Cardio is a hot topic these days, with recent research demonstrating High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can give you GREATER gains in HALF the time. This article will take a detailed look into both types of cardio training, Steady State / Low Intensity (SS) and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
WHAT IS HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING
HIIT has rapidly increased in popularity over the last decade, although it’s been around for over 50 years. HIIT involves short, maximum intensity efforts followed by a recovery phase. This is then repeated for around 4 – 10 intervals; however, the protocol can vary enormously. Here is an example HIIT session:
20 – 30 seconds max effort sprint,
90 – 120 second complete rest,
Complete for 5 total intervals.
While this may sound simple, the intervals MUST be performed at 100% effort, 20 – 30 seconds at max effort can feel like a lifetime when performed correctly.
WHAT IS STEADY STATE
Steady State (SS) training is the typical aerobic training that has been around since “fitness” began. As the name suggests, it’s performed at a steady, relatively low intensity. This could be at around 50% heart rate max (known as the “fat burning zone”) or at an intensity where you are breathing heavily but can still hold a conversation.
This classic type of cardio has been used for years by bodybuilders, especially during a contest prep phase. A typical session may consist of 20 – 60 minutes on any type of cardio machine, including hill walks on a treadmill, a stationary bike, Stairmaster or Elliptical trainer.
HIIT OR STEADY STATE?
The question remains, what is the best fat burning workout? HIIT is often promoted as the ONLY type of cardio you should be performing; however, both forms may have merit at certain times.
An array of research has aimed to compare the two types of training head to head. One study by Trapp et al. (2008) compared 15 weeks of HIIT against SS in young women. Performing 3 sessions per week, the HIIT group reduced fasting insulin levels (A key marker of health and the ability to partition / handle carbohydrates) and lose fat, whereas the steady state group did not. This data would suggest that HIIT is superior for burning fat than just SS, although this obviously wasn’t performed in bodybuilders who are tracking food intake, doing resistance training, counting calories etc.
It’s important to note no alterations were made to diet, they continued to eat normally. This may demonstrate that people doing steady state will overcompensate on food. If this is the case, you must remember that you are doing SS to burn calories and should not eat extra food, or you will void the benefits of that session.
As you can see, HIIT seems superior for burning fat. This seems too good to be true: you can spend LESS time and get MORE benefit. Luckily it’s not - a lot of research has investigated the mechanisms behind HIIT; here are just a few reasons why it is so beneficial:
- Increased Mitochondria Biogenesis. The mitochondria is part of your cells, responsible for ATP (energy) production. Without it, we would die. It’s known as the powerhouse of our cells, much like the engine of our car. By improving the mitochondria we can utilize and burn energy more efficiently. In other words, we burn more calories and importantly, more calories from FAT!
- HIIT also increases your metabolism after exercise. This is known as EPOC – Excess Post Oxygen Consumption. As HIIT is so demanding on the body and cells, it requires a lot of energy after the session to recover. Research has shown you can continue to burn calories for several hours after the gym.
- HIIT also increases Nutrient Partitioning. This means that after a HIIT session you will handle your food, i.e. carbohydrates, better, similar to after a metabolic resistance workout.
- HIIT rapidly decreases carbohydrate stores in the muscle (known as glycogen): just one 20s bout can deplete around 15% of muscle glycogen. When glycogen is low, it causes you to use more fat as a fuel and improves metabolic flexibility. It also creates key enzyme activity such as an increase in AMPK, an energy regulator that can help you burn more fat long term.
- HIIT also improves insulin sensitivity, which is vital for any bodybuilder trying to maximize muscle mass, fat loss and general health.
These are just a few of the benefits HIIT provide, all with less than 5 minutes of actual work time per session! So, is HIIT the best fat burning workout? The answer is probably yes; however, SS training definitely has its place, both being a tool that suits certain situations or programs.
WHY WE MAY USE STEADY STATE?
Before you abandon SS forever, consider this. As mentioned, SS is low intensity so it’s a totally different stimulus to HIIT or Resistance Training, which push your body to the limit.
This is the key reason that SS may still have a place in your regime. There is only so much high intensity work from which you can recover and progress, e.g. take HIIT & weight training - there’s only so much HIIT or weight training you can do. If this wasn’t the case, people would train for 10 hours a day and become pro bodybuilders in two months.
So, if you are pushing the line of recovery with your current weight training regime, 3 additional HIIT sessions may be overkill, causing you to decline in performance and lose strength. However, SS won’t tap into the recovery capacity like HIIT does. So, at specific times, SS may be a better choice over HIIT, or a combo of the two often works well too.
Another place for SS is pre / post workout: if you’re just looking to pick up the calorie burn, a 10 minute SS session pre and post workout can be an easy and practical way to fit it in. While a large amount of cardio can limit your weight training gains, a small amount around the workout will not. Although it’s only 20 minutes a day, this will add up over the course of a 4 – 12 week dieting period!
In summary, imagine your recovery capacity as a bank balance: if you spend too much on weight training and HIIT, you may “run out of reserves”, becoming over worked, so being sensible and using both HIIT and SS strategically is the best approach.
THE BEST FAT BURNING PROTOCOL
If you’re looking to lose fat fast, HIIT will provide the best value for time. If you want to add in SS after or in addition, this combo can work wonders.
Here are some of the best fat burning HIIT protocols around:
- PROWLER SPRINTS
Load 4 – 8, 45lb / 20kg plates on a prowler and perform 5 x 50 yard sprints. For most gyms, this is normally down and back, so sprint down, flip it round and sprint straight back. Wait for around 2 minutes and repeat for 5 total intervals. No prowler? Check the Deadmill Sprints below.
- SPIN BIKE SPRINTS
These are the most famous HIIT sprints known as the “Wingate”, adapted to your general gym bike. Set the bike on a low level, start to pedal as fast as possible then immediately crank the resistance up to high. You should last 10 – 20 seconds before you are down to a very slow spin, at which point you stop.
If you do 10 seconds, rest 60 – 90 seconds and repeat 7-8 times.
If you last 20 seconds, rest 90 – 120 seconds and repeat 5 times.
If your bike tracks RPM (reps or revolutions per minute), you should be aiming to hit least 150RPM before dropping the resistance.
- HILL SPRINTS
Perfect for when you can’t make it down to the gym, hit the outdoors and find a steep hill. After you’ve warmed up, perform a 20 – 30 second flat-out sprint and slowly walk back down. Take 10-20 seconds at the bottom and repeat for 5 total sets. This could also be performed on a treadmill set at the steepest incline, just be careful to not fall off!
- DEADMILL SPRINTS
This is similar to a Hill Sprint or Prowler but performed on a static treadmill. After warming up with some fast walking and maybe 1 – 2 minutes of a slower run, stop the treadmill completely. Similar to a Prowler, lean into the handles on the treadmill and start to sprint. After around 5 seconds you should be powering the treadmill manually, continue to sprint for around 15 – 25 seconds. Slowly bring the treadmill to a stop and rest for around 90 seconds before repeating for 5 – 7 complete sets.
FAT LOSS BONUS:
Want to shred fat fast? Add in 1 serving on CLEAN BURN and KM Caffeine 30-45 minute pre workout and perform 20 mins slow intensity cardio (e.g. steady bike, hill walk, stepper at 50% max) after the HIIT session. This secret protocol is what I’ve used with a ton of clients over the year, the combo of all 3 is incredible.
In summary, HIIT is a superior fat burning workout based on time commitment. HIIT definitely provides more overall benefits in terms of cellular health and fitness adaptations, I recommend HIIT at least 1 – 2 times per week regardless of your goals. Despite HIIT being superior, it doesn’t mean SS has no place whatever. As you should have learnt from this article, they are both tools that can be used strategically to help you burn the fat. If you’re planning to add HIIT into your regime, start with twice per week and increase to 3 or 4 times per week if recovery permits.