H.I.I.T Cardio Vs. Steady State Cardio: Which is Superior For Fat Loss?
There has been a long-standing debate in the fitness industry over which is superior for fat loss- H.I.I.T. cardio (high-intensity interval training) or steady state (SS) cardio. If you ask anyone in the gym you will get a multitude of responses in favor of both sides, and even some people who believe a little bit of each is the best approach. What I want to accomplish in this article is to explain what research science shows us along with some anecdotal evidence about each form of cardio so you can take that information and make your decision on which approach is ideal for you.
Speaking of ideal, let’s talk about that for a minute. We need to remember that cardio is a tool, and the goal of cardio when trying to shed body fat is to burn as much fat as possible with minimized muscle loss. Everything works when it comes to choice of cardio, but the question we should always ask isn’t what works, but “what is ideal”.
Breakdown of Steady State Cardio
Walk into a gym anywhere in the world and you will see the majority of gym members doing steady state cardio such as riding a bike or walking on a treadmill. Steady state cardio is simply doing cardiovascular exercise in a steady fashion at one set pace with no increase or decrease in intensity. Examples could include jogging/running, walking, riding a bike, using the elliptical, etc and is usually done with a heart rate of about 120-130 bpm for the duration.
There are some advantages to steady state cardio. When steady state cardio is performed the primary fuel being used to fuel the activity is fat. This happens to be the main reason most people tend to rely so heavily on steady state cardio. Another advantage would be for people who have an injury or condition where they cannot perform H.I.T.T. due to the heavy demand it places on the body. Steady state cardio is also more enjoyable to most people than the H.I.T.T. variety and for some people, if that means they will do the cardio that’s most enjoyable it’s going to be better than nothing. A lot of people want to watch Neftlix or check Facebook while spending 30 minutes on a bike and that makes it more of an enjoyable way to get their exercise in and they are more apt to stick with it.
There are some disadvantages to steady state cardio depending on what your goals are. One of the negative sides to steady state cardio is the fact that it blunts protein synthesis (muscle growth). After weight training protein synthesis is elevated and new muscle is being built to repair the damage done with weight training- steady state cardio does just the opposite and blunts protein synthesis. Think about that for a minute. You train your tail off and your muscles are primed and signaled to build new muscle and then you do SS cardio and it signals your body NOT to elevate protein synthesis and new muscle growth. It’s the opposite of what most people strive for. In simple terms, training with weights tells your muscle to grow, steady state cardio tells it not to grow. The longer the cardio session lasts the more it blunts protein synthesis. There is a reason we have all seen athletes dieting and doing 2 hours of cardio a day getting weaker and emaciated looking, they are losing muscle mass.
Long steady state cardio sessions promote higher cortisol levels. If cortisol is chronically high it leaves the athlete in a state where muscle loss is easier, fat loss is much harder and fat gain is easier. Chronically elevated cortisol levels also slow the metabolism due to the thyroid secreting less thyroid hormone in the presence of high cortisol.
Steady state cardio has been shown to interfere with strength gains in the offseason or trying to hold onto strength while dieting. Studies have been done on powerlifters who performed either steady state cardio or H.I.I.T. after weight training and the steady state cardio group lost considerable strength while the interval group showed very little strength loss and some gained. This is due to the interference in muscular adaptations from steady state cardio discussed earlier.
Breakdown of H.I.I.T. Cardio
H.I.I.T. is one of the hardest ways to do cardio, period. Ask most people who have used it as a tool for fat loss and they will immediately tell you that if it’s done right, it’s no joke. When I polled folks here at 1st Phorm HQ and asked them the number one reason people won’t do H.I.I.T. as part of their fat loss regimen the majority said: “because it’s freaking HARD.” And it should be if it’s going to be effective. Think about this though, how many people are willing to do hill sprints? Push the prowler? Do tire flips or pull a plate loaded sled? Not many.
There are some disadvantages to H.I.I.T. One of the negative parts of H.I.I.T. is that if you are someone who weight trains with a lot of volume then H.I.I.T. can actually hamper your training as time goes on. H.I.I.T. doesn’t burn fat for fuel during exercise it burns glycogen just like weight training does and it can impact your body similar to weight training. If you are training a lot and doing a lot of H.I.I.T. your recovery can be compromised and training intensity will suffer.
A possible reason for some people to avoid H.I.I.T. is for those who have an injury or condition that prevents them from doing certain forms of interval training. While some can find a way to work around the injury and perform other interval training sessions (swimming is a good example that is low impact) some may have to stick with steady state cardio.
On the other side of the coin, there are some great advantages to doing H.I.T.T. cardio for both fat loss and muscle growth. One benefit of H.I.I.T. is that it elevates metabolic rate for 24-72 hours after exercise whereas steady state cardio doesn’t. Dr. Jacob Wilson of the U of Tampa’s Human Performance lab took a look at how interval training boosted metabolism by hooking IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Ben Pakulski up to a metabolic cart after performing both steady state cardio and H.I.I.T. They found that metabolism was elevated by 6% after steady state cardio (walking on a treadmill) and after doing just four 10 second all-out bike sprints metabolism was elevated 66%. That’s a huge difference!
H.I.I.T. signals muscular adaptations similar to weight training, meaning it promotes muscle growth. Let’s look at leg cardio for example. Say an athlete trains legs and then follows leg training with walking on a treadmill- we already know SS cardio signals the body NOT to promote muscle growth, negating the effects of the leg training to some degree. Now think about doing some intervals on the bike after training legs, maybe 5 of them about 15 seconds all-out effort- that promotes muscle growth and in the end game for dieting it means more muscle retention. Gone are the days where people thought H.I.I.T. promoted muscle loss, it’s the opposite.
There are numerous studies that show doing a handful of intense intervals burns more fat each day than doing 45-60 minutes of steady state cardio. We know that steady state cardio burns fat during exercise, but H.I.I.T. boosts fat burning over the course of a day, or even multiple days if it’s hard enough. This is due to E.P.O.C. (excess post oxygen consumption) and revolves around the body working to restore itself back to a resting state after exercise by repairing muscle tissue, breaking down lactic acid, and restoration of hormones. These processes take hours and require fuel, and that fuel comes from fat. It’s nice to know that for hours and hours after the interval training you are burning fat, even if you are just sitting around.
The final popular advantage of H.I.I.T. cardio – TIME. Many people find it hard to make time to walk on a treadmill for 45-60 minutes when they can do 5 to 10 H.I.I.T. intervals and be done in 5-10 minutes. That advantage is big with gym-goers who are on a tight schedule.
I want to provide some anecdotal evidence that I have seen over the years as a contest prep coach working with physique athletes competing in bodybuilding. I have done every approach under the sun from 2 hours of steady state cardio to only using H.I.I.T. or a mixture of both and have noted several advantages to utilizing more H.I.I.T. than steady state cardio.
One of the common complaints you will hear from athletes doing a lot of SS is that their strength goes down and they lose muscle. When I started implementing more H.I.I.T. and very little steady state cardio I noticed that my clients kept their strength up for most of the prep’s duration, and also their stage weight went up. We can conclude from that information that they didn’t lose as much muscle as they did on prior preps with more steady state cardio.
Another benefit I found was that my clients who did more H.I.I.T. ended their prep with their calorie levels higher over the course of the diet. I am talking about over 300 clients over the last few years doing almost zero steady state cardio so it’s a decent number of athletes. It’s all too common toward the end of the diet to be on low calories and doing a lot of steady state cardio, and that is due in part where we learned about steady state cardio and larger amounts slowing the metabolism. I can tell you that this isn’t the case with my clients doing primarily H.I.I.T. Over the course of the diet, most are eating a lot more carbohydrates than normal and also eating more calories as they finish their diet phase than normal due to elevated metabolism and from more muscle retention. Who doesn’t want to diet eating more food?
These days I have about 3-4 clients out of every 100 that end up doing any steady state cardio at all. I have had so many clients thank me for using this approach with them as they can spend way less time in the gym yet get fantastic results in fat burning. It’s a win-win combination.
Getting Started on H.I.I.T.
I like to recommend that people start with only 2 days of H.I.I.T. doing 5 intervals each time they do it. There is a lot of fat loss that happens from doing these intervals twice a week so starting off with more isn’t a good idea- leave that for when your fat loss stalls out. A good example would be doing one 5 interval session on Monday and another on Thursday.
I have my athletes match the type of H.I.I.T. with the body parts they train that day. For example, if someone is training chest, shoulders and triceps they could do the battle ropes after their workout for 5 hard intervals. If someone trains legs a good way to get the intervals in would be to use a spin bike or upright/recumbent bike right after legs and crank out 5 intervals. Remember, H.I.I.T. promotes muscle growth after its over similar to weight training so pairing the intervals with the body parts helps with growth and also with recovery. You don’t want to do leg training multiple times a week and do leg H.I.I.T. on the other days, let your legs recover.
Here are two videos I did explaining how to do H.I.I.T. correctly on the spin bike, and using battle ropes and the prowler.
Spin bike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYbOylWZx-s
Battle ropes/prowler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BkTjf1QPYA
Conclusion and Take Away
While the data clearly shows there are more benefits for fat loss by utilizing H.I.I.T. than steady state cardio, the decision is ultimately up to the person trying to lose fat. Even though I have seen it for years anecdotally with my clients and swear by it, I still keep in mind that sometimes the best cardio is the cardio that someone is willing to do, and do it hard and consistently. If you remember from above, there are advantages of both. There are “disadvantages” of both based on someone’s goals and lifestyle. Therefore, for most people, it can be best to have a combination of the two! A day or two a week of steady state cardio, as well as a day or two a week that you finish your workout with H.I.I.T. If you have any questions at all about which type of cardio you should do for your goals and lifestyle, please do not hesitate to email into [email protected] or give us a call at 1-800-409-9732. There is a team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers ready to help you, for free, reach your goals!
– John Gorman, MA, CPT, is a well-respected contest prep coach/nutritionist and the owner of Team Gorman LLC. John is also a published author, public speaker, co-owner of The Physique Summit Conference, and proud member of the 1st Phorm Phamily. His work centers on helping athletes achieve their maximum potential in various sports such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, crossfit, along with high school and college level athletics. You can follow him on Instagram @team_gorman , on Periscope @teamgorman , or facebook.com/teamgorman .
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