HIIT vs Steady State Cardio: Which is Better for Weight Loss?

HIIT workouts are experiencing a boom right now. Its popularity has exploded over the past decade as a result of its ability to get you fit fast. HIIT workouts are also very popular for fat loss. Still, many people remain wedded to the concept of steady-state cardio as the way to go to lose weight. So, which is best? In this article, we compare HIIT and steady-state to find out what is the best workout for fat loss.

What is HIIT?

HIIT stands for High-Intensity Interval Training. There are many different variants that have developed but each of them has the same basic concept; short bursts of activity followed by even shorter periods of rest and then repeated for a number of rounds. The concept was developed in 1996 by Dr. Izumi Tabata of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. Tabata developed a training protocol for Olympic Speed Skaters that involved 20 second all-out bursts on an exercycle followed by 10 seconds rest periods. This was repeated for 8 rounds.

What is HIIT? 7 Proven HIIT Benefits and How to Do It Properly

In contrast to HIIT, steady-state cardio involves maintaining a consistent rate of exertion and intensity over a prolonged period of time. Typically, the intensity level is low to moderate. Many people perform steady-state cardio on a treadmill or elliptical machine where they walk at a pace that allows them to maintain a conversation for up to an hour. You can also perform home HIIT workouts using bodyweight exercises like burpees.

Steady-State Cardio vs HIIT

Back in 1996, Dr. Tabata conducted a study in which he had half of the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating team doing his HIIT training protocol four times per week for 4 weeks. The total training time per session was just four minutes. A control group did steady-state cardio for 60 minutes per session, five times per week.

HIIT vs. Steady State: Which Cardio is Best?

The HIIT group showed greater improvements across the board, even though they were training for four minutes per day, compared to the 60 minutes per day for the control group. This included a higher VO2max and greater anaerobic benefits.

But what is the best cardio for fat loss?

Over the last few years, there have been a number of studies looking at this very question. In one study, a group of women aged between 18 and 22, were divided into a HIIT, steady-state, and a no-exercise group. After six weeks of exercise, their fat loss was measured according to body fat percentage, body mass, and subcutaneous abdominal fat. The results showed that the HIIT group and the steady-state group achieved similar weight loss results. However, the average exercise duration time for the HIIT group was 36 minutes, compared with 68 minutes for the steady-state group.

Sporty young woman doing squat morning exercise alone in living room, serious fit girl wearing sportswear crouching training muscles workout at home for healthy body lifestyle concept, side view
HIIT is a Far More Efficient Form of Exercise (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Other similar studies have confirmed that HIIT will provide similar fat loss results as steady-state training even for a much shorter workout time investment. That makes HIIT a far more efficient form of exercise.

Why HIIT Works So Effectively

HIIT workouts provide maximum training bang for your buck. In fact, if you stuck with the original Tabata form of HIIT, your daily workout investment will be just four minutes. So, what makes HIIT such a huge weight loss success?

HIIT demands that you train at your maximum capacity. To see results, you have to push yourself as hard as possible during your work intervals. Studies have shown that just a few minutes of HIIT can create changes in your muscles at a molecular level that are comparable to what you would expect to see after an hour of jogging or cycling. But this only happens if you are working to maximum capacity.

Young Asian healthy woman workout at home, exercise, fit.
HIIT Demands that You Train at Your Maximum Capacity (Image Source: Shutterstock)

A key to the effectiveness of HIIT is what is known as the after-burn effect. Scientists refer to this as the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) effect. This is the measurable increase of oxygen intake following strenuous activity that is designed to erase the body’s oxygen debt.

In order to erase the oxygen debt, fatty acids are released and used as fuel for recovery. Doing steady-state cardio is not intense enough to induce the after-burn effect. Only by working anaerobically at maximal heart rate will you see this added fat loss effect.

The after-burn effect will last for 24-36 hours after your HIIT session. That means that, if you do HIIT for 4 minutes at 6 o’clock in the morning, you will still be burning calories from that workout when you are watching TV on the couch that night.

Other HIIT Workout Benefits

Improved Heart Health

Pushing yourself to your cardiovascular limit will dramatically improve your aerobic as well as your anaerobic capacity. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that as few as half a dozen high-intensity interval workouts done 2-3 times each week, with each one lasting for only a few minutes, produced significant improvements in all markers of cardiovascular health.

Mitochondrial Growth

Your mitochondria are the energy factories of your muscle cells, supplying energy and controlling the rate of cell growth. High-Intensity Interval Training stimulates the production of new mitochondria. As we get older, our rate of mitochondrial growth slows down, making HIIT a good idea for those over the age of 40.

A 2011 study also found that HIIT exercise induces changes in mitochondrial enzyme content and activity, which can increase cellular energy production.

Who Would Be Better off Doing Steady-State?

There is no doubt that high-Intensity Interval Training is a far more efficient form of fat loss exercise than steady-state cardio. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that everybody should be doing it. HIIT is an extremely intense form of exercise. As well as demanding a lot from the cardiovascular system it also potentially places stress on the joints, especially if you are sprinting on a treadmill.

indoors gym portrait of young attractive and happy black african American woman with headphones training elliptical machine workout at fitness club smiling cheerful in healthy lifestyle
Who Would Be Better off Doing Steady-State? (Image Source: Shutterstock)

People who have a low cardiovascular threshold, are out of shape, or who have joint weaknesses should avoid doing HIIT. These people will be better off doing steady-state cardio. It will take twice as long but it will allow them to get in an effective workout without risking injury.