When it comes to time spent training, I’m all about efficiency; I want to achieve the maximum results in the minimum amount of time. Spending three hours in the gym just isn’t my style, and unless you work there it shouldn’t be yours either. This article is going to look at steady state versus high-intensity cardio; the benefits of both as well as the drawbacks. It will also give you ways to get exactly the same results in one-quarter of the time. Sounds good? Stick with me for the next few minutes.
First up – what is steady state cardio?
Steady state cardio is probably the first form of exercise we’re exposed to in our training career. Running, swimming, and cycling for set distances (5k, 10k, marathon) are prime examples of it.
It’s called steady state cardio because your body maintains a steady heart rate, typically 50–70% of your maximum heart rate. This is a speed at which your body can use its aerobic energy pathway to produce energy almost indefinitely, so long as there are adequate glucose stores.
Oxygen + Fat + Carbs = Energy
This aerobic pathway is pretty slow at producing energy, meaning that steady state training is usually performed at a relatively slow and controlled pace.
Next up – what is HIIT?
HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, is a form of exercise which is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream fitness (in the past it was used largely by athletes and coaches). Some great examples include sprinting, most field events, and a range of other sports such as basketball, fencing, gymnastics, wrestling, tennis, and volleyball, to name just a few.
As its name suggests, HIIT is performed at a high intensity, typically above 85% of max heart rate. Depending on the type of HIIT performed, two different energy systems are used.
For short, super-intense bursts of activity, the creatine phosphate (alactic) system is used. If we want to get sciencey, the pathway looks like this:
(phosphocreatine + ADP) ⇒ (creatine phosphokinase) ⇒ (creatine + ATP)
But all you really need to know is that this energy system supports exercise for up to 8 seconds.
For longer bouts of intense activity, the lactic acid (lactate) system is used. This energy system involves the breakdown of glucose without adequate access to oxygen. Energy is produced, but it comes at a price. Lactic acid (or, more precisely, hydrogen ions) is produced as a waste product and builds up in the muscle, causing pain. In the gym, you might know this sensation as “the burn.”
For those feeling geeky, here’s the pathway:
(glucose + 2 ATP) ⇒ (pyruvic acid) ⇒ (lactic acid + 2 ATP)
What is steady state good for?
Steady state cardio has a range of health benefits. Your heart becomes stronger, as does the delivery of oxygen to your working muscles. You’ll also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. This isn’t a small reduction either; your risk is lowered by 50%.
Limitations of steady state
The major limitation of steady state cardio is that it is time-consuming. Most sources of information recommend at least 2.5 hours of steady state cardio per week in order to see significant health improvements. 2.5 hours could be reasonable, but if you’re also training for a sport or trying to get stronger in the gym, an extra 2.5 hours can feel like a long time.
What is HIIT good for?
HIIT allows you to really develop your anaerobic and lactic acid energy systems, helping you to develop a stronger heart and better oxygen delivery. It’s also great at burning calories, making it perfect for weight loss.
Then there’s the fact that the workouts are very quick and can be performed pretty much anywhere using little to no equipment.
Limitations of HIIT
The only real limitation of HIIT is that it’s hard, meaning it can tax your body quite a lot. So, make sure you don’t overdo it.
Here’s where things get interesting
You’d think that in order to get the adaptations of steady state cardio, you’d have to perform steady state cardio, but that’s not necessarily true.
A 2013 study of sedentary men divided into steady state and HIIT groups actually found that the HIIT group showed similar adaptations to the steady state group. What’s more, the HIIT group only performed 3 sessions of 12 minutes each week, whereas the steady state group performed 5 sessions of 50 minutes per week.
So, when you do the math, the HIIT group got the same results from 36 minutes’ work that the steady state group got from 250 minutes’ work! Or, as a percentage, the HIIT group got the same results in 14% of the time!
A quick note
If you’re looking to run a marathon or complete a triathlon, you’ll still have to perform steady state cardio as part of your training. This is because certain adaptations occur in running, swimming, and cycling movement efficiency that can only be trained by performing those exact movements. So, if you want to run 26 miles, don’t think you can do it without doing lots of running!
Some HIIT workout examples
If you’ve stuck with me so far, then you know that HIIT is super-quick, super-effective, and can be performed pretty much anywhere using little to no equipment. With all this in mind, you’re probably looking to get started, so here are two simple HIIT workouts that you can jump straight into.
Step 1: Pick your base exercise
- burpees [Link to Video 3 – Burpees]
- mountain climbers [Link to Video 4 – Mountain climbers]
- squat thrusts
Step 2: Pick A or B
A. Tabata: 20 seconds’ max effort followed by 10 seconds’ rest. Repeat 8 times.
B. Classic intervals: 1 minute of hard work followed by 30 seconds’ rest. Repeat 8 times.
Step 3: Collapse in a big sweaty mess!
If you don’t, then you’re definitely not pushing yourself hard enough!
Ready to give HIIT a go?
If you’re anything like me, then you’re loving the sound of saving time and still getting amazing results. Give HIIT a go for 6 to 8 weeks and see what you think. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Have you tried one of the workouts I recommended yet?