!