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Traditional Cardio vs. High-Intensity Intervals
Is HIIT better than steady state cardio?

Traditional Cardio vs. High Intensity Intervals
The key to any program is tracking.

When talking about cardio programs, there are two groups of people. Those who practice steady-state cardio and those that do intervals.

Steady-state cardio is where you run at a constant speed for a set period of time. Interval training, also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is where you run or move for short bursts at a very fast pace, mixed in with very slow periods where you recover.

Both sides believe their approach is superior. So I was intrigued when a friend forwarded me an article written by Andrew Heffernan that claimed, "Discover why a blend of both high- and low-intensity exercise is the best system of cardiovascular training."

A blend of both programs? It certainly sounds like a smart approach. I've found combining the techniques from various practices very beneficial for my clients trying to build muscle. Then I read the article.

Rather than highlighting new medical information, Mr. Heffernan used the article as a way to express his opinion. An opinion wholly unsupported by the facts.

One example in the article is a tweet that the writer posted. It says; "The best system of cardiovascular training probably isn’t the all-or-nothing approach. Rather, it’s a blend of both higher and lower-intensity cardiovascular training that’s tailored to your body and your goals."

It's a great quote, but who said it? What research is being referenced? Where is the proof? Oh wait... it was a tweet. There is no proof and the article doesn't offer anything to back it up.

In making the case for steady-state cardio, Mr. Heffernan quotes a personal trainer and gym owner who says, "So many people these days are stressed out, on the go, can’t relax, can’t shut down, ...and then they go to the gym and stress their bodies more with high-intensity workouts. But what they need is more steady-state, chill-you-out workouts.”

Perhaps Mr. Heffernan is missing the point of exercising in a gym. Most people go to improve cardio capacity, drop fat and build muscle. If you're looking for a place to unwind or "chill out" you should consider meditation, quiet walks or some alone time in a private place.

Then Mr. Heffernan says something very interesting. While trying to defend steady-state cardio, he says, "Critics of steady-state cardio exercise are right about a few things. It isn’t a cure-all. Beyond a low baseline level, you won’t build much strength, power, or muscle. And contrary to what many people believe, you won’t burn an appreciable amount of fat, either."

So remind me, why exactly are people doing steady state cardio? Because people who do intervals or HIIT using a heart rate monitor burn significantly more fat than steady-state cardio AND they build muscle. That's a fact Mr. Heffernan admitted when he said, "One 1994 study at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, found HIIT was nine times more effective for losing fat than steady-state cardio."

Over the years since I first started writing about it, there have been dozens of solid studies that show heart rate based interval training is better for nearly every group of people it was tested on.

Studies looked at: Patients recovering from heart failure, overweight children trying to reduce their cardiovascular risk factors, reversing the risks of metabolic syndrome, increasing insulin sensitivity (for diabetics), people with hypertension, patients recovering from coronary artery bypass surgery, athletes trying to improve their endurance capacity and people over the age of 65 trying to get back in shape.

In every case, heart rate based interval training was at least twice as effective at burning fat, while increasing cardio function and building muscle.

The key to making interval training work, is to ignore fixed or pre-set intervals. Instead, interval length and intensity should vary based on individual heart rate and fitness level. As you change, so should the interval program.

I think the primary point of Mr. Heffernan's article is that if you're going to be competing in a specific type of event, like a Marathon, you should train actually doing things like running a marathon. That's good advice and endurance events like that require periods of steady-state cardio training.

As for Mr. Heffernan's belief that everyone should workout using both steady-state and interval type programs? Don't waste your time. Stick with what's clinically proven to work better. Heart rate based interval training.


Below are links to abstracts of the studies proving each of the claims we documented. Click on the study title and an Adobe PDF file will open showing the information as it appeared in PubMed.com on 8/7/2010.

Interval training is significantly more effective than continuous training for patients recovering from heart failure.
Superior cardiovascular effect of aerobic interval training versus moderate continuous training in heart failure patients: a randomized study.

For overweight children trying to reduce their cardiovascular risk factors.
Aerobic interval training reduces cardiovascular risk factors more than a multitreatment approach in overweight adolescents.

For reversing the risks of metabolic syndrome.
Aerobic interval training versus continuous moderate exercise as a treatment for the metabolic syndrome: a pilot study.

Interval training is twice as effective in burning fat.
The effects of two modes of exercise on aerobic fitness and fat mass in an overweight population.

It helps increase cardio function while building muscle.
10 or 30-s sprint interval training bouts enhance both aerobic and anaerobic performance.

It even increases insulin sensitivity (a good thing for diabetics).
Short-term sprint interval training increases insulin sensitivity in healthy adults but does not affect the thermogenic response to {beta}-adrenergic stimulation.

People with hypertension who engaged in interval training and continuous cardio both saw the same reduction in blood pressure. Incredibly, only interval training subjects also experienced a reduction in arterial stiffness.
Effects of continuous vs. interval exercise training on blood pressure and arterial stiffness in treated hypertension.

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) saw equal benefit from continuous and interval training.
Interval versus continuous training in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease--a systematic review.

The long-term benefits of interval training over continuous training are significantly better for patients recovering from coronary artery bypass surgery.
Aerobic interval training versus continuous moderate exercise after coronary artery bypass surgery: a randomized study of cardiovascular effects and quality of life.

For athletes trying to improve their endurance capacity.
Training effects on endurance capacity in maximal intermittent exercise: comparison between continuous and interval training.

For people over the age of 65 trying to get back in shape.
Impact of short-term aerobic interval training on maximal exercise in sedentary aged subjects.

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