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HIIT Vs Cardio – What’s The Best Way To Exercise?

When choosing a way to work out, you have many options. Look online, and you will find everything from steady-state cardio to high intensity interval training. Go to a gym and look at the list of classes they offer, and you’ll see the same thing. Hit the library or bookstore for more information – you’ll see the same options. With the range of information out there, you’ve probably wondered which ones are really the best ways to exercise.

In this article, we’ll cover two popular fitness options — HIIT and cardio — and discuss which of the two (if either) is better. 

We’ll start with definitions. After that, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and then conclude with looking at which one you should do. By the end, you’ll know exactly which one is best for you. 

What is HIIT?

The name is somewhat deceiving because you won’t be hitting things. Frankly, though, you might feel like it after a HIIT workout. Instead, HIIT means high-intensity interval training. 

HIIT is all the rage these days. YouTube is lousy with videos that say they are HIIT. Some are using that term for click-bait – make sure the workout in question meets the scientific definition. In order for a workout to be truly HIIT, your heart rate needs to reach at least 80 percent of its maximum capacity for between 1-5 minutes, with rest in between.

HIIT workouts that have been studied focus on aerobic activity, not resistance training. One example is the 4-by-4. Warm up for 10 minutes. Then, run four fast intervals, each four minutes long. Rest between intervals for three minutes, and cool down for 5 minutes. It will last you a total of 40 minutes.

Another example is the 10-by-1 where you do 10 one-minute exercises with one minute of recovery in between each one. HIIT workouts like these have been tested by science, and will give you results.

What is Steady-State Cardio?

As the name implies, steady-state cardio means that you’re maintaining a consistent level of intensity. It shouldn’t be super low intensity, but rather more of a moderate-intensity. You’re likely maintaining a level where you can talk but it’s a little challenging to do so.

Typically, it’s a sustained cardio or aerobic activity that you maintain for a longer period of time. Obviously how long this time lasts depends on whether you’re a newbie or more advanced.

If you’re a runner, steady-state cardio means running your 10k or half marathon pace. It also means that you’re running for at least 30 minutes, and likely closer to 45+ minutes.

What are the Advantages of HIIT?

HIIT has many advantages that you might want to consider when deciding which way is the best for you to exercise.

Improving Your Cardiovascular Health

To be really fit, you need to have a high VO2 max. This simply means your body can take up oxygen at a higher rate. There are all kinds of benefits. Some are performance-related, and some are health-related. If you can absorb more oxygen, your heart works more efficiently. And elevating your heart rate regularly is a well-known path to better heart health. After all, the heart is a muscle, and HIIT gives it a workout.

Various research has confirmed that you’ll be able to up your VO2 max quicker through HIIT workouts as compared to steady state cardio. But there are also a variety of types of HIIT workouts themselves.

If you want to experience the greatest gain, your HIIT workout needs to last longer and have longer intervals. Ideally, you should do four to five reps of 3-5 minute intervals. The mythical 20-minute workout isn’t doing as much good as the hype man is saying.

Help With Weight Loss

This advantage is kind of nuanced. You will be able to burn more calories doing a 20-minute HIIT workout as compared to a 20-minute steady-state cardio workout. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss if your diet isn’t changing as well.

Additionally, while you’ll burn more calories doing a HIIT workout than steady-state cardio, you still need a fairly long workout to burn several hundred calories. So be prepared that you’ll have to do long intervals to really contribute to weight loss.

Increases Endurance

As you build up your VO2 max, it will take you longer to tire from cycling, running, or swimming. In other words, you’re building up your endurance and stamina. Because you’re making your body work hard in short bits, it gets better at doing that for longer periods of time. This is a little counter-intuitive. Short intervals of hard work don’t seem as if they’d be related to endurance performance. But they are, and every good running program features short, hard intervals in the pursuit of endurance.

Plus, HIIT is helpful because it always keeps your body guessing. In order to see progress in your exercise routine, you have to vary it up and make sure that you aren’t doing the same old thing every time. Running faster works your fast-twitch muscle groups, which aren’t addressed by long slow distance.

It Can Be Done in a Short Period of Time

As we mentioned above, you’ll be able to burn more calories in a HIIT workout than a steady-state cardio workout. This means that you theoretically don’t have to spend as much time working out if you’re short on time.

HIIT workouts can be great on those days when you don’t have too much time before you have to be in for work, or if you come home and want to get in a workout quickly before having to eat dinner and go to bed.

Finally, if you just don’t like the idea of running for 30+ minutes at a time, you’ll get the most benefit if you opt to do interval training or a HIIT workout for 30 minutes as opposed to a 2-4 mile steady-state run.

What are the Disadvantages of HIIT?

While HIIT definitely has a lot of advantages, it’s important to remember that there are some downsides, too. Don’t be caught unaware!

Increased Chance Of Injury

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of HIIT is that there is a higher risk of injury. Because you’re pushing yourself a lot harder than normal, it’s easy to overdo it and find yourself with an overuse injury.

Are you prone to injuries such as muscle pulls or strains? If so, be careful with the intensity of these workouts. You are in this to get healthy and strong, and maybe to tone up or slim down. You are not in this to end up on the couch with an icepack.

Limited Usage

Because you’re putting your body under a lot of stress, you really shouldn’t do HIIT workouts more than three times a week. 

If you’re trying to get your doctor-recommend 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, you might not be able to get it from HIIT depending on how long your workouts are.

It might be tempting to change your entire workout routine to HIIT. Resist the urge. Too much HIIT too often sets you up for injury and undue stress on your body.

Not Super Enjoyable

Finally, sometimes it can be annoying to go for a long run, but at least you’re not having to go almost all out. It’s much easier to just enjoy the scenery and your run once you get actually started.

With a HIIT workout, you’re going to have to push yourself through the end. “High Intensity” is the operative word here. You’ll want to stop after every interval, and you’ll have to be mentally prepared to push through. HIIT workouts require a lot of physical and mental energy.

If you’re not prepared for this, chances are that you’ll be really uncomfortable, overwhelmed, and just want to quit a HIIT workout. 

What are the Advantages of Cardio?

The great thing about cardio is that you can do it anywhere. Plus, you’ll see great physical results fairly quickly depending on what type of cardio you do.

Great for Seniors/Beginners/Injury Prone

The best thing about steady-state cardio is you don’t have to gear your brain up to do a challenging interval workout. 

Instead, you’ll run or work out at a pretty comfortable pace. Even if you’re new to cardio, you can convince yourself to get the courage to do it.

If you’re older or injury prone, steady-state cardio is a great option. You don’t have to put your body through as much, and you can pick a speed that works for you. It can be low-impact as well, if desired, like pool running.

Less Stress on Your Cardio System

Since you’re not working as hard during steady-state cardio, you won’t put as much stress on your body, especially your cardio-respiratory system. This means steady-state cardio is better for you if your heart isn’t as strong and can’t handle high-intensity training.

More Enjoyable

Finally, you’ll just be able to enjoy exercise more because it’s less uncomfortable at a steady-state. You can focus more on enjoying the time that you’re spending running or watching the leaves fall.

You’ll be able to zone out or work through a challenging problems at home or at work. Focus on being grateful that you get to work out. Plus, because it’s not as hard, you’ll be less likely to convince yourself that you need to skip today’s workout.

What are the Disadvantages of Cardio?

We all know that cardio is great for so many things, from improving your mood to burning calories. But just as with HIIT, there are some downsides.

Takes Longer

If you’re rushed for time and/or don’t enjoy working out for long periods of time, you might not prefer steady-state cardio. You’ll need to log more time to get similar benefits. If you have kids at home and don’t have time for long workouts, you might have to choose HIIT.

Similarly, if you find that you’ve gotten up late or get home from work late and are trying to squeeze in a workout, you might not have the time you need to successfully get in a good cardio workout.

It Can Get Boring

While some people might enjoy having some time alone to zone out and run, others find it boring. Those who like to do something new every day will want to change things up. If you’re extroverted, you might not like steady-state cardio unless you can get someone to do it with you.

Similarly, if you like to see results quickly, you won’t be able to get that from steady-state cardio. Basically, if you’re someone who is a hare, you’ll be bored being the turtle with steady-state cardio.

Might Limit Your Weight Loss

Finally, while you will see a lot of calorie burn and weight loss when you first start, it will start to taper off. If you don’t change anything up, you will plateau. After that, you will see fewer and fewer dramatic gains.

In order to up the ante again, you’ll have to run longer or run harder. The latter looks more like a HIIT workout rather than steady-state cardio. 

If you’re fine with maintaining your weight/physical fitness, steady-state cardio is enough. But if you want to progress, you’ll have to do more.

Which One Should I Do?

It all comes down to the individual and their goals. Make sure that you know yourself and are honest about what will work for you.

People Who Would Benefit From HIIT

If you’re someone who equates pain with gain, HIIT could be a great option for you. It allows you to push hard and achieve great results quickly. For people who like the idea of a short, vigorous workout to replace one that lasts longer, HIIT is the way to go.

Finally, if you don’t have any health conditions that might prevent you from going almost all out, HIIT could work for you. If you like feeling that you’ve pushed your hardest and don’t mind sweat soaking your body, HIIT is great for you.

People Who Would Benefit From Cardio

If you’re someone who is prone to injury, is just getting into working out, or is older, steady-state cardio is a good way to stay safe when working out. You’re getting the benefits without the risk of overstressing your body.

For those who want to enjoy exercising and/or aren’t in a place to push yourself mentally like you’d need for a HIIT workout, you’ll likely prefer steady-state cardio. And if you like to just be able to go for a long run and have some time to yourself, again cardio is best for you.

People Who Would Benefit From Both

Runners who want to make greater gains in their steady-state cardio benefit from HIIT. Add a few workouts to your routine and you will become a stronger runner. If you like to change things up, doing both steady-state cardio and HIIT workouts will keep you from getting bored.

All-around athletes who regularly mix things up are probably already doing both cardio and HIIT. Balancing your workouts targets different muscle groups and avoids overuse injuries.

Final Thoughts

In reality, there is no one best way to exercise. Or, more exactly, the best way to exercise is to exercise multiple ways. It’s all about knowing yourself, what you enjoy, and what will actually get you working out. If that’s HIIT, then by all means, do those workouts. If it’s going for long runs, do that.

In the end, keeping yourself in good physical shape through any kind of exercise is the best way to exercise, whether it’s HIIT, cardio, or both.

The Wired Runner