Your heart is a pretty important muscle, and cardio training is a big part of making it stronger. But fitness conversations typically turn to touting the benefits of strength training over—or in conjunction with—cardio because its popularity as an equal player in weight loss is often misunderstood. And if you listen to the cardio chatter lately, all you hear is HIIT is hot and it’s the only cardio you need. Well… that’s not entirely true, either. Fact is, we’re missing out on a much bigger discussion about the best way to train the heart, and that needs to change.
Cardiovascular exercise includes anything that increases your heart and respiration rate. Whether you’re walking, running, riding a bike, on the elliptical, participating in a dance class, jumping rope, or taking the stairs, each will tick the box in the cardio column. The benefits of cardio are plentiful, including increasing stamina, warding off viral illnesses, reducing health risks, managing chronic conditions, boosting your mood, and strengthening your heart. Many options exist and cardio is not one size fits all; it’s best to know what’s available and find what works for you!
Do keep in mind that while cardio works the heart, lungs, and circulatory system—all of which are vital to health and longevity—on its own it cannot provide injury prevention, increased muscle, additional strength, coordination, or flexibility. A well-rounded workout plan still includes strength, core conditioning, and flexibility.
Once you’ve found the cardio you like to do, next comes deciding workout lengths and intensities. Just like strength training, it’s helpful to know the types of cardio training that exist and how they will affect your progress when you work them into your overall plan. So let’s get into steady state, interval training, and HIIT.
Steady state cardio training involves elevating the heart rate and sustaining a desired intensity level for an extended period. The intensity and duration you choose will be based on your fitness level and goals.
For example, when beginning a steady state protocol, you might choose to walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes at a comfortable but challenging pace (moderate intensity) by using speed and/or incline. To progress, you would either keep the intensity the same and extend the time, or increase the intensity and keep the same length of time.
Steady state is an established and proven method for improving cardiorespiratory fitness. It increases your cardiac efficiency and your ability to use fat as a fuel source, all while putting less stress on your system and creating less metabolic waste (compared to HIIT workouts). Longer cardio sessions (e.g. a nice, long walk in nature) also are a great way to boost your mood and stimulate creativity! Of course, you should keep in mind that if your goal is weight loss, using steady state as your primary source of cardio might take longer.
Interval training involves alternating between high(er) intensities and low(er) intensities for designated periods of time. Much like steady state, the intensities you choose and the length of time spent in the higher effort levels compared to the lower/recovery effort levels will be based on your fitness level and goals.
For example, you may turn 20 minutes on the treadmill into an interval workout by alternating 1 minute of hard work (breathing heavy, but able to speak 3-5 words before taking a breath) with 3 minutes of moderate work (back to an effort that allows you speak in sentences, 7-10 words, before taking a breath). Then, as you progress, the ratio might become a bit more even (2 min/2 min), and eventually flip to longer bouts of high(er) intensity with shorter bouts of recovery (3 min of hard work and 1 minute of recovery).
Intervals are a great way to keep your workout fresh; by breaking downtime into smaller chunks, you may find longer sessions more enjoyable. While intervals should burn more calories, you’ll need to pay close attention to the amount of time and the effort level of your recovery compared to your “working” time. Many times, the total calorie burn ends up less than that of a similar length steady state workout due to total time spent recovering or the lesser intensity of the overall workout when you average the work and rest.
HIIT stands for high intensity interval training and is a form of interval training. It’s important to separate out HIIT from other interval training because of the attention it gets as being the “king” of cardio these days. A HIIT workout includes short(er) work bouts and high(er) intensities with adequate recovery before repeating.
For example, let’s use the 20-minute treadmill routine again. Instead of 1 minute of hard work followed by 3 minutes of recovery, you might go all out (breathless) for 1 minute, and then recover until you can breathe easily again, and repeat. The work should take you to a place where you can only say 1 word; it’s your max effort for that day at that time.
HIIT is an amazing way to break through plateaus, increase your fitness levels cardiovascularly, and burn a tremendous number of calories in a short period of time. But beware: too much of anything is not good and HIIT is no exception. If performed correctly, you require 24-48 hours of recovery before participating in another HIIT workout. And let’s face it, it’s hard—hard on your body and hard on your mind. Just because every magazine states it’s the only way to go doesn’t mean you must do it!