With all the buzz surrounding high-intensity interval training (HIIT), you may wonder if that’s the ideal workout, and how best to exercise to reach your goals. In the past several years, interval training, and specifically HIIT, became a big deal, and it seemed like 30 minutes on the elliptical at level 10 suddenly were no longer recommended. People were quickly abandoning steady cardio sessions with consistent intensity for rigorous anaerobic training.
Given the surrounding confusion and misperceptions, along with conflicting recommendations, here we address the facts about HIIT versus steady-state training. The truth is that both are valuable and offer benefits, and one shouldn’t be practiced exclusively at the expense of the other. And depending on your goals, you don’t necessarily have to do HIIT, despite its popularity.
The most effective exercise regimens include a variety of activities and cross training to improve all components of fitness – cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility. Too much of any particular type of exercise can result in overuse, injuries or burnout.
Steady-state training refers to cardio workouts in which you maintain the same intensity level for the entire duration. For instance, you hit the treadmill, set it at 8.5 mph and run for 30 minutes – without changing the pace or incline at any point during the session. Aside from your warm-up and cooldown, your heart rate is in the aerobic zone, which is approximately 65-80% of your maximum heart rate (MHR).
For reference, your theoretical MHR is 220-your age. So the aerobic zone for a 40-year-old would be 117-144 beats per minute (bpm):
220-40 = 180 bpm
180x.65 =117 bpm
180x.80 = 144 bpm
Steady-state training is a very popular way to exercise because it is simple and manageable. While the aerobic zone isn’t necessarily easy, it is manageable for most people, who can sustain it for extended periods without extreme discomfort. When using cardio equipment, it’s convenient to hit Quick Start or Manual, set the resistance level and go – without having to program in different levels or target heart rate zones.
Plus, people are creatures of habit, which is evidenced at the gym with the same weekly routines, month after month. Unfortunately, some people are intimidated to use a new machine or learn a different program, so they tend to stick with what they know. While varied training ultimately delivers better results (more on that later), steady-state workouts certainly are valuable, and have an important place in a well-balanced fitness routine.
Over time, consistent steady-state training offers the following benefits:
- Improves endurance and stamina
- Burns significant calories
- Accesses body fat for fuel
- Facilitates longer workouts
- Accommodates beginners, deconditioned, the active aging and injured populations
- Affords active recovery
- Provides preparation for longer races (running, cycling)
- Helps reduce stress
In addition, many forms of steady-state cardio are low-impact, such as rowing, cycling, the elliptical, and more, which is great for people who cannot tolerate or who need a break from repetitive jarring on the body.
Unlike steady-state exercise, interval training varies intensity levels throughout workouts by alternating brief periods of a steady, submaximal pace with more intense intervals. The concept here is to work at in your aerobic zone (65-80% percent of MHR) for the steady periods, and then ramp up to your anaerobic zone (85-100% of MHR) for short spurts. Outside of the warmup and cooldown, the cycle repeats for the workout duration.
Interval training takes the intensity higher, but not all interval training must be HIIT. HIIT generally means working about 85%-100% of your maximum heart rate, which is only sustainable for brief bursts. Intervals certainly can be lower intensity, as long as they are more demanding than the steady pace periods.
The timing of the intervals can vary as well, from steady periods of 30 seconds to five minutes and high-intensity bursts from 10 seconds to one minute. The more intense the interval period, the shorter it must be, as the body cannot maintain this anaerobic pace for long.
So, one interval workout could be jogging on the treadmill for 3 minutes, then increasing the pace to a sprint for 30 seconds. You determine your paces and the number of times you repeat the intervals, as well as your workout duration. What’s great with interval training is that there is a lot of flexibility so you can customize your regimen.
One regimented format for HIIT is Tabata, which encompasses 20 seconds of highly intense exercise, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and repeat this for four minutes (8 cycles); then recover briefly and start a new cycle with another exercise.
An example of Tabata is 20 seconds of jumping jacks or burpees, followed by 10 seconds of rest; then repeat for 8 cycles. Or you can do four different exercises, such as squat jumps, power lunges, jump rope and mountain climbers, each for 20 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest in between; then repeat the exercises once more to complete the Tabata.
HIIT can be all cardio or can incorporate strength training, calisthenics, body weight exercises (such as push-ups) and plyometrics. You can arrange the workout according to your goals. As long as you vary the intensity from steady or recovery to very challenging, you’re performing HIIT.
HIIT has received so much attention is because it is very effective, with many of the same benefits as steady-state work, plus several more:
- Improved stamina and power – due to anaerobic work
- Caloric expenditure – working at a higher intensity increases calorie burn
- Higher metabolism – HIIT boosts metabolism both during and after workouts
- Fat loss – increased metabolism even at rest contributes to fat decrease
- Muscle maintenance – resistance and body weight exercises increase muscular strength and endurance
- Superior efficiency – HIIT workouts are shorter than steady-state due to higher intensity
- X athletic performance — improves abilities in sports with anaerobic bursts, such as football, basketball and track
Putting it All Together
So, is it smarter to do mostly steady-state or HIIT routines? It depends on your fitness level and goals. Beginners or the deconditioned should emphasize steady-state workouts for several months to build a base level of fitness before beginning HIIT, but fit individuals and athletes can integrate HIIT a few times weekly.
If you’re looking simply to boost your energy and maintain your weight, steady-state exercise most likely is sufficient. And if you’re preparing for an endurance event, such as a marathon or triathlon, then putting in the miles with steady-state training is critical. But if you want to lose weight, shape up or improve sports-specific performance, then HIIT should be an important component of your regimen.
However, too much of a good thing is still too much. Because of the rigorous nature of HIIT, it should NOT be performed daily, but instead 1-3 times weekly. It subjects your body to significant challenges, and muscles must have recovery time in order to grow stronger. Pushing yourself is a defining characteristic of HIIT, but too much, too often can lead to injuries and declining performance. For optimal fitness, follow a consistent fitness plan 3-6 days each week that includes steady-state cardio, HIIT strength training, core work and stretching. Stay Fueled!