There are two general sides when comparing high intensity interval training (HIIT) with steady state cardio.
People staying in the steady state cardio camp say that this is the best type of cardio because you are constantly in the “fat burning zone”.
People keeping the high intensity interval training camp saying that this type of cardio is the best because it burns more calories overall.
Before we go on comparing these two type of cardio workouts, let’s see each of them in comparison:
High Intensity Interval Training: this type of cardio is normally done by alternating high intensity activity such as 40-90 second sprints or all out sessions followed by periods of lower intensity sessions.
Example: 4-6 high intensity sprints for 60-90 seconds, alternated with periods of low intensity for 60-90 seconds followed by 4 minutes cooldown.
Steady State Cardio: any form of cardio that involves keeping a steady intensity of exercise for an extended period.
Example: 30-40 minutes of running at a medium intensity with a steady pace
Each of this cardio types has advantages and disadvantages:
High Intensity Interval Training Workouts
- They generate greater fat loss over a shorter period of time (interval training generates a greater EPOC – exercise post oxygen consumption which means that more calories are burned after the exercise when compared to steady state)
- It’s more time efficient
- Generates faster endurance adaptation
- Not a good option for beginners
- Can quickly become a problem if you are also training legs 2-3 times/week – risk of overtraining legs
- Injuries are more common
- You can’t do them daily – they quickly tax your recovery capacity
- They hurt like hell if you do them right
Steady State Cardio
- Better suited for beginners
- They burn way more calories in an exercise bout – you can do them for longer periods of time
Example: You can only do 8-10 minutes of HIIT, compared to 40-60 minutes of steady state
- They can become boring after a while – repeating same thing over and over again
- Doing them for the single scope of creating large caloric deficits is plain useless because they tend to take a longer time to burn a good amount of calories. For example, a 150 lbs person might burn somewhere around 100 calories per mile so approximating an hour of steady state cardio, the total caloric burn would be somewhere around 300-600 calories.
Now that we saw the pro’s and the con’s of each, the wrong thing that most people do when they talk about these two type of cardio workouts is focusing on a single type and defending that position like crazy.
Doing a little exercise, let’s just pretend that you can burn more calories with HIIT than with steady state cardio.
So what you will probably do is focus on burning more calories because you’ve heard that it’s better for fat loss and you embark on a grueling HIIT workout.
The thing is that after that session, you are probably wrecked and you will not be able to repeat that same HIIT workout tomorrow.
Comparing your endurance with that of an athlete, you are certainly at a disadvantage because they train daily with huge volume and also enough calories to sustain the effort they put in.
The reality is that even endurance athletes don’t usually train in a HIIT way more than 2-3 times/week . Just think about it for a second: if endurance athletes don’t use HIIT more than 2-3 times/week, why there are people trying to do these intervals even daily?
The answer is simple: they have been either tought the wrong way or the one that told them to train like that doesn’t know jack sh*t about incorporating cardio training with resistance exercise.
The issue becomes more dangerous if you are also adding leg training in the equation 1-2 times weekly, putting you at risk of overtraining your legs.
Remember this: when you are in a situation with reduced caloric intake, your recovery is also impaired so the logic behind getting your overall training volume lower is well explained.
Also, speaking of the overall caloric burn, many people tend to favor high intensity interval training over steady state cardio for the simple fact that they’ve heard HIIT burns more calories.
While this is definitely true, it all depends on a series of factors which I hope you’ll take into consideration next time you are thinking of doing only one type of cardio:
Let’s say that I can do around 12 sessions of HIIT at one minute mark for sprint and recovery period.
Basically I will sprint to the max for 1 minute, then walk slowly for another minute and so on until I get 6 separate “sets” of sprint and recovery which equates 12 sessions.
Burning on average around 15-20 calories/minute on the sprint part and ~5 calories on the walking part, the average would be somewhere around 7-10 calories/minute for HIIT.
Or I could do a steady state session with low-medium intensity for 40-50 minutes, burning 5-10 calories/minute.
Guess, what session would burn more calories?
You guessed: steady state one
Guess, what type of session I can repeat daily?
You guessed: steady state one
Guess what session wins over a week’s time when it comes to total caloric burn?
You guessed: … tired of repeating again
Another question: Why would you choose to do only HIIT sessions and potentially burn yourself to the ground when even endurance athletes don’t do them that often (they have a good reason not to do them often)?
It’s just like weight training:
- If you want to increase the intensity, you must lower the volume and frequency – talking about HIIT
- If you want to increase the frequency, you can increase frequency and volume – LISS
Some other thoughts that one might have:
Also, most research studies that “favor” HIIT as a better fat loss alternative than steady state cardio are doing so without tightly controlling the caloric intake.
Another pro argument in the favor of HIIT for some people is that “a person will get more efficient at doing steady state cardio over time and the caloric burn will definitely go lower”.
While this might be true – of course that you are going to build up endurance.
What they are not taking into account is that you can get the intensity a little higher and do the same number of minutes of steady state cardio for the same caloric burn or even higher so you just fixed your “caloric efficiency problem”.
HIIT Vs LISS Conclusion
Beginners should definitely focus on starting with steady state cardio workouts and after a while, they can incorporate some high intensity interval training.
The takeaway is that cardio should not be a rule for anyone that wants to lose fat. Cardio should be something that you want to do for general health and also as a nice additional tool that burns calories.
So you can chose whatever type of cardio you like but you need to take into account that high intensity interval training is stressful for your body and limiting it to 1-2 sessions/week would be the best thing you can do.
I tried all kind of HIIT routines in past, but now, I only focus on training and some walk in the park for my fat loss efforts but if you want to incorporate HIIT in your training, I would definitely do it after a lower body workout in the same day followed by a rest day, something like this:
- Day 1: Lower body workout -> a pause -> HIIT
- Day 2:Upper body workout -> steady state cardio
- Day 3: Pause/steady state
- Day 4:Lower body workout -> some pause -> HIIT
- Day 5:Upper body workout -> steady state cardio
- Day 6: Pause (don’t force yourself every day for cardio, a pause day is always a good thing
Don’t forget: In order to lose fat, you must be in a caloric deficit and one way of doing that is by calculating how many calories per day you need to lose fat.
How many times/week you are doing cardio, which type of cardio and how are you structuring your workouts to work with cardio?