For years the debate has raged hardcore about the effectiveness of traditional cardio versus high intensity cardio. On one side, you have educated strength coaches and trainers as well as researchers pointing to various reason why high intensity intervals are better and on the other side you have trainers and bodybuilders advocating the advantages of traditional steady state cardio. For the most part, the steady state work has won out since the trainers and bodybuilders look the way that most people want to look.
How To Burn Fat
When you look at how the body uses calories for energy during exercise, it’s very clear that it depends on the intensity of your training. The lower the intensity the more stored body is going to be used for energy and the higher the intensity the greater the need for stored carbs to be used. Unfortunately most people only look at right now. Everyone looks at how much fat they can burn now. That’s not the entire picture though. Other important factors include
- The recovery needs of training
- Daily recovery needs
- Accumulated recovery periods (4,6,12,16 weeks etc)
See what I’m saying? It’s never, no matter what you do, in the gym that matters the most.
Various recent research studies have shown that more fat is burned post workout when higher intensity exercise is used. Fat burning is lower during training but higher post workout. When you look at the 24 hour period, we also see that fat burning is elevated higher when high intensity work is compared to traditional interval training.
Can You Build Muscle With Cardio?
Recent says “yes”. Mougios look at exercise intensity and body composition changes and found that the high intensity exercise group either gained or maintained their lean body mass while the low intensity group lose lean muscle. This should stand out to any physique competitor reading this. You can actually build muscle with high intensity training.
Another factor to look at is that high intensity aerobic work will preferentially recruit fast twitch muscle fibers, particularly in the hamstrings and calves (two areas which most people lack).
Look at how high intensity intervals actually burn body fat. A study done by Tremblay looked at 20 weeks of high intensity training against endurance training. After it was all said and done, the high intensity grouped had as high as 9 times the body fat loss of the endurance group. The researchers stated that the increase in glycolytic enzymes was the main reason for this result. Glycolytic enzymes are essentially the process that sugar or carbs are broken apart and used for energy.
Bodybuilders Are Ripped
The other side of the coin is when you look at bodybuilders. They traditionally perform low intensity cardio and have extremely low levels of body fat. Could there be something to it? When you look at bodybuilding and stepping on stage or doing a photo shoot, the muscle to fat ratio must be optimized. After all, anyone can get ripped but not everyone can be muscular, tight and ripped.
So bodybuilders use steady state low intensity cardio since they are on low carb diets and only want to burn fat. The reason is that if they performed intervals they’d burn muscle since they don’t have any carbs available in their body. At first thought, this makes sense but how much protein are these athletes taking in? If they aren’t training with weights for an hour or so and taking enough protein, they won’t lose muscle regardless of what type of aerobic work is performed.
Makes sense and to be honest, steady state cardio is fine to do in a planned training cycle.
The issue is that the entire industry gets caught up in a “low vs high” debate when you can actually get benefits from state state cardio, after you’ve done your high intensity work.
You have to look at fat loss training as a step by step process. First you start the diet then you perform intense weight training then you perform high intensity intervals then you tweak your diet and training then you add steady state work in if you have the time or need.
The problem with a steady state only approach is that you have to continue to do more and more volume to see results. On a fat loss diet, the nutrients aren’t there to support the ever-increasing activity.
So to sum it up, the traditional fat burning zone doesn’t exist. You can see advantages and results from the typical steady state cardio routine but faster AND better results will come from high intensity interval training.
Mougios V. Does the intensity of an exercise programme modulate body composition changes? Int J Sports Med. 2006 Mar;27(3):178-81
Tremblay. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism.1994 Jul;43(7):81 4-8