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Cardio for fat burn: HIIT or steady state?

The summer is here at long last and so many of us are thinking about how best to get in shape to hit the beach and feel amazing. Of course we need to pay close attention to what we are eating, but you also might like to think about increasing the amount of cardiovascular exercise you’re doing. So, what is most effective for fat burning; steady state cardio or HIIT training?

First let’s start out but defining the difference between the two…

  • Steady state cardio workouts are simply performing your activity at a steady, challenging-but-manageable pace at 6 or 7 out of 10 effort, usually for 20 minutes or more. This might be running, cycling or swimming etc. HIIT cardio (High Intensity Interval Training) is slightly more complex. You perform your activity as hard as you can, at 9 or 10 out of 10 effort for a brief set time period, then take a rest interval, repeating the cycle multiple times. An example might be a 30 second sprint, followed by a 30 second walk, repeated 10 times.

Both types give a number of great health and fitness benefits, including lowering blood pressure drops, improving metabolism and increasing the amount of oxygen your body can process, but which is best for fat loss? Let’s take a look.

  • Steady state cardio is aerobic, meaning it requires oxygen and is fueled mostly by body fat. HIIT, is anaerobic, meaning the work intervals don’t rely exclusively on oxygen, and are fueled mostly by glucose (stored carbohydrates). This is why steady state has been the traditional fat loss method, as you are working in the ‘fat burning’ zone (ever seen this on the treadmill or cross trainer at the gym?)

  • The drawback of steady state cardio for fat burning is that you burn fat and calories while you’re exercising, but once you stop the fat burning stops too. The more steady state you do, the more efficient your body becomes at conserving energy during that exercise, so overtime you burn less and less with each workout. Steady state has also been linked with wastage of lean muscle mass, which decreases your metabolic rate – just look at the physique of a long distance runner vs a sprinter.

  • With HIIT, although you’re using mainly glucose (stored energy) to fuel your workout, we experience an ‘after burn effect’ post workout called EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) which increases your metabolic rate for many hours after your workout. This means you will continue to burn energy long after your workout has ended. We can also build lean muscle mass during these workouts.

  • Due to the intense nature of HIIT workouts, they are shorter and more time efficient than steady state workouts. If you could exercise for less time and get the same, or better, results which would you choose?

  • But we need to remember that variety is the spice of life and we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Beginner level exercisers may also not be ready to start HIIT before they have establish a base level of cardio through steady state exercise.

  • In a nutshell, we should do both! For fat loss and time efficiency (we’re all busy after all) prioritise HIIT but also include a small amount of steady state cardio if you enjoy it and your schedule allows it.

For more advice and support to get in the best shape of your life get in touch with Amy Norris Personal Training on

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