Steady state cardio - it's one of the most misunderstood areas in fitness. For years and years jogging, cycling or rowing at a steady pace has widely been used in weight loss programmes. But as we've begun to understand the benefits of cardio more and more, it's become more evident that this kind of cardio simply isn't as effective as we'd like to think.
Don't get me wrong - steady state cardio has it's benefits (I'll outline these below) - but if your goal is to lose weight or gain lean muscle I'm afraid you're more or less wasting your time if you're hopping on an exercise bike for 45 minutes every day.
WHAT IS STEADY STATE CARDIO?
Steady state cardio involves running, cycling, rowing or whatever at a continuous and steady pace for around 20 - 45 minutes. When performing steady state cardio we're usually reaching around 60-70% of our maximum heart rate.
It's ideal of you're looking to improve your fitness levels and endurance and is also pretty easy to do, making it an ideal choice for a lot of gym newbies.
Steady state cardio does help us burn calories but it requires pretty lengthy sessions to burn off a decent amount. A 30 minute jog for example will shed around 300 calories. However extensive research has shown these calories can come from both fat AND muscle.
So if you're goal is fat loss you may be thinking at this point 'hey that's cool I don't want to be muscley' - WRONG.
Regardless of your goal we should all be aiming to improve muscular strength and increase muscle mass. Our body burns fat purely through the process of building muscle so the more muscle we build the less body fat we have.
This does not necessarily mean you'll become massively hench (that is manipulated by nutrition) - what it does mean is that you avoid having one of those 'skinny fat' bodies we often see on people who only ever do steady state cardio. They have little fat but also very little shape or definition - and that is a look nobody wants.
If all this is the case then why do so many people do steady state cardio? Because it's easy and ANYONE can comfortably do it. When someone is new to the gym heading over to the treadmill or bike is a safe bet. They feel confident doing it and it 'ticks a box' - they've done SOMETHING at least. Eventually though after some initial success the results start to slow down and people find themselves right back at square one.
So what should you be doing? There's two things that I include in pretty much all of my online bootcamp clients programmes. When done correctly they both massively outweigh the benefits offered by steady state cardio alone AND also help us to avoid plateaus so that we are constantly seeing long term and sustainable results.
HIIT - High Intensity Interval Training
The first thing I get my clients doing is HIIT training. I'll be honest - it is TOUGH. But it comes with so many more benefits than your standard cardio including the fact that it can be done in half the time to get the same or even better benefits.
HIIT training involves working at various intervals where the heart rate is elevated (the WORK interval) then decreased (REST interval) for certain periods of time. When it's elevated however we aim to REALLY elevate it - anything around 90% of our maximum heart rate. Then for the rest period we either slow right down or stop completely.
Benefits of HIIT include a massively increased calorie burn during the session but the added value comes after the workout when your body will continue burning calories at an elevated rate for up to 48 hours after your workout. HIIT training also helps retain muscle unlike standard cardio. BUT even better news - when we perform HIIT we release more HUMAN GROWTH HORMONE which helps build lean muscle AND burn more fat. All of this combined with the fact that you can get a decent HIIT session done in 20 minutes - what's not to love?!
Like I said HIIT is tough, but once you get into it and do it properly it can become pretty addictive. Plus HIIT offers so much more variety than steady state cardio, you can choose to do it on a bike or a treadmill or really vary things up by throwing in some functional exercises like kettlebell swings, squat jumps, burpees etc.
Overall for me and my clients HIIT is the outright winner when it comes to cardio.
Part two of any effective training plan regardless of your goals. Weight or strength training is NOT just reserved for guys who want to build muscle. Lifting weights has numerous benefits for weight loss just as much as it does for building muscle.
Working towards improving your strength will help you develop lean muscle, and - as I mentioned above - the more muscle you build the less fat you retain. Most people also don't realise that weight training is also a fantastic way to burn calories. So by lifting weights your helping develop a lean athletic looking physique.
Resistance training does not necessarily mean you need to head into the gym and start grunting away lifting the heaviest bar you can find. Using resistance machines is a great way to get into this kind of training before moving onto free weights (barbells and dumbbells etc.).
Just make sure you have a programme that actually works for you. I can't stress that enough. Doing a few bicep curls here and there won't get you anywhere fast. An effective weights programme should take into account the following factors: