HIIT vs Steady State Cardio: Which is Right for You?

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One of the great arguments in the fitness industry today is cardio verses strength training. In the end, each have their place in your fitness routine.

But another argument also happening concerns just cardio. Is it better to do cardio at a steady rate over a longer period or do a more intense workout, but for a shorter amount of time? There are arguments on each side of the fence; in the end, you have to use the one that will get you to your fitness goal.

Steady State

This type of cardio is done at a low intensity, but steady rate for a long period of time – usually 30 minutes or more. If just starting to work out, this is a good choice until you have been doing it a while and feel ready to move up in intensity. It is also good for your cardiovascular system and it keeps your heart rate and blood pressure elevated over a longer period of time. Just be sure to keep your heart rate in your target range (70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate which is 220 – age). It also increases the capacity of your lungs and gets more oxygen to the cells thus providing maximum energy to your muscles.


High Intensity Interval Training sessions usually last 20 minutes or less. Workouts are bursts high intensity cardio coupled with lower intensity at a ratio of 1 high to 2 low. If you exercise one minute at high intensity, you should do two minutes at low.

HIIT can be done on some of the same machines as steady state, such as a treadmill or elliptical. Just increase the incline, resistance or speed (or all three).

Not only is HIIT less wear-and-tear on your muscles, but you get a greater EPOC factor after finished working out. EPOC stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption meaning your body continues to burn more calories than it normally would after exercising.

While not for beginners – you should start with steady state as noted earlier – it is a great workout to do after first building up some endurance, because HIIT kicks butt. While you want to stay in the 70% to 80% target heart rate with steady state, you’ll want to be in the 90% range with HIIT!

Which one is right for you? In the end, it comes down to you as an individual. As noted earlier, if you are just getting into fitness, start with steady state and then move up to HIIT when you feel you are ready. If you already have the endurance, move on up to HIIT right away.

HIIT is a good workout if you are pressed for time as the workouts tend to be shorter – some as short as 11 minutes. But steady state can be more relaxing and a better stress reliever for some people. And you may want to mix it up occasionally by doing steady state and HIIT. Also, don’t forget to throw in a couple days each week of strength training just to round things out.

Can Cardio Exercise Make You Gain Weight?

Cardio exercise can make you gain weight. But how can that be? It all has to do with how long and at what intensity you exercise. Slow steady-state cardio, like doing an hour-long run or bike ride at a constant speed, is the kind of cardio you don’t want to do if your goal is to lose weight.

You would think it would make sense that if you burn a certain number of calories in a 30-minute workout that you would burn twice as many in a 60-minute one. But the body does not work that way.

What happens is after 20 minutes, the body starts to see exercise as a stressor and as it does with all stressors, creates the hormone cortisol, which has been shown to lead to weight gain. If you do this day-after-day, your body is always in a heightened state of stress and your system has more cortisol in it than it should – especially if you are trying to lose weight. Studies have shown that people that exercise for long periods of time end up eating 100 more calories than they burned.

And the body becomes more efficient if you do the same workout over and over. Where you burned more calories when you first started that routine, now you are burning less, because your body has gotten more efficient at doing the routine, hence burning fewer calories. The answer is to mix it up.

Instead, focus on working in shorter bursts of activity, but with more intensity. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is just that type of workout. Depending on your program, it usually starts with a five-minute warm-up.

A sample workout could be doing moderate cardio exercise, such as 30 lunges on each leg, followed by an intense activity, like 15 burpees. Follow with another moderate exercise like 40 squats. Next, add in 60 seconds each of Mountian Climbers and High Knees and end the set with 60 seconds of Wall Squats. Repeat the set three times with a two-minute rest between each set.

Another part of mixing it up is to add strength training to your routine. The more muscle you have, the more calories they burn – even when sleeping. So add in a couple days of strength training (but not back-to-back) to your workout routine. While it helps you burn off calories now, the real payoff is later after you have built up more muscle. This is more of a weight maintenance thing rather than weight loss thing now, but as you know, every little bit helps when it comes to calorie burning.

If you want to use cardio to lose weight, focus on doing shorter exercise sessions (around 30 minutes or less), but with more intensity. With the high intensity, that is why three 10-minute sessions per day are equal to, if not better than, one 30-minute session. Who knew the secret to losing weight could be exercising less instead of more!

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