HIIT vs. Cardio for Fat Loss

If you want to lose fat and get fit, you need to exercise. This rule is all-but set in stone. There are lots of different types of exercise you can do, from lifting weights to yoga, and the right one for you depends on your fitness goals, as well as what you enjoy. 

However, when it comes to burning fat, there are two main exercise approaches that are considered “the best”: 

  • Low intensity, steady state cardio 
  • Interval training 

Both methods work but are very different and that means there is some disagreement as to which is best. In this article we’ll take a look at both methods, weighing up their pros and cons, so you can make an informed choice as to which one is right for you. 

Low intensity, steady state cardio 

This type of workout involves going for a jog, run, swim, or cycle. Your heart rate will be around 60-70% of your maximum, and it should feel relatively easy. Because of this, you’ll be able to keep going for a long time, maybe an hour or more. 

When you do this type of exercise, your body predominately burns fat for fuel. Unfortunately, because the level of intensity is low, you won’t burn a lot of fat. It’s a bit like going for an easy cruise in your car – the slower you go, the less fuel you’ll use. 

However, low intensity cardio is good for your heart, lungs, blood pressure, and general health but it’s not a very efficient way to exercise if you want to burn a lot of calories. 

Advantages: 

  • Easy to do
  • Not too tiring
  • Burns mainly fat for fuel 
  • Improves cardiovascular fitness and health 
  • Can be sociable, e.g. group exercise classes or going for a run with a friend 

Disadvantages:

  • Time consuming
  • Can be boring 
  • Burns relatively low amounts of calories and fat 
  • Doesn’t do much for muscle tone or strength 
  • Only works your legs (unless you swim for exercise) 

High intensity interval training 

High intensity interval training (HIIT for short) involves doing short periods of very hard exercise alternated with brief rests. For example: 

  • Skip for 30 seconds 
  • Rest for 30 seconds 
  • Squats for 30 seconds 
  • Rest for 30 seconds 
  • Push-ups for 30 seconds 
  • Rest for 30 seconds 
  • Mountain climbers for 30 seconds 
  • Rest for 30 seconds 

Repeat entire sequence 3-4 more times

During the work periods, your heart rate will get very close to your maximum, and your breathing will get very fast too. Your rate of calorie burning will also be much higher than normal as your body has to work much harder to produce energy. When you rest, you have just enough time to catch your breath before starting again. 

Short bouts of exercise are anaerobic, which means energy is produced without the need for oxygen. The main source of energy during HIIT is muscle glycogen, which is stored glucose. The anaerobic breakdown of glycogen triggers the release of lactic acid. That’s the stuff that makes your muscles burn. 

Once your workout is finished, your metabolic rate remains elevated for several hours as your body has to work extra-hard to get rid of the accumulated lactic acid. During this time, it burns more fat than normal. This is called EPOC, which is short for excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, and also known as the afterburn effect. 

oxygen consumption, and also known as the afterburn effect. 

Interval training is a lot like driving your car very fast; it uses more fuel per mile and your engine stays hot for a long time after you switch it off. In contrast, after regular cardio, you’ll cool down much quicker. That’s not just your body temperature but your metabolic rate too. 

Advantages: 

  • Shorter, more time efficient workouts 
  • Burns more calories during and after your workout (EPOC)
  • Works all major muscles 
  • Lots of variety available so less boredom 
  • Significantly increases post-exercise insulin sensitivity 

Disadvantages:

  • Workouts are much tougher
  • You need to push yourself 
  • HIIT may be too demanding for beginners, very unfit people, older exercisers, and pregnant women 

For more on the benefits of HIIT training, please see our article Proven HIIT benefits by science

But what about fat loss? 

Both workouts can help you lose fat, by either burning fat and calories while you exercise (regular cardio) or depleting your glycogen stores and increasing lactic acid production so that you burn more fat afterwards (HIIT). 

But which one is best?

Studies have revealed that, despite being much shorter, HIIT can help you to lose weight faster than steady state cardio. 

In this study, one group of women performed 40 minutes of steady-state cardio exercise, while another group did HIIT. At the end of 15 weeks, the women in the HIIT group lost as much as 7.3 pounds, while women in the steady-state group actually gained as much as 2.7 pounds.

Another study published in the Journal of Diabetes Research reveals similar positive HIIT results. Women who did HIIT lost comparable amounts of abdominal fat as subjects who performed moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, despite the HIIT workouts being much shorter. 

This study compared HIIT and regular cardio and concluded that HIIT was much more effective for calorie burning and fat loss, despite the workouts being shorter. It also detailed significant improvements in aerobic fitness, despite HIIT being an anaerobic workout. 

In conclusion, both cardio and HIIT burn calories, but HIIT burns more in less time. It also increases your metabolism for as many as 24 hours after your workout is finished. 

This means you won’t need to exercise as often or as long making HIIT workouts easier to fit into your schedule, and you are more likely to exercise consistently. Along with good nutrition, consistency is crucial for fat loss. 

This doesn’t mean you have to give up on jogging or swimming – if you enjoy them, keep doing them! But, if you want to burn more calories and fat in less time, consider adding HIIT to your workout schedule. Just 2-3 HIIT workouts per week will really speed up fat loss. 

Still not sure if HIIT is for you? Take our new 4-week beginner HIIT fat burner program for a spin. You’ll love the results! 

4-week Fat Burner - HIIT Workout post
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HIIT are shorter and more intense workouts. Is it more efficient in terms of burning fat than Cardio? What studies have to say about it.

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