Does HIIT Burn Fat Better Than Steady State Cardio?
Does HIIT Burn Fat Better Than Steady State Cardio?
In the last two decades or so, few debates have gotten as heated as the argument over high intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio versus low intensity (steady state or continuous) cardio. There was one point years ago where the pendulum in the fitness industry swung so far and so hard to the HIIT side, that both trainers and practitioners would almost mock people for “wasting their time” doing “boring” steady state (continuous), long duration cardio.
It was not unusual to see a HIIT advocate share a photo of a skinny marathon runner next to a jacked sprinter. You would typically see a caption like, “This is what happens when you do HIIT cardio compared to steady state cardio! HIIT burns fat way better than slow, boring steady cardio, and builds more muscle too!”
Of course the truth is, that was a disingenuous argument, an unfair comparison, and according the newest research, just plain wrong. But many people bought into it.
HIIT is most often promoted as a time-efficient way of doing cardio. By working with more intensity rather than longer, you can achieve the same cardiovascular fitness and health benefits, or even better, in less time, compared to moderate intensity steady state training (MISS).
By the way, in the latest research, they call moderate intensity steady cardio MICT, the acronym for medium intensity continuous training. Same thing, but I’m going to stick to the old name MISS, just because I’m used to it.
Types of interval training workouts: HIIT, SIT, MICT, MISS, LISS… Oh my!
Speaking of acronyms, it’s important to make distinctions between the different types of interval training and continuous training or else it’s hard to make fair comparisons. There is also sprint interval training, which is now known as SIT. That would be like really short all-out (maximal) intensity sprints, which usually only last about 10 to 30 seconds. It’s pretty brutal, but usually there’s a longer recovery interval in between each sprint which makes it more tolerable.
SIT workouts, as seen in the scientific literature, typically include 2 to 6 maximal efforts (100%) lasting approximately 10-30 seconds, with 2 to 4 minutes of active recovery in between. These are all-out sprints and should be considered different and more difficult than “high intensity” interval training. These workouts, even including warm up and cool down, usually don’t exceed 20 minutes. Some unique variations, such as a single round of Tabata, may take only 4 minutes (20s work X 10s rest X 8 rounds)
HIIT workouts generally refer to repeated work intervals (typically up to 10 or 12) lasting 1 to 4 minutes at 90 to 95% of maximum heart rate (maybe 85% for beginners or the deconditioned). These work intervals are separated by 1 to 3 minutes of active recovery. When you count the warm up and cool down, these workouts usually last 20 to 35 minutes. (Not all HIIT workouts are super-short).
Steady state (continuous) cardio is the traditional type of aerobic exercise where you maintain a steady slow or moderate pace through the entire workout, usually for a longer duration, such as 30 to 60 minutes.
Steady state cardio can be further subdivided into low intensity steady state (LISS) or moderate intensity steady state (MISS). For example, walking at a casual pace on flat ground (where your heart rate doesn’t go up much), is LISS cardio. Jogging or exercising on a cardio machine (stairclimber, elliptical, bike, etc) at about 75-85% of maximum heart rate is MISS cardio. MISS and LISS are not the same. MISS is obviously harder and burns more calories for a given time period.
People often ask, which type of cardio training is better for fat loss?
In the present study, the question being asked was, is HIIT better for fat loss compared to MISS? Advocates of interval training often claim that HIIT is indeed superior. You could probably find some evidence that it’s true, depending on the type of HIIT or MISS workouts being compared.
It’s clear that HIIT is better than MISS for time efficiency. (And MISS is better than LISS for time efficiency). However, whether HIIT produces more total fat loss over time than MISS has not been confirmed in well-designed long-term studies that measure body composition and make fair comparisons.
There has been a ton of research on this topic, but with all the different types of interval training workouts out there, that has made comparing fat loss effectiveness difficult.
To finally answer this question about HIIT vs MISS, and get to the bottom of this controversy, a group of exercise scientists recently conducted a meta-analysis of 54 studies. (A meta analysis is not a single intervention or trial or experiment, it’s like a study of studies).
This latest review (Steele et al) compared HIIT to MISS while measuring body composition over time. To meet the inclusion criteria, the studies had to include a minimum of one cardio workout per week and it had to be at least four weeks long. (Most of the studies had a frequency of 3 cardio workouts per week).
What the research says about HIIT workouts for fat loss compared to steady state cardio
The results of this huge and thorough analysis gave us strong scientific evidence that there is very little difference between MISS and HIIT for fat loss. Neither type of cardio workout was substantially more effective for burning body fat over time than the other.
When posting those memes like the marathoner versus sprinter comparison, many HIIT advocates are trying to imply that if you do long duration cardio, you’ll lose all your muscle, that HIIT is better for people who lift weights, or even that HIIT cardio can build muscle. But HIIT is not more effective for building muscle.
Beginners and previously sedentary people might see a small increase in muscle when they start doing intense cardio or cardio with a resistance element. But the fact is, cardio in general is not very effective for muscle growth. You have to lift weights for that. (Surprise, surprise, sprinters usually do a lot more heavy lifting than long distance runners).
Without strict dietary control, adding modest amounts of cardio alone is not very effective for fat loss
The researchers also made a somewhat disappointing discovery. Regardless of whether the exercise was HIIT or MISS, the amount of body fat lost was rather small. In previous studies we’ve seen cases where 4 to 12 week interventions produced 2 to 4 pounds of fat loss, and there were cases where interval training burned a pound more than steady state training.
But in this newer study, There was no significant difference between the groups and the total weight loss was only around a half a pound! This suggests that the effect of moderate doses of either type of cardio on fat loss is minimal without the right dietary control.
Dietary restriction (achieving calorie deficit) must always be the first priority for fat loss. It’s easier to achieve a large calorie deficit by reducing food intake than by increasing exercise.
Make no mistake, exercise does help with fat loss, when added on top of a proper diet. There’s also all the health and fitness benefits. The issue is that it takes a fairly large volume of cardio to move the fat loss needle. Plus, if you exercise and eat more when you add more cardio, that simply cancels out the fat loss benefit.
Exercise, both resistance and cardio training, is an important adjunct to diet. Exercise combined with proper diet can help weight loss and weight loss maintenance, it can help preserve lean body mass in a deficit, improve fitness, enhance performance and provide numerous health benefits. But the cliche, “you can’t out train a bad diet” has a lot of truth to it.
The biggest advantage of HIIT
One of the biggest advantages of HIIT is that the time commitment to achieve similar fat loss, fitness and health benefits is lower. Time efficiency is a legitimate benefit of HIIT training, and this is yet another study that confirms it.
There’s a trade off though. Much more intensity is required for HIIT. The effort to perform HIIT can be uncomfortable and painful. All-out sprint interval training (SIT) can feel downright puke-inducing. This is why some people would simply prefer to exercise slower and longer for the same results.
Because the scientific evidence shows there’s little difference in fat loss over time between HIIT and MICT, and because adherence is the key to results, here is the biggest lesson we can draw from this research:
Your own personal preference should guide your choice of cardio.
Your time available may also influence your choice. HIIT can be an excellent choice for busy people.
HIIT workout for fat loss
Instead of leaving you only with the findings from a bunch of scientific studies, I’d like to leave you with a few interval training workout ideas, including one I believe is fantastic, if not ideal, for fat loss.
I want to emphasize that I didn’t write this post to knock HIIT for fat loss (and fitness/health benefits). HIIT can be a great choice and as mentioned above, the biggest benefit and biggest place where HIIT wins over steady, lower intensity cardio is with time-efficiency.
I often use a combination of steady state and HIIT cardio workouts. You don’t have to take a Sid and choose one or the other. I’m a big fan of running hills and stairs for HIIT. On a cardio machine, my favorite HIIT fat loss workout by far is the 10 X 1 min protocol.
10 X 1 HIIT workout for fat losss
The 10X 1 HIIT workout is a scientifically tested protocol where you do 10 rounds of 1 minute intervals at a high, but not maximum intensity. Using the rating of perceived exertion scale, the work intervals would be about a 9. After each work interval, you take a 1 minute recovery interval at a low intensity. The RPE would be about a 3 or 4.
Most people start with a 3 to 5 minute warm up and end with a 3 to 5 minute cool down. That makes the total time of the workout between 26 to 30 minutes. You accumulate 10 minutes of high intensity effort during this workout.
Beginners or deconditioned people could start with only 4 to 6 work intervals and build up to 8 to 10 intervals. Beginners could also start with a lower intensity such as a 7 or 8 RPE on the work intervals and build up to a 9 RPE. Advanced and highly fit trainees could do as many as 12 intervals and also aim for a 9.5 to 10 RPE.
Norwegian 4 X 4 HIIT (long intervals)
Another popular and science-tested HIIT workout is the Norwegian 4 X 4 method.
The 4 X 4 Norwegian method involves 4-minute high intensity work intervals repeated 4 times, with 3 minute recovery intervals in between. Most of the studies on 4 X 4 HIIT are done with an intensity at 90-95% or maximal heart rate during the work intervals, but you sometimes hear 85% to 95% as the acceptable range. It is no walk in the park to sustain this effort for 4 minutes. This intensity would be equivalent to running at a brisk pace (not jogging), or on a cycle, it would be pedaling fast and hard against resistance.
Using the 10 point RPE scale, this would be an effort level of at least an 8 during the work intervals. Using the simple talk test also works: During the high-intensity intervals, you should be working hard enough and breathing heavy enough that you can’t talk comfortably in long sentences.
Between each work interval is a 3-minute period of active recovery. During this recovery period you reduce the intensity to the equivalent of a slow jog or brisk walk (depending on your fitness level). On a cycle it would be pedaling at a slower pace with less resistance.
This makes the workout 25 minutes long, not counting warmup. With a 3 to 5 minute warm up and cool down tacked on to the beginning and end, the total workout time is 31 to 35 minutes long. This HIIT workout is usually done only 2 or 3 times per week. If additional cardio sessions are desired to help boost fat loss, they should be lower in intensity to avoid over-training, especially when done concurrently with weight training.
4 X 4 HIIT cardio, as prescribed above, lasts 35 minutes, including the warmup, and a whopping 16 minutes of high-intensity work is accumulated. Studies have shown better results with this shorter workout than 50 minutes of moderate steady state training.
Personally I find these longer intervals feel much harder than 1-minute intervals. This is a lung-burning, heart-pounding workout. But surprisingly participants in 4 X 4 HIIT studies did not report any difference in enjoyment between 1-minute HIIT workouts and this 4-minute HIIT workout. It appears that the long recovery interval of 3 minutes makes the workout quite tolerable and many people report that the intervals are more engaging the MISS workouts, so adherence rates were quite good. All kinds of interval training are certainly more engaging than very long, slow and steady cardio.
Tabata SIT workout
Studies on interval training have focused mostly on the cardiovascular benefits such as Vo2 max, endurance performance enhancement and health improvements such as reduction of mortality risk. Ironically, you often hear interval training being marketed as both a time saver and a superior fat burner. Both may be true, but there is a catch.
Some interval training protocols are designed to be extremely brief. For example, the Tabata workout is only 4 minutes long with 20 second work intervals and 10 second recovery intervals. Sometimes the workout is promoted as “only 4 minutes long” (as in doing only one circuit), or you may be instructed to repeat two or three times, for a total of 8 or 12 minutes of total time, respectively.
The amazing part is, very brief workouts that are very intense have been shown to produce large cardio-respiratory improvements. However, if a workout is only 4, 8 or even 12 minutes long, the total energy expenditure is just not high enough to burn a lot of fat, so it’s important to consider fat loss and cardiovascular benefits individually. You can say one 4-minute round of Tabata (SIT) is incredibly time efficient for cardiovascular improvement, but you can’t honestly say it’s a good fat burner.
On the other hand, when a cardio duration is long enough to burn a lot of calories, (like the 10 X 1 HIIT workout) then it becomes a great fat burning workout on top of the cardio benefits.
In conclusion, does HIIT burn fat?
Yes, HIIT burns fat. HIIT workouts in the 20 to 35 minute range are especially good for fat loss. But don’t forget, steady state continuous cardio in the 40 to 60 minute range is also outstanding for fat loss and some people find it more enjoyable and tolerable.
Does HIIT burn off more body over time than MISS? It might, depending on the parameters of the workout and what kind of MISS workout you compare it to. But overall, according to the findings of the most recent scientific review 54, the answer is no, HIIT does not burn fat better than steady state cardio. It simply achieves the same fat loss in less time.
At this point, I think we can finally put the HIIT vs MISS for fat loss debate to an end. It’s time to stop saying HIIT is better. It’s much more accurate to say that HIIT is simply more time-efficient.
The bottom line is, do your cardio, and choose the type that you enjoy the most and you can stick to. And remember, cardio is not just for fat loss, it’s for health, fitness and conditioning as well. Also remember that no type of cardio is going to help you lose much if you aren’t controlling your diet to make sure you’re in a calorie deficit.
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM) – The Bible Of Fat Loss
Author of The BFFM Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Founder, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here to learn more about Burn the fat Inner Circle
Steele et al, Slow and Steady, or Hard and Fast? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Comparing Body Composition Changes between Interval Training and Moderate Intensity Continuous Training, Sports, 9, 155, 2021.
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