You’re about to head to the gym for yet another session on the bike, treadmill, or elliptical. That’ll make it your third session this week and it’s only Wednesday. You’re on par for your one per day routine that lasts until Saturday when you finally give yourself permission to have an off day on Sunday, despite feeling slightly guilty about doing so.
Sound familiar? This is the weekly routine most women force themselves on, thinking it’s the fast-track to leanness.
But, for most, it may be starting to feel like the long path to success, or possibly the wrong path entirely.
And, sad to say, it is.
The research is in and steady state cardio is not yielding you the results you want it to be and worse, it could actually be leading to weight gain.
Before you hang up those running shoes for good though, let me explain why this is and what you can do about it.
What Steady State Is And Why It’s Problematic
First let’s talk about what steady state cardio is. As the name suggests, steady state cardio is simply cardio training that is done – well – at a steady state. You program the treadmill to 5.5 mph and off you go, maintaining that jog for a good 30-60 minutes, never to touch the speed again.
Most people tend to mentally check out while doing this form of cardio, reading books or magazines, watching TV, or gossiping about their weekend adventures with their workout buddy. That right there is problem one. If you can mentally check out during a workout and still maintain the workout, you won’t be seeing great results any time soon.
In one study published by the Additive Behaviors journal, researchers noted that obesity is due to an imbalance between calorie intake and expenditure, however, those who are exercising (aerobic walking and jogging) do not typically lose as much weight as predicted by exercise and that compared to other forms of weight control such as diet, weight loss due to aerobic exercise is relatively small.
But that isn’t the biggest issue here. The bigger issue is that this form of cardio training can actually cause you to burn lean muscle mass rather than body fat. This process is only amplified if you happen to do those cardio exercises at home without any food in your body (often called ‘empty stomach steady state cardio) or you are on some crash diet plan altogether.
Think about it this way. When doing steady state cardio for hours each week, you force your body to travel long distances. As such, your body knows that this is an energy consuming process and if it could make it less energy consuming, it would be to its advantage to do so.
Muscle tissue is the most energy demanding tissue in the body. If it can burn off that muscle, those cardio fitness sessions will become easier. As you don’t especially need a lot of strength to exercise at those moderate intensities, your body sees no reason to save that muscle.
As it’s lost, your resting metabolic rate now permanently decreases. This means you burn fewer calories at rest each and every day, making it harder and harder to lose weight. In fact, if this progresses long enough, you may find that you actually start gaining weight unless you take your calorie intake lower (and in most cases, you couldn’t take it any lower without starving!).
And let’s not forget the fact that this form of low impact cardio is not going to give you any great fitness boosting properties either. While you will maintain aerobic endurance, if you want to actually increase your work capacity, you need an alternative option.
High Intensity Interval Training – A New Breed Of Cardio Training
Which now brings us to the type of cardio training you should be doing, high intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT. This form of training has you alternating brief periods of all-out exercise lasting 15-60 seconds (depending on your preference) with active rest periods that typically last one to three times as long.
This process is then repeated five to ten times, adding a five minute warm-up to the start and a five minute cool-down once you’re finished. The entire session will last just 15-20 minutes but yet is far more effective in terms of body composition management and fitness improvement.
One study published in the International Journal of Obesity looked at this very thing. Researchers assessed the impacts of a 15 week high intensity interval training program on the level of subcutaneous and trunk fat along with insulin resistance levels of younger women. They have the subjects either perform HIIT sessions, steady state exercise, or perform no exercise at all. After the 15 week period was up, it was only the HIIT workouts group that had a significant reduction in the total body mass and fat mass, including trunk fat. In addition to this, their insulin sensitivity level improved as well, which means their body is now better able to handle incoming carbohydrates from the diet, reducing the risk of future weight gain. From this, it’s clear to see that when it comes to changing your body, HIIT exercises is the route to go.
The Nutritional Requirements Of This Cardio Training
Before you go jump on a treadmill and start doing interval sprints, there are some nutrition points you need to know.
As you will be working out at very high intensities, your body will require glucose as a fuel source. This means taking in carbohydrates prior to doing this form of exercise. You don’t need many – 15-20 grams should be sufficient if fat loss is your goal.
In addition to that, having some protein in your system will also ensure that you are able to exercise at your maximal performance while also helping you recover once the workout is finished. Here again, 15-20 grams is ideal.
Eat this snack or shake about 1-2 hours before your HIIT cardio workout session to help minimize the occurrence of cramping. Good options would be a protein shake and a banana, a bowl of oatmeal with some egg whites, or half a turkey sandwich.
Integrating Fat Burning Cardio Into Your Plan
So now that you can see that your steady state cardio should be out and this form of cardio in, how do you go about making that happen? The great news is that you can do this HIIT cardio almost anywhere with a variety of equipment options. You can easily do it outside without any equipment at all, which is one of the best choices as then a machine is not dictating your acceleration, you can perform it inside on cardio machines if you really wish, or you can perform it in a study using a kettlebell or a set of dumbbells. The trick is to remember that this is not a weight lifting session. While you can use an external form of resistance such as kettlebells or dumbbells to make it more challenging to get the intensity level you need to be at, it should never feel like a resistance training workout.
To give you an example of how this looks, let’s show you a few HIIT sample sessions in different environments.
To perform an outdoor routine, simply find an open field or track somewhere and then mark off the distance that you want travel for your interval length.
Now, after a warm-up, run that interval length as fast as possible. This should take 15-60 seconds. Once finished, turn around and walk back. Repeat 7-10 more times and then finish with a cool down. This is what we call HIIT running and if you want to make this even more intense, try performing it by running up a hill instead.
Moving into the gym, you can do the same. Pick your choice of cardio equipment and then determine the level/pace you will sprint at. Ideally this cardio machine should speed up quickly so that you don’t waste half your interval getting up to speed.
If it doesn’t, hop off the machine entirely until it’s at the pace you need and then start the timer as you perform your interval.
You can also do HIIT using just your own bodyweight. For instance, you can choose any full body movement – push-ups, burpees, mountain climbers, squat jumps, or otherwise.
Choose a combination of two or three moves and now, do those moves for each interval, rotating as you go. Between intervals, simply walk around at a brisk pace for your active rest period.
Finally, if you want the resistance based HIIT, grab a lighter weight kettlebell and perform a series of 10 or so kettlebell swings. Once finished, stop and walk around for your rest period of 60-120 seconds and then repeat the process another 5-10 times.
So as you can see, HIIT is highly versatile, highly effective, and a mode of training you must get into your workout program. If you are currently spending hours each week doing steady state cardio, I strongly encourage you to give this up and give HIIT a try. Once you see the results you get from it, you’ll never go back to your old cardio ways again.