Are HIIT Workouts Superior to Steady-State Cardio?

Is  high-intensity interval training (HIIT) really the answer to weight loss and improved cardiorespiratory health? In the last few years, HIIT workouts have become the “go-to” cardio.  Word on the street is that if you’re not doing interval training, you’re training inefficiently.

HIIT Workouts: Are they better than steady-state?

HIIT typically means circuit training, metabolic resistance training, or simply work/recovery intervals on a cardio machine. It’s currently the “hot” method of losing weight and increasing V02 max.

I am not against HIIT at all, but I do think it’s important to look critically at the costs/benefits more closely. As Lyle McDonald states, HIIT has been touted as always better than conventional steady-state cardio, and this is simply not true [1].

A recent article by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) analyzed HIIT workouts critically, and I summarize for you here:

  • Calories burned during exercise. Studies show that doing HIIT workouts for 45 minutes (60 seconds work to 120-second recovery intervals) at an intensity greater than 85 percent maximal performance burns 454 calories, with 91 calories derived from fat. By contrast, a 45-minute running workout at an intensity of 65 percent results in 490 calories burned, with 221 fat calories derived from fat. So in order to burn the around same number of calories with HIIT, you’d have to work MUCH harder for the same amount of time.
  • Calories burned after exercise. This leads us to the “afterburn” effect, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Research shows that the higher the intensity of exercise, the more calories are burned post-exercise (potentially up to 14+ hours). However, it is impossible to measure exactly how many extra calories are burned and estimates might be overestimated. As the NASM article points out, calories burned as a result of EPOC most likely need to be measured over a long period of time in order to assess the pounds lost.
  • Metabolic health. In simple terms, the higher your mitochondrial density, the better your body can metabolize fat. Exercise increases your mitochondria, and according to Dr. Iñigo San Millán, endurance cardio does this best. Of course, any exercise will help your metabolism flexibility. As Dr. San Millán emphasizes, exercise is medicine. He also maintains that we’ve wrongly abandoned endurance cardio in favor of HIIT.
  • Overall health. HIIT has been shown to improve V02 max and insulin sensitivity. Since endurance cardio has these same benefits, the advantage of HIIT workouts are that they take less time.

Takeaways on HIIT Workouts

Here’s what you need to consider when using HIIT in your training program:

Can the average deconditioned person realistically perform long bouts of HIIT?

From my experience as a personal trainer and from a biological perspective, the answer is no. A deconditioned individual doesn’t have the capacity to do 15 work intervals at 85 percent intensity. If they manage to complete the session, they most certainly would take awhile to recover and probably will quit in discouragement.

The fact is, if you are deconditioned and want to lose weight or improve your health, you need to start slow. This should happen in stages: After you’re able to train at a low intensity for at least 30 minutes three times a week, you can progress to short work-to-rest ratios (1:3). Once your fitness improves you can move to longer work-to-rest periods (1:2 and eventually 1:1).

You’ll notice that the work-to-rest ratio decreases while the duration of HIIT stays the same. As your conditioning increases you can also increase the duration, but as you can see, this is a process that takes time.

Even though EPOC benefits are arguably small, individuals might be mislead into thinking they MUST do HIIT workouts to optimize calorie burn. But there are a lot of benefits to endurance cardio, including improvements in fat oxidation and insulin sensitivity [2].

Is it necessary or healthy to train at a high intensity year round?

It’s common knowledge that periodization is the most effective, safe way to train. Personal trainers (including myself) who are skilled at program design use periodization to ensure steady progress and avoid injury.

Periodization for endurance athletes means training at a low intensity most of the year and ramping up to high intensity closer to competitive events.

For those who use resistance training to increase muscle and strength , periodization means rotating high- and low-intensity phases every few weeks (linear periodization) or alternating high- and low-intensity sessions during a single week (undulating periodization).

Whichever method you use and whatever types of exercise you do, you need periods of rest and recovery. Doing HIIT multiple times per week for long periods of time can lead to overtraining and injury, just as always lifting heavy without a break can lead to injury. When the body doesn’t have time to restore itself, it simply breaks down.

HIIT does a good job of oxidizing fat and improving insulin sensitivity, but so does traditional steady-state cardo. The main benefit of HIIT is that you can exercise for less time for similar benefits; however, if you are deconditioned this will be challenging. And everyone should cycle in HIIT or use it moderately to avoid plateaus and injury. When integrating HIIT, start slowly and consider your goals.

Leave your comments below – would love to hear your takeaway.

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Comments

  1. The Debunker strikes again! I love HIIT, but you’re right — for people who aren’t in that good of shape, it’s probably not the best idea. We have a HIIT/cross-fit style workout offered through my office’s employee wellness program, and there are definitely some “deconditioned” individuals who are trying to participate. For the most part they know their limits, but I think it’s just a recipe for injury, burnout, and disappointment.
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  2. The benefit of less time is a huge one for my clients. I love HIIT and I love that my client can get it done in their busy lives. Long steady cardio has it’s place but for most of my clients (and sometimes me) 45 minutes for a long steady workout just isn’t happening. I personally would love to see a mix a both (and do a mix of both myself).

  3. John Donovan says:

    maybe i’m thinking about something different here, but when I started running , I read something about 2 minutes running 1 walking, so thats all dandy and after while you can run for 30 minutes straight, then I got a running app, it was one to one, and believe it or not I could run farther faster, like I say my ass is out in the wind here but isn’t that the whole principle of HIIT?

    • Hey John,
      That’s the perfect way to start running because it lets your body adapt slowly. A 1:1 ratio would only be HIIT if you were sprinting during the work phase, not “just” running. HIIT involves all-out effort (85% max heart rate) that’s not sustainable for very long.

  4. I like occasional HIIT workouts, but not on a regular basis. Good to change things up sometimes I think.

  5. I think you’re right it would be a challenge for deconditioned clients, time is a huge consideration though. Periodization and changing things up keeps you challenged and engaged. In the end though it is about your goals and not the trends.
    Jenn Speer recently posted..BlessingsMy Profile

  6. i love HIIT and think they are great for fitness gains, but it does take time to get to that fitness level first, ya know? Slowly working your way up to HIIT is much better for injury prevention.

  7. honestly for me it is as I used to tell my clients:
    WHAT IS BEST IS WHAT YOU WILL ACTUALLY DO.
    MIZ recently posted..Accidental goal achievement.My Profile

  8. Does this mean that I will have these god awful HIIT exercises removed from my program when I re-sign up again? LOL

  9. HIIT was hard for me starting out. I did what I could and got better at it. I choose HIIT over other cardio now because it takes away the boredom that steady states slaps me with. Also more effective for the sweaty burn since I’m mostly short on time. From a non-scientific standpoint, the best form of cardio is whatever makes the person happiest.
    Yum Yucky recently posted..Bee Pollen Benefits (yes! you can eat the stuff)My Profile

    • I’m with you, HIIT is less boring. It’s super hard for me to stay on a machine for more than 30 minutes. And agreed with the happy part, lest the person does nothing!

  10. I appreciate your take on this topic! I was under the impression that interval training was always the way to go if possible and I actually enjoy it more than just doing steady cardio. That’s good advice to start slow for people who are just getting started.
    Shira recently posted..Three Ways to Identify Your Life’s PurposeMy Profile

  11. THANK YOU!!! I am not a personal trainer so I always hesitate to write about this. I do comment on it though! 🙂

    I do a mixture of HIIT, steady state, Jody intervals – an interval to fit me. I do this over 60-70 minutes 3 times a week with my one long outside run over the weekend. This has worked for me but I know it is not for all. I have ready lots of studies that do say a mixture as I do is best for all around weight loss & maintenance.

    HIIT can be hard for many – they are older or joints can’t handle it so we have to write about other things that help those people. I honestly do not think I could look the way I do on HIIT workouts only. Granted I have never done that but I have done shorter cardio workouts that did not work for me.

    I think we all have to find what works for us. Many of the hardcore HIIT workouts are written by younger people – not always right for older. YES, they can do them but some can’t. For me, my feet restrict ne from doing a lot of plyometrics anymore – the balls of my feet can’t handle it – I can but the balls of my feet can’t.. 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted..Shoes & Underwear Oh My!My Profile

    • Lawd, are we on the same page, sista!! I get frustrated when I see it pushed as THE answer for everyone. Then people get to feel discouraged when it doesn’t work for them. I’m heartened to hear you still do steady-state… it’s hugely beneficial for weight management (and as Roy points out, mental health!!). Older joints -YES. I have creaky joints and I have to watch it. Thanks for your input always!

  12. The most under studied, under appreciated, and yet widely known anecdotal fact about steady stead cardio; mood stabilization. It keeps people from killing other people.

  13. And yes, I said anecdotal fact. Sue me 🙂
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  14. HIIT is much less boring and I love it, but if you want steady state and don’t want to be bored- get off the machines! Do step or kickboxing or Zumba. Steady state without monotony.

    Or get a good Audiobook. Tina fey’s bossy pants got me through 9 relatively pain-free miles on the treadmill.

    • Ain’t that the truth! Kickboxing and Zumba are BOTH low impact, too. I love audio workouts… I still use an elliptical HIIT workout from years ago that I love.

  15. Thanks for the great input on HIIT! I think it can definitely be dangerous and counterproductive in beginners! I like that fact that I can get in and out of a workout fairly quickly while burning a lot of calories., plus it keeps me motivated ! I suffer from exercises ADD and HIIT keeps me interested!!
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  16. Thanks for sharing!
    I know the food side of things but exercise can get so confusing. For me, I find that going to classes works best cause I push myself better. I have done a few HIIT workouts at home and they have definitely kicked my butt, but I often find myself leaning more towards long steady runs.
    Kristen @ Swanky Dietitian recently posted..Easy as one-two-quiche!My Profile

    • Classes are so great for peeps who don’t have time to research their own program or hire a trainer. Long steady runs are pretty therapeutic from what I hear!

  17. I don’t enjoy HIIT, but reading about the benefit of it, I started feeling almost guilty, that I prefer to jog at an ewen pace my 10 km. However, I don’t think anyone should do excersises they can’t enjoy. They’ll just drop them sooner or later.
    So, thanks for the post. Feeling a bit better now.

    • It’s nice to hear from someone who isn’t a HIIT addict, haha. You are so right that it’s doing what you enjoy that is most important. There’s really no problem with never doing HIIT, so you are just fine.

  18. I’ve been using this workout method for a few years now, and I highly recommend it. I find that I can get better results yet spend less time actually exercising. I’ve lost roughly 8lbs of Christmas weight with this method so far this year! 🙂
    Karl @ Afterburn Effect Training recently posted..What is Tabata Training?My Profile

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