Monday, July 13, 2015

The Myth of Steady State Cardio and Fat Loss


MYTH: Steady state cardio helps you lose weight and burns fat.

Definition of steady state cardio (taken from a web site advocating steady state cardio)

“Steady state cardio is simply a cardio workout that is a continuous, steady effort, …… Any cardiovascular/aerobic activity that is sustained for an extended time (usually starting at about 10 to 15 minutes for beginners and 20 to 90 minutes for more fit athletes) at a fixed intensity qualifies as steady state training.
 Gradually increase your steady state training to a 20 minute cardio routine, eventually going up to 30 to 90 minutes. Engage in a cardio program three to five times a week for ultimate heart health.”
(To their credit, the article quoted above makes no claim that steady state cardio aids with weight loss or fat loss)

Up 90 minutes? 3 to 5 times a week? Really?

Let me begin by saying I have no objections to steady state cardio. “Cardio” refers to your cardiovascular system which begins (and ends) with the heart. Cardio is good for the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system. Do cardio to your heart’s content (pun intended). Will it help you lose fat? As a rule, for the first 30 minutes of steady state cardio you will burn no fat.

My objections to steady state cardio is that’s it’s misused.

I can’t count the times I’ve heard “I don’t understand why I can’t lose weight. I stay on the treadmill (or elliptical, or stationary bike, or my new Bogus Snake-oil Machine) and hour a day and still can’t lose weight. It must be my genetics”.

I am fed up with the TV commercials selling some cheap “revolutionary” device with (paid) models proclaiming “I lost 50 pounds using my revolutionary new ‘Bogus Snake-oil Machine’ in only 10 minutes a day” 

It ani’t gonna happen, folks!”
Steady state cardio makes you good at one thing: steady state cardio!

Why doesn’t it work?
The short answer: “Adaptive Response”. The body is one of the most efficient and adaptive “machines” in existence. It responds to mechanical stress extremely fast and finds the most efficient way to deal with it. In this case, steady state cardio, being fairly low on the physical stress scale, is not much of a challenge for the body. It simply adjusts quickly to steady and predictable.  Lower heart rate, very, very minor hormone adjustment (if any) and Boom! Your body says “I’ve got this”. So quickly, in fact, you may actually gain weight doing steady state.
Remember, too, your body fights very hard to not use fat stores-its fuel of last resort.

How to use cardio correctly to lose weight and Fat

Make it harder. Confuse the adaptive response. The best and most flexible method is called High Intensity Interval Training (HITT).

HITT is simply mixing short bursts of high intensity movements with periods of rest and/or lower intensity movements.  We’re talking seconds of each phase, not minutes. Depending on the intensity, and the program you are using, you can burn more fat in as little as 4 minutes than you can with 30 minutes or more of steady state!

Two Sample Programs

“High Intensity” means all out effort. As hard and as fast as you can go!

PROGRAM (Courtesy of Dr. Jim Stoppani, PHD. Published on THE BEGINNER-TO-ADVANCED 8-WEEK HIIT
Dr. Sroppani holds a doctorate in exercise physiology.

The following program can take you from HIIT beginner to HIIT stud in 8 short weeks.
§  It starts with a work:rest ratio of 1:4 in Phase 1 for a total workout time of just under 15 minutes.
§  Phase 2 bumps up the amount of time in the "work" phase, bringing the ratio up to 1:2 and the total workout time to 17 minutes.
§  In Phase 3, the rest ratio is cut in half, bringing the ratio up to 1:1. The total workout time increases to 18.5 minutes.
§  Finally, in Phase 4, the rest ratio is cut in half again, raising the ratio to 2:1 and the total time at 20 minutes. This will put you in the advanced ranks for HIIT.
The suggested time of each phase is just that—suggested. If you need to spend more than two weeks at a particular phase before moving up, go for it. Ditto if a phase seems too easy and you want to jump right up to the next phase.
You can do these workouts using tools, such as a jump rope, or simply doing jumping jacks, or sprinting, or working on a stationary cycle. Use your imagination. Just follow the work-to-rest intervals as indicated.

PHASE 1 (1:4): WEEKS 1-2
§  15 seconds: High-intensity exercise
§  60 seconds: Rest or low-intensity exercise
Repeat another 10 times, followed by a final 15-second high-intensity blast.
Total time: 14 minutes
PHASE 2 (1:2): WEEKS 3-4
§  30 seconds: High-intensity exercise
§  60 seconds: Rest or low-intensity exercise
Repeat another 10 times, followed by a final 30-second high-intensity blast.
Total time: 17 minutes
PHASE 3 (1:1): WEEKS 5-6
§  30 seconds: High-intensity exercise
§  30 seconds: Rest or low-intensity exercise
Repeat another 11 times, followed by a final 30-second high-intensity blast.
Total time: 18.5 minutes
PHASE 4 (2:1): WEEK 7-8
§  30 seconds: High-intensity exercise
§  15 seconds: Rest or low-intensity exercise
Repeat another 25 times, followed by a final 30-second high-intensity blast.
Total time: 20 minutes

TABATA (developed by Dr. Izumi Tabata)

A  Tabata routine works much the same as the above routine by Jim Stoppani but is usually only 4 minutes in duration once you are able to get to the point where you can actually last for 4 minutes!(8 cycles)

Start out doing 10 seconds of high intensity and 20 seconds of low intensity/rest. Repeat for 4 minutes total.

Once you can do that for 4 minutes raise the intensity cycle to 15seconds and lower the rest cycle to 15 seconds. Repeat for 4 minutes total.(8 cycles)

Progress to 20 seconds of high intensity cycle and 10 second rest cycle. Repeat for 4 minutes total (8

Note that any HITT program can be used with any number of exercises- Tread mill, bike, sprinting, rowing, resistance training (called HIRT), body weight, elliptical, etc.

Arnold was supposedly ask what he did for cardio. He replied “Lift weights faster”.


2001 8 week study indicating HIIT program subjects reduced body fat by 2% while steady state subjects had 0 % reduction in body fat.

*Australian study on female subjects in a 20 minute HITT program lost 6 times more body fat than subject who followed a 40 minute cardio program at constant intensity of 60% of maximum heart rate.

Numerous studies that subjects doing a HIIT program burned 10% more calories in the 24 hour period following exercise than subjects doing a steady state program.

New Zealand study of competitive cyclist in a 4 week HIIT program of 30 second sprints/30 second rest.
Both groups followed the same time cycles but one group used maximum resistance as well while the other used lighter resistance. The high resistance group increased testosterone levels by almost 100% while the lower resistance group only had testosterone level increases of 60%

Another study found that subjects using a high-intensity lifting program (emphasis added) burned 450% more calories than those using a standard program.

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3.       King, J. W. A comparison of the effects of interval training vs. continuous training on weight loss and body composition in obese pre-menopausal women (thesis). East Tennessee State University, 2001.
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7.       Talanian, J. L., et al. Exercise training increases sarcolemmal and mitochondrial fatty acid transport proteins in human skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab IN press, 2010.
8.       Paoli et al. “High intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT) influences resting energy expenditure and respiratory in non-dieting individuals.” Lipids in Health and disease 2013. 12:131 (3 September 2013)

9.       Talanian, J. L., et al. Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. Journal of Applied Physiology 102(4):1439-1447, 2007.
10.    Tjonna, A. E., et al. Superior cardiovascular effect of interval training versus moderate exercise in patients with metabolic syndrome. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 39(5 suppl):S112, 2007.
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12.    Treuth, M. S., et al. Effects of exercise intensity on 24-h energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 28(9):1138-1143, 

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