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The Great Cardio Debate: HIIT Or Steady-State?

The intelligent use of the right cardio at the right time can help you achieve your goals. The right type of cardio can help you achieve your body conditioning goals, whether your aim is to lose weight or shed body fat.

There are two main types of cardio to consider – steady-state and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). These techniques can be applied when using any mode of cardio, be it running, cycling, stepping, cross-training or swimming. The key to selecting the best form is understanding the benefits and mechanisms of each.

H.I.I.T

The most effective form of training to lose overall weight and metabolise fat is to burn as many calories as possible during your workout, and for this HIIT is the most effective (in combination with weight training).

This approach burns a greater number of total calories, which is ideal when trying to lose weight, not necessarily just fat. HIIT sessions normally last between 20-30 minutes and incorporates varying degrees of intensity during ‘bursts’ in a single session. This ensures that you work through a wide range of heart rate zones to burn more calories.

The protocol for proper HIIT includes a short warm up, followed by alternating intervals of high intensity work and active rest (lower relative intensity) periods. For example, on the treadmill you would sprint for 10-20 seconds at an intensity of 75-95% of MHR, then reduce your intensity for a period of 30-40 seconds to actively recover. Once completed, follow a cool down protocol for at least five minutes.

There are various ways to increase your intensity during intervals, be it speed, resistance, or incline (or a combination). As your fitness improves, you can increase the duration of each interval to derive greater benefits.

Ultimately, working as close to your maximum for as long as possible is what turns your body into a calorie-incinerating machine as you boost your metabolism throughout the rest of the day as your body works to recover. The higher the intensity and duration of your session, the longer it will take for your body to return to normal – a state of homeostasis. As a result, you’ll burn more calories overall.

H.I.I.T. guidelines:
  • Use major muscle groups when doing HIIT
  • Warm up and cool down properlym
  • Train for 15 to 20 minutes
  • Slowly progress by increasing multiple variables (speed, duration or difficulty level)
  • Do not do HIIT on consecutive days (take 24 to 48 hours to recover)
  • Only engage in HIIT if you already have a suitable level of conditioning and fitness
  • Eat properly
  • Do not engage in HIIT if you have any injuries. Check with your medical professional before starting any similar programme

Steady-state

You can also include steady-state, lower intensity cardio between HIIT sessions to actively recover and continue burning fat. This is a more targeted cardio method that helps you preferentially metabolise fat to create your desired aesthetic.

Steady-state cardio involves doing medium-intensity cardio at a consistent tempo for longer durations. This form of aerobic training should be performed at 50-75% of MHR as this level of intensity is the ‘sweet spot’ for your aerobic energy system. This ensures that more of the body’s energy demands can be met from the metabolism of stored body fat.

At intensities of 75% of MHR or higher, the body preferentially burns stored glycogen and ingested carbs for energy, along with some fat and protein. Stay below that threshold and lipolysis (the breakdown of stored body fat) becomes the preferred source of energy.

The problem most people have with engaging in this type of cardio is the amount of time it takes – 40-60 minutes at a time.

Steady-state cardio guidelines:
  • Use major muscle groups when doing your cardio
  • Warm up and cool down properly
  • Train for 30-60 minutes
  • Exercise at medium intensity. If it is too easy you won’t derive any benefit
  • Train with accuracy by using a heart rate monitor
  • Strictly adhere to your heart rate zones
  • Follow a strict, calorie controlled diet

Making the choice

Don’t confuse the concept of overall weight loss with fat loss. HIIT is best suited for burning a greater number of calories and fat, which will assist with weight loss, whereas steady-state cardio will burn fewer calories, but more of those calories will be derived from fat stores. With this in mind, mix up your training for the desired conditioning effect.