Cardio vs. HIIT for Fat Loss (Which is Better?)

It’s been a popular argument among fitness buffs for over a decade; what is better to do to lose weight, steady-state cardio, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions?

It’s time we address one of the biggest sources of confusion in training today so that you can make the best-informed decision.

The History

Up until the turn of the new millennium, steady state cardio dominated gyms and workouts all over the world. It had to work after all if so many people were doing it, right? While this is true, in the sense that steady state cardio will burn calories, was it truly the best use of our time, and especially when the time is such a rare commodity, to begin with?

Enter high-intensity interval training, heralded as the true heir to the fat loss empire, one that you could perform in a fraction of the time it takes to do a longer steady state cardio session, and allow you to lose more weight in the process. Today, most people believe that HIIT is the way to go and ditch steady state cardio altogether.

The Fundamental Differences

At the heart of steady cardio are long (usually 45 minutes to an hour or even more) sessions during which you maintain a moderate intensity while doing your activity of choice, such as on a stationary cycle, treadmill, walking or even jogging.

High-intensity interval training cardio, on the other hand, is often shorter – as much as 50% shorter. The key premise involves near maximal exertion for a short ‘burst’ period, followed up with longer periods of very low intensity recovery work.

So while you would be chugging along at the same intensity from a steady state cardio workout, at each HIIT work out interval you go all out for a period usually thirty seconds, and spend the next minute or longer doing a very low-intensity activity to have your breathing and heart rate return close to the baseline.

The Calorie Difference

One of the major reasons why HIIT workouts have become popular is due to the widely propagated belief that you can burn the same amount of calories in your short duration workout, and will continue to burn calories for many hours after you’ve finished.

The truth is, only half of that statement is correct. While calorie burning will be greater for up to 21 hours following a HIIT work out, it is incorrect to state that you will burn as many calories working out for just 20 minutes, as opposed to longer durations of up to one hour, especially since your active working time on HIIT sessions is significantly low.

The near maximal- low-intensity recovery sessions usually equate to about 10 to 15 rounds per work out, which means that you are only actually spending maybe five minutes doing high-intensity work.

As for the caloric after-burn, better known as excess post oxygen consumption (EPOC), there is a wide variance to how much your metabolism is actually elevated. Some people see as little as an additional 14 to 20 cal burned over the entire course of the day, which could easily be offset by adding five more minutes to your steady state cardio session.

Metabolic Adaptations

Metabolic adaptations play an important role in overall fitness, helping to determine how fast or slow you recover after workouts, as well as your overall ability to lose weight consistently.

So is one superior for creating a metabolic advantage? The answer to this is that they both bring something different to the table.

Steady state cardio is arguably superior for helping to improve your aerobic fitness, in that your body buffers lactic acid better, and can enhance blood flow to working tissue more predictably.

High-intensity cardio provides a stimulus more closely related to weight training, which is great for helping to preserve muscle mass but is not ideal at all times.

Compare the body types of long-distance marathon runners with Olympic sprinters, and you can clearly see the different metabolic adaptations their body has made. A sprinter is able of generating maximum power output for a very short period (similar to weightlifting) but needs an extended period to recover afterward.

Runners, on the other hand, can maintain submaximal activity over many hours, due to enhanced lactic acid buffering and also becoming more efficient at using body fat for energy reserves.

So Which Should You Do?

You should take advantage of the benefits offered by both types of cardio, by incorporating both types into your workout.

You will benefit from an increased calorie burn by adding steady-state sessions to the end of your weightlifting routine, helping your body to tap directly into fat stores for fuel.

On the other hand, HIIT can be performed on days you do not lift weights, as it is unwise the combine both workouts on the same day.

This way, you can milk the most out of each workout session, and take advantage of what they bring to the table.

Plus, if you are new to working out altogether, the toll HIIT takes on your body can be immense. It is a good idea to build up basic aerobic fitness before moving on to HIIT, as the recovery periods included in the session are unlikely to be enough to prepare you for the next round.

Cardio Vs. HIIT For Fat Loss- Summary

At the end of the day, you should perform the one that you are comfortable doing, or a combination of both if applicable. You should also not be tied into any one specific piece of equipment, as different people may prefer to perform different activities to get their calorie burn on.

Ensure you add weight lifting to your workout routines and some form of cardio to the mix, and you are well on your way to fat loss success.