HIIT vs. Steady State Cardio

Cardio is short for cardiovascular and is arguably the most important type of exercise you can do. The word cardiovascular refers to your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year, your cardiovascular system works to keep you alive.

Its primary function is supplying your tissues, organs, and systems with oxygen. It’s also responsible for delivering nutrients around your body and the removal of waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. 

Six-pack abs and big biceps look cool but, when push comes to shove, your cardiovascular system is much more critical. Cardiovascular fitness is inextricably linked to cardiovascular health, and people who exercise regularly usually live longer, healthier lives.

Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Lower risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Better sleep
  • Weight loss and fat burning
  • Stronger immune system
  • Increased brainpower
  • Better mood
  • Falls prevention in older people
  • Less severe asthma symptoms
  • Reduction of chronic pain

It’s clear that cardio is good for everybody’s body, and most people should aim to clock up the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week to enjoy all these benefits. But, when it comes to cardio, there are several different types of exercise for you to choose from, and this is where the confusion starts!

Fitness experts love to argue over what type of training is best, often dismissing other forms of exercise entirely. They make it sound like there is only one effective way to work out, anything else is worthless.

The reality is that while there ARE several different cardio workout options to choose from, they are all beneficial, and none should be dismissed out of hand. Each one has its place. In this article, we’re going to compare and contrast two main types of cardio exercise so you can choose the right one for your needs and goals.

Traditional cardio

Traditional cardio goes by several other names, including aerobics, steady-state cardio, and low-intensity cardio. The names don’t matter, so long as you understand the characteristics of this type of workout.

Traditional cardio involves relatively long periods of exercise done at a slow to moderate pace. During this type of activity, you should feel warm and out of breath, but not be working so hard that you can’t hold a conversation. Your heart rate should be around 60-80% of your maximum, and, on a scale of one to ten, you should feel you are working at about 5-7.

Traditional cardio offers several important benefits:

  • Increased base fitness
  • Increased muscular endurance
  • Increased capillarization
  • Increased circulation
  • Lower stress

Common traditional cardio training methods include:

  • Walking, jogging, and running
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Elliptical training
  • Group exercise classes, e.g., Zumba and step aerobics

The main characteristic of traditional cardio is that it is sustainable. This type of workout is usually quite long, potentially lasting an hour or more. Most experts agree that to be effective, a traditional cardio workout should last at least 20 minutes. During that time, your heart and breathing rate should remain reasonably stable. Remember, another name for this type of workout is steady-state training.

The main advantage of traditional cardio is that it is relatively easy. The low level of intensity means it’s not overly painful or uncomfortable. It’s suitable for all levels of exerciser, from the unfit to champion athletes. The only thing that differs between less fit and very fit people is the speed at which they exercise.

Because the intensity level is low, you should have no problem doing frequent traditional cardio workouts, even every day if you want. However, to avoid overuse injuries, it’s a good idea to do different activities on different days, such as jogging one day, swimming the next, and walking the day after that. Despite being easy, it’s still a good idea to have a day or two off from exercise per week to give your body a chance to recover and heal.

If traditional cardio has a downside, it is that it can be very time consuming, especially as you get fitter. Intermediate and advanced exercises often feel like they need to work out for several hours at a time to get much benefit from this type of training. Many people find such long workouts off-putting, impossible to schedule, and even dull.


HIIT is short for high-intensity interval training. This type of exercise involves alternating short periods of very hard exercise with brief periods of rest. There are lots of interpretations of HIIT, and there isn’t one unified approach. Providing you are alternately hard exercise with short rests, you are probably doing a version of HIIT.

Examples include:

  • Run fast for one minute, jog for one minute, repeated 10 times to total 20 minutes.  
  • Row 500 meters as fast as you can, rest one minute, and repeat five times. 
  • 10 sets of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats done as fast as possible. Rest one minute between laps.
  • 30 seconds fast jump rope, 60 seconds slow jump rope, repeated 10 times to total 15 minutes.

HIIT training is anaerobic in nature. That means you work so hard that your lungs and circulatory system are unable to supply your muscles with enough oxygen. This results in a buildup of lactic acid, which eventually forces you to stop and rest.

During your recovery period, you get a chance to catch your breath, flood your muscles with fresh oxygen, and start reducing levels of lactic acid. After a minute or so, you are sufficiently recovered to go again.

As the name suggests, HIIT involves high-intensity efforts. You need to push yourself! If you take it easy, you won’t enter the anaerobic zone, and the workout will be nothing more than start-stop traditional cardio. Your heart rate will exceed 90% of your maximum and, on a scale of 1-10, expect to be hitting 9-10 during your work periods.

The good news is that HIIT workouts are usually shorter than their traditional cardio counterparts. Where 60 minutes or more are quite common for regular cardio, 20-30 minutes should be plenty long enough for an effective HIIT workout, and a fair proportion of that time will be spent resting.

In addition, HIIT affects your body after your workout is complete. When you finish your HIIT workout, your body is still loaded with lactic acid. Your body needs to flush this lactic acid away and uses oxygen to do it.

This causes a slight increase in your heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature, and calorie expenditure for 24-48 hours after your HIIT workout finished. Exercise experts call this EPOC, which is short for excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, and sometimes called the afterburn effect.

EPOC increases your post-exercise metabolic rate, so you burn more calories, even while you sleep. Think of this as an exercise twofer!

While HIIT workouts are generally shorter and better for fat burning than traditional cardio, they are unavoidably harder. Also, because they are so much more intense than regular cardio, you probably won’t be able to do as many workouts per week as you can if you exercise at a more modest level of intensity.

Finally, for many exercisers, HIIT might be too tough and beyond their current level of fitness. Attempting HIIT when you are not very fit could lead to injury, and you’ll definitely feel sore the next day!

Traditional vs. HIIT cardio – which one is right for you?

Both of these distinctly different workout methods can help you get fit, lose weight, burn fat, and get healthy. However, because they are so different, it’s worth considering them individually so that you can choose the one that suits you best.

Traditional cardio is low intensity and relatively easy. It can even be relaxing! However, it is often time-consuming, especially as you start to get fitter. But, if you’ve got time, there is nothing to stop you doing traditional cardio virtually every day of the week. 

HIIT is much more demanding, and that means your workouts will be shorter. You can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both!  HIIT triggers EPOC, which means your metabolism remains elevated for many hours after your workout is complete. However, for most people, daily HIIT workouts would prove too tough and could lead to injury.

Which one is right for you? Only you can answer that question because only you know your personal circumstances. Also consider your likes, dislikes, and current level of fitness in your decision.

Still not sure? Why not try them both and see for yourself? Alternatively, don’t choose and include both of these workout methods in your weekly schedule. That way, you can enjoy all of the benefits of these two very different types of workout.

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