Which cardio is right for you: Steady state or HIIT?

Health Agenda
Physical Health

Which cardio is right for you: Steady state or HIIT?

Longer sessions at a moderate pace or less time but much more intensity? We compare the differences between these cardio workouts.

Health Agenda magazine
July 2016

Steady state cardio

What is it?
Exercising at a light to moderate pace. Steady state cardio may consist of cardiovascular / aerobic activity that can be consistently sustained for around 45 to 60 minutes. Examples include a light run, cycle or walk that’s not too taxing.

The Pros

  1. A steady pace is a great way to build stamina if you’re new to exercise
    “Endurance is the cornerstone of day-to-day activities, and will help you perform daily tasks with greater ease,” says Jade Yarden, a strength and conditioning coach.

  2. It won’t deplete you
    Steady-state training is a good choice if you’re exercising before work. Training at a light to moderate pace will bring many health benefits, including improved mood and concentration, but you won’t become so fatigued there's nothing left in the tank for that important meeting.

  3. You’ll build aerobic fitness
    Steady-state cardio is a great way to develop aerobic fitness levels. The primary beneficiary is your heart. Regular aerobic exercise will increase the size of the heart muscles (that’s a good thing!) and improve efficiency.

  4. It's enjoyable
    “You have to find what it is you enjoy and work from there,” Yarden says. It’s sensible advice because if you don’t like a particular exercise, you’re unlikely to stick with it. So if a 5 kilometre run or a long cycle is your thing, keep doing it.

The Cons

  1. It chews up time
    If you’re time poor, fitting regular and lengthy workouts into your schedule may be difficult.

  2. Risk of injury through long sessions of repetitive movement
    Runners and cyclists who train for long periods of time, for example, are prone to knee problems.

  3. Boredom
    Tedium is dangerous for your fitness goals as it may discourage you from training regularly. And, if you train outside for long periods, there are other dangers. Your risk of injury is higher, especially if you’re cycling or running on roads or uneven terrain.

Training suggestion
Do the following for one hour:

  • Stationary bike (moderate) - 2,390 kilojoules
  • Rowing (moderate) - 2,395kj
  • Elliptical trainer (moderate) - 2,465kj
  • Rowing (fast) - 2,910kj
  • Step machine (moderate) - 3,075kj
  • Stationary bike (fast) - 3,595kj

(Kilojoule burn based on 80-kilogram man)

The verdict
Stick with steady-state cardio if you’re still building your fitness, but if you’re able to train harder take a flexible approach. “For general health and fitness it’s wise to do a mixture of both,” Yarden recommends. “Although,” she adds, “interval training can have faster effects than steady-state, if done properly.”

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

What is it?
High-intensity interval training, known as HIIT, is a workout technique that can be applied to most forms of exercise. An average gym HIIT class runs for around 30 minutes, and involves alternating periods of high-intensity exercise with brief periods of lighter activity or rest. You must work especially hard in the high-intensity phases to make it effective. “It should make your heart rate jump to 85 to 95 per cent of its maximum,” Yarden explains.

The Pros

  1. You’ll burn fat during and after a session
    HIIT burns fat stores faster by elevating your post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), the extra oxygen your body uses after you’ve finished sweating. HIIT does this so well that a study by Laval University in Quebec found it burns up to three times as much fat during and after workouts as steady-state workouts.
    Furthermore, a study by the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse reported that a 20-minute workout comprising push-ups, burpees, squats, and lunges with short recovery between sets burned around 15 calories per minute, almost double that of a long run.

  2. It’s efficient and can be kept stimulating
    Yarden says HIIT provides real advantages for busy people. “It’s an effective way to use your time, and it’s good for people who bore easily because they are fully engaged and making continuous changes to their routine," she says.

The Cons

  1. It’s tough
    High-intensity training quickly depletes you of energy, and recovery can take many hours. It may not be the right choice if you can only train before work – you may leave your A-game at the gym.

  2. There's confusion about the right work-to-rest ratios
    “HIIT training isn’t as simple as banging together a workout that looks like 30 seconds of intense exercise and 30 seconds of recovery,” Yarden says. “Those that have mastered it have brought it down to the perfect combination. Harder doesn’t necessarily mean better.” To learn what’s best for you, consult an experienced and qualified trainer.

Training suggestion
Yarden suggests this fat-burning HIIT workout routine for good results:

  1. Sprinting for 10 seconds, then going easy for 12 seconds. Repeat for eight rounds before moving on to the next exercise.
  2. Rowing
  3. Skipping
  4. Bodyweight squats
  5. Burpees
  6. Cycling on stationary bike

The verdict
Depending on your weight, age and just how hard you go, you can expect to burn about 50 to 67 kilojoules per minute during the high-intensity phases. But, of course, thanks to the EPOC effect, this is only part of the story. You’ll keep burning fat for up to 24 hours after a HIIT session as your body works hard to recover. Best of all, depending on your workout, you’ll be done and dusted in 15-30 minutes.

Note: The advice given here is general in nature. Please consult a medical professional before undertaking any exercise regime.


This communication contains information which is copyright to The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia Limited (HCF). It should not be copied, disclosed or distributed without the authority of HCF. Except as required by law, HCF does not represent, warrant and/or guarantee that this communication is free from errors, virus, interception or interference. All reasonable efforts have been taken to ensure the accuracy of material contained on this website. It’s not intended that this website be comprehensive or render advice. HCF members should rely on authoritative advice they seek from qualified practitioners in the health and medical fields as the information provided on this website is general information only and may not be suitable to individual circumstances or health needs. Please check with your health professional before making any dietary, medical or other health decisions as a result of reading this website.