There is a common question that arises on what is better for fat loss out of these two styles of cardio training (weight training for fat loss of another topic for a different day):
– Steady State
– Sprinting (interval style training)
Now while they both work the physiological response your body will exhibit can be dramatically different. This is simply due to the different energy systems/pathways that will be used and how the body adapt to each stimulus.
Steady state cardio, also know as Continuous Training or Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) is great for beginners and those who are looking to maintain some level of heart health. The typical or main energy system used for this style of training is the aerobic system which leans towards the use of fat for its primary fuel during the activity.
Wait… It uses burns fat for its fuel? That’s what we want right?
Yes, however there lasting effect of EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) is very low and you will not continue to burn many calories after your workout, so if you burn 300 calories running for an hour you might burn an extra 50 (for example) after that due to EPOC, but that’s about it. This means you will need to keep up your daily running to burn X-amount of calories, you will also not gain much in the way of benefit to your VO2 Max (how much oxygen your body can use from it’s blood). You will also not get much int he way of muscular adaptation in the way of force production and lean muscle tissue gain, in fact you may even lose muscle mass and this is bad because muscle is what keep your metabolism high and you don’t want to lose any of it.
So while steady state cardio is good if you have the time and mental fortitude to do it (low intensity cardio for hours can be incredibly dull) you will get results from it, provided you’re in a caloric deficit that is.
This leads us on to Sprinting.
Sprinting is a different beast, apart from your effort levels being higher and you achieving a higher % of your heart rate reserve (HRR), your body is also required to produce more force in the form of muscular contraction which will lead to potential hypertrophic gains to the areas required for effort (think full body for something like rowing or swimming and how muscular they are).
The other added benefits of this style of training is linked in to the metabolic pathway/energy system used (ATP/PC/LA) which cause a massive surge in anabolic hormones which not only help muscular adaptation but force your body to increase its VO2 Max because of the sever lack of oxygen, meaning the oxygen dept you create in the workout will have a profound effect in increasing EPOC. You will often find that a sprint/interval session can lead to you burning say 200-330 calories in a session, much the same as steady state but due to EPOC/Oxygen debt created you will more than likely continue to burn a number of extra calories for around 24hours (possibly more) afterwards. How many you will burn will depend on your amount of lean muscle mass and the size of oxygen debt created.
The obvious downside of training this way at this intensity is the cumulative fatigue you will amass and if not managed correctly you will end up injured and going backwards. Effective as it is, there is always a price to pay if you do too much.
In conclusion to the age old question of which is better for fat loss there is a clear winner in my opinion, that winner is sprinting/interval training. However you need to program it correctly and what you’d find is that combining the two will give you the best result (specificity is the key to everything).
Here is an example of how you might combine the two to help you hit the ACSM guidelines of 150min CV per week (250-300 is considered better).
Total time includes warm up/mobility and warm down. As for HR targets you can get technical or use RPE, the choice is yours.*
Monday – 45min – Hill Sprinting – 1-2 ratio work/rest – 10 sprints 1min each, 90%+ HRR or RPE 9+.
Tuesday – 60min Swimming – 45min of solid swimming at 70%+ HRR or RPE 7+
Wednesday – Off – Foam roll and a gentle 30min walk
Thursday – 45min – Straight Sprinting – 1-1 work to rest ratio – 15 sprints 1min each 85%+ HRR or RPE 8.5+.
Friday – 60min – Rowing – 45min solid rowing at 70%+ HRR or RPE 7+
Saturday – Off – Foam roll and a gentle 30min walk
Sunday – Off – Foam roll and a gentle 30min walk
As you can see this is a simple structure for guide, it’s not gospel, just an option.