Cardio (noun): An over-hyped, magical formula necessary for effective fat loss. Coveted by thousands of adoring and bored fans on treadmills and elliptical machines the world over.
I get it. It’s January. New year, new you, right? You’re committed. Two hours of cardio a day? No problem! In fact, let’s sign up for a marathon. That will really keep you motivated for a few months…
Sounds like a good plan, right?
Guess again. Before you know it, you’re dreading your workouts. If you see another treadmill you might actually self-destruct. When you get to a point where you’d rather stand in a mosh pit of 13-year olds at a Justin Bieber concert you know you’re in a cardio rut. Might as well be hell.
You look back and wonder “how did I come to hate all this cardio?” Tacking on all those miles day in, day out seemed like the best way to get fit but two months in and you’re ready to lose it. But what choice do you have? Cardio is the only way to fit, no?
I understand the confusion. Research points to low intensity, steady state cardio as either the enemy of muscle growth or the Hail Mary of weight loss. Meanwhile, another camp of cardio fanatics preach the superiority of fasted, steady-state cardio, while others advocate for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) only.
No wonder you’re burnt out and confused! How can a normal person know which form of cardio is best when there are so many conflicting reports on the matter?
Don’t worry. I got you, Fitness Junkie. Let me break this ish down for ya.
Low-intensity, steady-state cardio for the win!
What it is: Low-intensity, steady-state cardio (LISS) is exactly what it sounds like – slow, steady effort for a specific duration (usually an hour or more). Think long walks, 6-mile jogs, and any activity where your heart rate sits around 60-80% of your max heart rate. Good times.
Pros/Cons: The body uses energy from fat stores and glycogen stores to perform. The idea is that because the body taps fat for energy with LISS, one will lose fat more effectively. This idea is misleading at best and detrimental to our body composition and performance goals at worst. First, LISS can be very time consuming. A 30-minute jog may burn 200 calories but once the workout is complete, so is the fat-burning mechanism. Second, in order to achieve the fat loss benefits of LISS, we must continue to do more and more of it. As our bodies are highly adaptable to the stress we place on them, a time will come when that 30-min jog turns into 60 minutes, then 90. And let’s face it – you have limits and a life. The first week or two will consist of temporary weight loss, but once the body adapts, we must increase the duration and/or frequency of our LISS training. Eventually, all that repeated volume and frequency will lead to burn out, injury, boredom or a plateau.
On the plus side, LISS is a great way to build an aerobic base, and if you’re preparing specifically for an endurance event, most days will consist of LISS training. LISS cardio, in whatever form you prefer, works wonders on stress levels, too.
Programming: Again, this ultimately depends on the individual’s goals. Training for a race requires this type of training to condition the body for the demands of race day. Yet if the goal is purely fitness or body composition related, Fitness Junkies will do just fine with 25-45 minutes of LISS cardio 1-2x a week.
Options: There are several ways to get your LISS cardio in. Here’s a short list in order of user-friendliness and accessibility.
Can I HIIT that?
See what I did there….
What it is: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of interval training that alternates periods of fast, hard anaerobic training with periods of slow, recovery for 8-30 minutes. Exceeding this timeframe is not useful or recommended. If you do it correctly, you’ll like get tired of the high-intensity efforts within 20 minutes.
Pros/Cons: Best part of HIIT training is the shorter duration required to create a metabolic disturbance. Additionally, there’s this nifty little thing called the “after burn” (I’m science-y AF) which refers to the body’s ability to continue burning fat up to 24 hours after the workout is complete. As the exercise intensity increases, so too does your body’s need for glycogen for energy. Workouts that burn the most energy will lead to more fat loss and better body composition without the need to log more hours or miles on exercise equipment.
The downside is that HIIT is well, kind of tough. As such, 1-3x a week on non-consecutive days is sufficient for fat loss goals. Any more than that can lead to injury and interfere with your body’s ability to recover for the next workout.
Programming: Warm-up for 5-8 minutes and alternate an equal ratio of hard and easy effort for 20-30 minutes total. The hard portion of the workout should feel like 90% of your max heart rate. Think a full out sprint for 15-30 seconds at a time. Depending on your fitness level, you may want to start with a 30 second push and a 60 second recovery. You can always vary the timing variables to stay challenged.
Options: Sprint intervals are the simplest form of HIIT training, but sprints are not for the faint of heart. Beginners with little to no conditioning experience should build an aerobic base first. Aside from that, you can get creative – alternate between Kettlebell swings to Jump ropes; Burpees to jumping lunges; dumbbell snatches and goblet squats…. the list goes on and on. As long as you can perform at 90% with good form, I say, go have some fun.
So which one is best?
Neither LISS nor HIIT is the superior form of cardio. It just depends on the individual and his goals. Don’t forget, you need to enjoy it as well. Most days, I’d rather go for a beach run to de-stress and break a sweat then spend even 10 minutes killing myself with HIIT. But, on the flip side, HIIT does offer the best results for physique goals in less time. If you hate HIIT workouts, try working out with a partner, using a kick-ass playlist or signing up for a group fitness studio like Orangetheory or CrossFit that offers this type of training.
And if you do end up in a cardio rut after weeks of doing LISS or HIIT, then switch it up for another 4-6 weeks before going back. It won’t set you back and it will keep you fresh and motivated to continue.