The burning question on your lips:
"Which is better for fat loss?"
High-intensity interval training has the advantage of being pushed hard by the media. 'More results in less time' is a tough benefit to pass up. But what about steady state cardio? Does it still have a place?
Or, what if I posed a completely different question which may throw both of them in the bin?
"Is cardio necessary AT ALL for fat loss?"
Well, let's dig in and see what we can uncover.
(This article is based on a podcast I was recently a guest on. It's called The Transformation Academy. If you prefer audio, click here to have a listen.)
Let me start with a massive admission.
I have never done cardio for fat loss. Ever.
And it's not because it doesn't work, because it does. It works wonders for some people! So, why not me?
The role of cardio in fat loss.
Cardio has one role when it comes to pure fat loss - to burn calories. That is the main reason I would ever ask anyone to do cardio.
Fat loss is, in it's simplest form, determined by your body's calorie balance.
- If you consume fewer calories than your body burns each day, you lose weight
- If you consume more calories than your body burns each day, you gain weight.
- If you consume around the same as you burn, your weight generally will stay the same.
Cardio's role is to burn calories so that you are more likely to end up in a calorie deficit (yellow column above).
A calorie deficit is the number one driver of fat loss.
You can diet all you want and throw tonnes of cardio on top, but if you're not in a calorie deficit each day, you won't lose fat.
With cardio, even if you eat a lot, you are more likely to be in a calorie deficit. It looks a little like this:
As you can see, you could also just focus on your nutrition and ensure you consume fewer calories and eat in a calorie deficit. This cancels out the need for cardio completely.
TAKEAWAY POINT: Cardio assists fat loss as it helps put your body into a calorie deficit. You can also reach a calorie deficit through controlling your nutrition alone.
So I don't do cardio for fat loss.
I'm able to control my nutrition and ensure I'm in a calorie deficit. It works for me, but for some people, it won't
A situation in which cardio is amazing!
Imagine you're slightly on the smaller side. A short, blonde, brilliant mum.
Since you're short and relatively light, the calories you may need to consume to put you into a calorie deficit and lose weight will be very low. This isn't a good thing.
If your calorie target is too low you're going to be hungry (more like hangry!) all of the time. For long-term sustainability, this doesn't bode well. Also, eating too few calories can lead to nutrient deficiencies. You're simply not eating enough for your body to function properly. In my opinion, too low is under 1200-1500 calories per day.
So, you need to consume this amount of calories to lose weight, but doing so will put your health at risk.
What do you do?
By burning, let's say, 300 extra calories a day, you are able to eat 300 calories worth of food. Delicious, scrumptious food. The cardio gives you a buffer zone for your diet. You can eat a little more and still be in a calorie deficit to lose fat.
TAKEAWAY POINT: Cardio is amazing for lighter people who are required to consume very lower calorie diets to lose fat.
"Alright, I can see the point of cardio for fat loss, but you still haven't answered the question."
"Is high-intensity interval training or steady state cardio better?"
It's a spicy question and a lot of people will have strong opinions each way.
Let's take a glance through the pros and cons of each, and make our own opinion.
The beast we call H.I.I.T.
This is the BIGGEST advantage of H.I.I.T. without a doubt. Being able to get more done in less time is of most concern for busy people.
The after-burn effect.
After a H.I.I.T. session, your metabolism increases and you keep burning calories for long after the session is over.
It feels like you're working hard.
The feeling of exertion is more of a psychological advantage. It actually feels like the fat is melting away through your pores.
Not limited to any particular mode (treadmill, elliptical, jogging etc.)
You're free to be adventurous with a bunch of different exercises. Circuit-based training, throwing in all sorts of bodyweight exercises, kettlebells, sprints and ropes, makes for an exciting session.
Hard to recover from.
You work damn hard during a H.I.I.T. session. This can impact your recovery between weight training sessions and reduce their effectiveness.
Hard to push yourself hard enough to get the benefits.
To get the full benefits from a H.I.I.T. session you must push yourself to the max. Full-tilt sprints at heart-pumping speeds. On your own, without someone to push you, this is hard to do. Both mentally and physically.
Sensationalised a lot in the media.
The positive effects of H.I.I.T. have been highly exaggerated in the media. 4-minute workouts are the latest craze. It's simply not true that you can get as much benefit as the media claims in that tiny amount of time.
The low down on low-intensity steady state
Perceived as 'less dreaded' to most people.
L.I.S.S. is easier than H.I.I.T. You're not pushing yourself as hard, so it's not as mentally exhausting. You don't need to psyche yourself up or do any pre-game rituals. You simply start moving.
Tends to burn more calories in the long run as you're active for longer periods.
As you're exercising for longer (for example a 45-minute L.I.S.S. session) when compared to a H.I.I.T session (usually 20-minutes), you end up burning more calories. It's a function of time spent exercising.
Not as stressful on the body.
You're not pushing yourself to maximal limits every single session.
Easy to recover from.
Since you're not going all-out each time, it's generally pretty easy on the body. In fact, many people use L.I.S.S. as a recovery tool between strength training sessions.
Easy to add into everyday life.
It can be as simple as taking the dog for a fast-walk or biking to work a couple of days a week. You don't need specific equipment and to be in a 'go-hard' mentality like with H.I.I.T.
Requires more time to get the same benefit.
We are all busy these days, so finding the time to do L.I.S.S can be tough.
Limited to types of training (only ones you can sustain for long periods - like walking).
It can get very boring.
I know you're thinking it.
"You still didn't actually answer the question of which is better..."
I know, and that's the point.
The answer is... neither.
They both have a place in a fat loss goal. You can clearly see they both have advantages and disadvantages.
It's like comparing oranges and apples. They are both fruits. They both contain calories and fill you up. They are both good for you.
Is one better than the other?
Not really. They taste different some people will prefer one over the other. They contain different vitamins but both are nutritious.
It's not a question of which is 'better'. Because better means different things for different people.
TAKEAWAY POINT: In the end, the best type of cardio is the one you like the most and fits your lifestyle the best.
Being able to sustain whichever one you choose for the long-term is the ideal scenario. When the goal is to maintain a calorie deficit over a period of time, the idea of 'best' becomes which one can you keep doing and not give up, get bored, burn out or hurt yourself.
Choose the one you like more, or be like me and choose neither.
It's up to you.
This is just a snippet of what Aidan and I managed to uncover in the podcast. Make sure you listen to get even more answers on things like:
- What the ‘fat burning zone’ is and why it’s useless.
- We talk about why I love steady state cardio and why Aidan loves H.I.I.T cardio but the real reason we do neither.
- Why NEAT is awesome for fat loss and how you can get more of it in your life (you'll also learn what NEAT actually is!)
Once again, you can click here to head over to the podcast. By the end of it, you’ll be so wise you’ll be pumped to take action instantly.