I hate cardio, and I bet you do too. But unfortunately it’s a necessary evil when trying to achieve fat loss and body composition changes. There are lots of different options and methods when it comes to performing cardio but which one is optimal?
High intensity interval training (HIIT) or steady state cardio?
Fed or fasted cardio?
Pre- or post-workout cardio?
Let’s starts with HIIT vs. STEADY STATE:
The confusion between HIIT and steady state is not which form is superior – I’m pretty sure we all know by now that HIIT is the better choice – but how and why?
- HIIT cardio continues to burn calories even after the cardio session is complete. HIIT increases the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (or EPOC) much more than steady state does. For up to 2 hours afterwards, your body will burn about 15% more calories than what it burned during your session.
- HIIT cardio increases your insulin sensitivity. Because of the different types of fibers being utilized during HIIT, your muscles can more easily convert glucose into energy.
- It requires much less time commitment. The excuse “I don’t have time” is probably the most commonly used excuse when it comes to reasons why people aren’t in the shape that they want. HIIT cardio sessions really only require an average of about 20 minutes a few times per week in order to be effective in burning excess calories and fat.
- HIIT cardio burns fat while maintaining muscle mass. Performing cardio for extended periods of time can go from fat-burning to muscle-burning. Once the body uses up all its energy from fat stores, it will then begin deriving energy from muscle stores, leading to muscle breakdown. Just take a look at the vastly different physiques of marathon runners compared to sprinters….
- HIIT cardio gives you many more options. You can really only perform LISS in a couple ways – either on a piece of equipment or by walking/biking outside. With HIIT, the options are pretty much endless. While you can definitely perform it on a treadmill, bike, stairmaster, or by way of outdoor sprints, you can also perform it by simply put together a circuit of bodyweight/light weight exercises that will elevate your heart rate to near max and perform them as quickly as possible with appropriate recovery periods between. If that doesn’t make complete sense, here’s an example routine:
(30 seconds) battle ropes
(1 minute) rest
(30 seconds) jump squats
(1 minute) rest
Repeat 5-10 times.
You can substitute the battle ropes and jump squats for SO MANY other exercises, too – box jumps, plyometric lunge jumps, mountain climbers, high knees, almost anything! The key is to perform movements that will spike your heart rate to almost 100% of its max followed by a recovery period only long enough to allow you to perform another working set at that same level of exertion. I personally like to use the ratio of 0:20 work with 1:40 rest and 0:30 work with 1:30 rest.
There’s no denying that steady state cardio effectively burns calories, and at the end of the day, caloric deficits lead to weight loss. However, studies have been conducted that prove HIIT cardio’s superiority over steady-state.
- Study A: one group of participants performed 15 weeks of HIIT while another group performed 20 weeks of steady state; the steady state group may have burned 15,000 more calories but the HIIT group lost more body fat, and in 5 fewer weeks.
- Study B: one group of participants performed HIIT cardio while another group performed steady state, both over an 8-week period; the HIIT group lost 2% body fat while the steady state group didn’t lose any.
FASTED vs. FED CARDIO
There’s a common belief amongst many fitness professionals that fasted cardio burns more fat than fed cardio due to the idea that since there’s no new energy/calories in your system, your body would be required to pull its energy from stored fat. That’s not the case, though, and it’s more likely that your body will derive its energy from protein than fat. The primary role of protein is to build and repair muscle, not provide energy, so when you perform cardio in a fasted state, you’re actually wasting good protein on a job that is better suited for carbs and fats. Using protein for energy leads to muscle breakdown.
Fasted cardio may still burn calories but significantly less than fed cardio does, especially when it comes to that EPOC period that I mentioned earlier. With fresh fuel in the tank, your body has more calories, and the RIGHT calories, to use as energy which can aid in increased metabolism and allow your body to continue burning fat even after your cardio session is over.
PRE- OR POST-WORKOUT CARDIO?
A lot of people like to cardio before their lifts just to get it out of the way. Performing cardio first will increase your heart rate quickly and allow you to burn more calories during your lift, but that lift won’t be as good as it could have been if you hadn’t expended so much energy during cardio. Weight training is vital in seeing serious changes in body composition so you want to perform your lifts to the best of your ability. Expending calories during a pre-lift cardio session will tire you out and use up unnecessary energy stores that could be better utilized for weight training. Once again, EPOC plays a key role here, as your weight training will deplete all of your body’s glycogen stores and result in your body burning more fat during your post-lift cardio.
Remember these helpful hints the next time you plan on jumping on a stairmaster on an empty stomach for an hour.