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Cardio Wars: Steady State Training vs. High Intensity Interval Training

Posted by Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sp Med, Dip Sport Med, ES on 20 June 2016
Cardio Wars: Steady State Training vs. High Intensity Interval Training

It doesn't matter if you're a high-performance athlete, or a weekend warrior: cardiovascular training will find its way into your life.

Whether you need some cardio exercises to endure the rigors of a gruelling game, or are casually running to stay active, this type of training is a versatile, convenient, and safe way to enhance your cardiovascular system.

Since cardio is essential to virtually any fitness routine, trainers and health pros continually search for an edge to improve this aspect of exercise.

Steady cardio training, or steady state exercise, is the type of cardio exercises you're familiar with, the best example being running. This is still a widely accepted form of cardio with no downsides.

While there's really no downside to steady state cardio, that doesn't mean the ceiling is that high. Your body is working at a consistent pace, which is fine for building endurance, but you're not truly pushing your body to its limits.

This is why high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a hot topic in the fitness industry. Rather than having your body working at a consistent pace for long stretches, HIIT is the opposite: short, explosive exercises with small rest breaks in between. Think of it as the stop-and-go form of fitness.

So what's better for your cardiovascular system? Long, low-intensity steady state training, or short, all-out-effort high intensity training? Let's break down the pros and cons of each to get an understanding of which can benefit you more.

The Benefits of Cardio

Before heading to the steady state vs. HIIT tilt, know that both methods provide tremendous value to your cardiovascular system.

Whether you end up opting for steady state or high intensity training, cardio exercises are based on putting stress on your heart and circulatory system. This is achieved through keeping the heart rate elevated over a period of time. Building this cardiovascular endurance will decrease your resting heart rate and blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol levels and body fat, improve your circulation, and strengthen connecting tissues.

The heart can be trained, just like any other muscle in your body (remember, your heart's a muscle too). No matter how you go about your cardio, raising your heart rate and blood pressure through training will build heart health.

How you go about doing so is where the debate lies.

The Pros and Cons of Steady State

You're familiar with this type of cardio, whether you play sports, exercise alone, or can recall those gym sessions all the way back when you were in school.

It doesn't get much easier than steady state training. All you're aiming for is maintaining your activity or exercise at a steady, manageable-but-still-challenging pace for over 20 minutes. You're ideally working at 60-70% of your max, with a heart rate between 120-150 beats/minute. This can be done through any activity where you're keeping pace in your exercise think swimming, biking, dancing, rowing, etc.


  • Best for Beginners: Rather than jumping right into high intensity training before you even know what you're doing, steady state cardio is a good intro to fitness for exercise newbies. Steady state doesn't require any equipment, is convenient, and allows you to gradually build endurance when/if you decide to increase training intensity.
  • More Exercise, More Cardio: Steady state training isn't as punishing on the body; the lower impact it takes allows you to train more consistently (even daily), if necessary.
  • The Aerobic System: One subtle benefit to steady state exercise is building the aerobic system. A majority of physical functions you perform daily walking, standing, digestion are powered by the aerobic system. Improving your aerobic system's efficiency will be felt throughout your typical day.


  • Increased Stress: The goal of cardio is to put stress on the body, which is good for you to a certain point. Excessive cardio activities can keep you in a state of stress too long, affecting things like weight loss.
  • Susceptibility to Overuse: Along with stress, overuse injuries can result from steady state cardio. Running or swimming takes a toll on your joints, amplified with repeated activity over extended periods of time. Weakening the joints increases your chance of injury.
  • Low Ceiling: Mentioned earlier, the upside of steady state cardio isn't very high. Since you're only working your body at 60-70% of your max, you logically can't 'improve' on your fitness numbers; they're more likely to remain steady, unless you slowly increase difficulty.

hiit training cardio exercises

The Pros and Cons of HIIT

A HIIT workout involves very short, powerful, all-out bursts of activity, followed by a quick rest period, and then back to the same activity. Interval training rarely exceeds 20 minutes, and can be done on a treadmill (some offer interval training settings), cycle, outdoors, or with weights like kettle bells or bar bells.


  • No Time Investment: HIIT exercises could be the answer for people who can't find the time to exercise. All you need is 5-20 minutes for an effective HIIT session. This also helps with muscle sparing; you're exercising for such short time frames, the body is less likely to break down muscle tissue.
  • Efficient Fat-Burning: This works through 'EPOC', or 'Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption'. What this means is that even after you've stopped exercising, your body is still burning calories as you go about your day. Additionally, your resting metabolism develops, and your body becomes better at using fat for fuel.


  • Difficulty: No one expects the difficulty level of a true HIIT workout. Five to 20 minutes of exertion sounds like a breeze, but you'll be gassed afterwards. For high intensity workouts to be effective, 110% effort is required, otherwise you won't take full advantage of the session. If you can't be bothered going full-throttle all the time, you're better off with steady state training.
  • Less is More: At most, interval training should be performed every other day. Two to three sessions a week is recommended thanks to the impact it has on your body. Your other forms of exercise you may want to get done may be put on hold so your body can recover properly.

Head-to-Head: Steady State vs. HIIT

Both forms of cardio have their strengths and weaknesses. So it all comes down to the needs of the individual. For casual exercisers, steady state may be a better fit; it's convenient, improves other physical functions, and won't leave you exhausted. Beginners should almost exclusively start with steady state exercise, until their cardiovascular system and endurance is built up.

Serious fitness freaks, or competitive athletes, will find HIIT training extra beneficial. A HIIT workout consistently pushes the body to its limit, which will increase the body's threshold for rigorous activity over time. Noticeable fitness gains come with high intensity workouts; the ceiling for improvement is very high. HIIT also suits people with tight schedules who don't have time for a 30+ minute gym session. People exercising to slim down can benefit from EPOC through high intensity workouts.

Are you on Team HIIT, or the Steady State Squad? Regardless of how you like to train, SEMI has the professional fitness trainers and personal training equipment to help you achieve any fitness goals.

Give us a call at 1-844-223-SEMI (7364) so we can start your steady state or HIIT cardio program!

Author: Douglas W. Stoddard MD, M Sp Med, Dip Sport Med, ES
About: Dr. Douglas Stoddard is a sports medicine physician and is the Medical Director of the Sports & Exercise Medicine Institute (SEMI). After receiving his medical degree from the University of Toronto, he trained in Australia at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, obtaining his Master Degree in Sports Medicine. He is also a diplomat of the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine and has his focussed practice designation in Sport Medicine from the Ontario Medical Association. Dr. Stoddard is a consultant to the Canadian Military and has consulted with well over 30,000 unique patients in his career. Dr. Stoddard is constantly searching for new and promising therapies to help SEMI patients, and is responsible for developing the RegenerVate Medical Injection Therapy Program. He is married and the proud father of two boys, is an avid triathlete and occasional guitar player.
Tags: Performance


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