High Intensity Intervals vs Steady State Cardio: The Fat Loss Showdown


Looking better naked.

Yep, that is probably one of the primary reasons you all workout, pay attention to your nutrition and read blogs like this one (and a dozen others).

And even if it’s not the primary reason it’s a definitely a positive result of training.

However, the best way to look better naked has been debated for just about the history of the world (or at least as long as exercise science and coaching have been around) so I’d like to spend some time today talking about fat loss and the type of exercise that will help speed up your fat loss goals.

Mandatory Disclaimer: (I feel like I’m doing one of these in every post these days…) There is a lot that goes into a successful fat-loss program and only a small portion of it is exercise. If you are eating like crap, not sleeping, and stressed out then you’re probably gonna have problems…

With that out of the way, let’s get into it shall we?

When we look into the research (and many of the methods current and past coaches have used) to find a solid plan of attack to banish fat from your body you’ll typically come across two methods:

  1. Steady state exercise – Characterized by typically longer duration, relatively lower intensity exercise such as long, slow, distance running.
  2. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) – Characterized by repeated bouts of short duration exercise, typically less than 5 minutes, and performed above anaerobic threshold (or more simply, hard & fast) with a rest period between intervals.

While each of these has shown beneficial effects when used to promote fat loss I’d like to dig into the pros and cons of each, which might be better, and things you should consider when choosing an exercise program specifically designed for fat loss.

When comparing two methods of exercise to see which is better at something you have to consider how that dependent variable (The thing being measured in an experiment) is being measured.

Since there is a lot of debate in the research community into which is better, you can imagine that a number of studies have been published to answer this seemingly simple question. However, one thing to note is that there are a number of methods out there to measure body fat and some are much more accurate than others, which is one of the main causes of concern as you look into the fat-loss research.

Since you probably care more about your personal body fat percentage I’ll cover some of the best methods to measure that as well real quick…

Measuring Body Composition

One of the landmark studies (from 1994) that I’m gonna talk about below measured body fat in their participants by skin folds. While this is a fairly popular, cheap, and easy method for estimating body fat in an individual (if you know what you’re doing) it’s accuracy is not ideal for scientific research.

So with that said, finding the most accurate method for measuring body fat is necessary when conducting research but ’good enough’ is probably okay for you.

There are a number of ways to measure body fat percentage including skin fold calipers, hydrostatic weighing, air displacement plethysmography (ADP), and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).

The accuracy of each of these varies quite a bit as does the cost and availability of then which is probably what will ultimately drive you decision. If you dig into the research looking at which of these options are best from an accuracy perspective then the pretty clear winners are ADP and DEXA.

While DEXA seems to be labeled as the ‘Gold Standard’ ADP, via the Bod Pod is likely your most accurate while also being widely available and also pretty cheap (especially if you live near a university with a decent physiology lab).

With all that said, it seems that current research is really only able to estimate your body fat considering hydration status can affect results and both DEXA and ADP can be inaccurate in cases where the individual is either underweight (super skinny) or significantly overweight (obese).

So with all that said, whichever option you choose just make sure you don’t get too hung up on the actual percentage and freak out if it seems super high or low… The goal should be a positive change, so test before you do something, do something (i.e. 8-week HIIT program), test again. Did you improve?

Pretty simple.

Let’s get into the research on which is better, steady state or HIIT.

Steady State Exercise

Steady state training is most commonly associate with sustained aerobic exercise or this new thing called jogging.

If you’ve been reading my ramblings for any period of time now you are well aware that I’m pretty firmly in the camp of NOT spending a ton of time logging miles for the sake of miles. So, philosophically you probably already know how I feel about a program packed full of steady state training but that doesn’t mean I won’t take a look into the research to see what’s what.

Some people LOVE to go out on long runs and just unwind and forget about the stress of life, work, and everything else and that is a pretty powerful motivator to participate in steady state training.

However, others (like me) get bored easily and aren’t a big fan of steady state training for the simple fact that it is BORING.

Which is something you have to honestly consider because compliance and consistency are key.

It is really easy to skip that workout if you know you’re not gonna have fun doing it anyway.

Now, with that said, let’s look at some research.

A number of studies have been conducted looking into the difference between steady state training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and their effects on producing weight loss and fat loss.

There are a number of studies that can demonstrate that steady state exercise may be just as effective as HIIT but really the vast majority of the research suggests that HIIT is probably a bit more effective (and has some other benefits too).

However, with that said it has been noted in about 5 studies that when you compare steady-state training with sprint interval training (Similar but a bit more specific that HIIT which could include exercises and movements other than running) there was no real difference between groups for the fat loss variable.

So if the question is: Is steady state running better or worse than sprint interval training at producing fat loss?

Then the answer is: It’s about the same so choose what you like best.

However, if the question is: Is steady state training better than HIIT?

The answer seems to be: No, it may be about the same in some cases but all signs are pointing to HIIT being superior at producing fat loss and have a few other benefits as well (Mentioned below).

So let’s talk about HIIT

High-Intensity Interval Training

In 1994, researchers conducted a long-term trial using indoor cycling to see if HIIT would be superior to steady state exercise when it came to fat loss. In this study Tremblay et al. (1994) found that HIIT was, in fact, superior to steady state exercise however, the results have been called into question due to how they measured body fat (As mentioned above and expanded on below in a minute).

Although these authors got a bunch of flack from the scientific community for using skin folds to measure their dependent variable (fat mass) other researchers have replicated this study in 2008 using DEXA scanning and found similar results.

Additionally, just a few years ago another study was conducted comparing the two methods, except using running as the exercise modality and bioelectrical impedance to measure fat and found that HIIT was once again superior to steady state training on both males and females.

Now, much of this confirms my suspicions but I’d also like to mention that a number of studies have found that Sprint Interval Training was found to be just about the same (at promoting fat loss) as steady-state training. As a guy who is a BIG fan of sprint interval training this makes me sad, I wish it showed sprint interval training to be better but such is life…

The good news is that sprint interval training, although not shown to be superior, was shown to be about the same so that’s kinda a win for me… I much rather hit some hard, fast intervals and move on with the life, training, and recovery so ultimately I’d give this a point in favor of it for fat loss.

So that is a quick wrap up of HIIT and fat loss but here is another interesting thing to look at…

The effects of HIIT on lean body mass (i.e. muscle)

It turns out, HIIT has a beneficial effect on lean body mass when compared to steady state training. When we reference everyone’s not-so-secret goal above (looking good naked) this is the primarily the difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner

A study from 2012 showed that when comparing HIIT and steady state training only the steady state group lost lean body mass. Ultimately, this may suggest that HIIT can not only spare lean body mass during a caloric deficit (diet) but could possibly even improve lean body mass while also losing fat (WIN!).

So overall, HIIT seems to be at least as good as steady state training at fat loss alone and better at preserving (and possibly improving) lean body mass. Combine that with HIIT workouts being more fun (in my opinion) than going out and droning on the road for an hour and I think we have a pretty good case for HIIT as a primary means of fat loss and/or improved body composition.

The winner is…

As mentioned above, it sure does seem that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the way to go if you are looking at producing fat loss.

Especially since you get the added benefit on preserving (and even improving in some cases) lean body mass.

And that’s the real goal, right?

I mean everyone says they wanna lose weight but what they really mean is they want to improve their body composition – i.e. Less body fat, more muscle – i.e. Look better naked.

Turns out improved body composition has also been shown to improve performance in a number of ways as well.

It’s actually one of the primary data points a lot of NHL strength coaches use to determine future performance in their players and a whole bunch of studies have shown that the players with the best body composition typically demonstrate better performance on ice (Sorry, I like hockey…).

But remember, there are a number of other factors involved as well…

Sleep, nutrition, and stress management can play a major role in your ability to improve body composition and ultimately lose fat so make sure you are taking care of those things as well.

You can’t out exercise a shitty diet or lifestyle.

If you want to dig more into endurance training and how to be a better runner (without logging a ton of miles each week) then check out our free Strategic Endurance Mini-Course

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Hottenrot, K., Ludyga, S., & Schulze, S., (2012). Effects of high-intensity training and continuous endurance training on aerobic capacity and body composition in recreationally active runners. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 11, 483-488.

Lowry, D., & Tomiyama, A. (2015). Air displacement plethysmography versus dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry in underweight, normal-weight, and overweight/obese individuals. PLOS ONE, 10(1), 1-8.

Nybo, L., Sundstrup, E., Jakobsen, M., Mohr, M., Hornstrup, T., Simonsen, L., . . . Krustrup, P. (2011). High-Intensity Training versus Traditional Exercise Interventions for Promoting Health. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1951-1958.

Sandvei, M., Jeppesen, P., Støen, L., Litleskare, S., Johansen, E., Stensrud, T., … Jensen, J. (2012). Sprint interval running increases insulin sensitivity in young healthy subjects. Archives of Physiology and Biochemistry, 118(3), 139-147.

Trapp, E., Chisholm, D., Freund, J., & Boutcher, S. (2008). The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord International Journal of Obesity, 32, 684-691.

Tremblay, A., Simoneau, J., & Bouchard, C. (1994). Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism, 43(7), 814-818.

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