Pretty much everything I read about fitness these days is pro high-intensity and con steady-state. I’m guilty of preaching these things myself, but I think the fitness industry as a whole has gotten ahead of itself. The other day I came across an article entitled: The Death of Steady State Cardio. Although I’m not a proponent of steady-state cardio, I cringed at the title. There is actually a lot of valid and useful information in this article, but aggressive attention-seeking titles like this do more harm than good. Let me elaborate…
Do I dislike steady state cardio?
Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Back in my late teens and early twenties, when I was small, weak and skinny-fat, I ran all the time. I understood that going for a 5k run every few days was what I needed to prevent myself from becoming fat, and it worked like a charm. Would I have preferred to have a six-pack? Absolutely, but my low-effort plan was enough to keep me from becoming overweight so I just rolled with the punches. When I was 21, I met the gym. What I quickly discovered was that lifting weights enabled me to eat a lot more and actually gave some definition to my otherwise milk bag-like physique. Long story short, lifting weights gave me muscles and the eventual combination of weights, sprints and good nutrition made me lean.
That’s just my story, but I’m far from alone. I’ve seen the same work for many others and the author of the article above states the same. Not enough? Science (in the form of countless studies) also tells us that high-intensity exercise is superior for fat loss. With that being said…
Intensity is relative
I love telling people that high-intensity exercise is great, but I think the term scares off those who aren’t familiar or comfortable with exercise. For this reason, I think a lot of people resort to their comfort level of jogging or lifting light weights. So let’s clarify the definition of intensity:
In most cases, intensity can be described as one’s perceived effort, but for anaerobic lifting in the gym, intensity directly correlates to the amount of weight lifted. Increase the weight, increase the intensity. In regards to aerobic exercise where there are no weights involved to determine the intensity (I’ll use running as an example), sprinting is far more intense than jogging. Doing as much as possible, as close to the maximal exertion you can put out, is intense.
With this in mind, increasing intensity can be switching from walking to jogging, from jogging to running, from running to sprinting, etc. It can also simply mean lifting a bit more weight than last week. I’m often asked by older people if they should be exercising with intensity and if their goal is to lose weight, exercising with relative intensity is absolutely advisable; again, the key word is relative. To an older individual, jogging may very well equate to sprinting for a 20 year-old, so although it doesn’t look the same, the effect is comparable. There is even work being done right now on post-cardiac injury patients, and the early returns indicate that higher intensity exercise actually helps the heart repair faster than with low-moderate activity (is it actually strange that helping the heart repair itself would be more effective than sitting around and doing nothing??) Nobody should be expected to sprint before they can jog or deadlift 300 lbs the day they walk into a gym. Intensity is completely relative to the starting point of the individual, which brings me to…
The law of diminishing returns
The fitter you are, the more difficult it becomes to increase your level of fitness. If you are inactive and/or have quite a bit of extra fat on your body, simply changing a few eating habits and incorporating any kind of physical activity (including steady state cardio!) will work wonders. Eventually though, you will plateau. If continued fat loss remains the goal, your options will be to consider other changes in eating habits and/or to increase the intensity of your exercise protocol. For people who are already fairly lean, it is the intensity of exercise combined with good nutrition that will help them achieve an extremely lean look. So in the end, it’s really a question of…
What’s your goal?
If your goal is to be healthy and you don’t have the desire or drive to have a six pack, steady-state cardio will be a great addition to your lifestyle. If you hate the idea of going to the gym but love to run and can live without having the body of a fitness model, put on those running shoes and reap the benefits of cardiovascular activity. Studies have shown that aerobically healthy individuals (along with strong individuals) live longer than other people, so if the goal is health and longevity, just make sure you do something! Embrace the type of physical activity that you enjoy, prioritize it in your life, and you’ll be on your way to health!
However, if you are hell-bent on achieving a super lean body composition, steady-state cardio will not be your friend. Hit the weights, up the intensity in everything you do and work on developing sustainable eating habits that will help you achieve your goals.
So, is steady-state cardio really dead? No. This is one of the more ridiculous statements I’ve heard. Exercise is still exercise, I don’t care how you slice it. Activities like jogging are free, easy and beneficial for overall cardiovascular health. The average sedentary individual can use steady-state cardio for weight loss, athletes and active individuals can use 20 minutes of low-intensity cardio for the purposes of recovery (most lean, strong guys that I know do incorporate something like walking uphill at a brisk pace into their programming) and competitive endurance athletes will obviously benefit from extended periods of cardio as it translates directly to their sport.
For my personal goals and lifestyle, steady-state cardio does not really have a place, but there are several reasons for people to include this kind of exercise in their lives. Understand the benefits of intensity, understand your true goals, and you’ll be able to determine how to most productively spend the time you allot to exercise.
For more information, I can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.