High intensity interval training packs a hard workout into a short period of time, which makes it sound like it should be an efficient, superior way to work out. But HIIT doesn’t have as many advantages as we’re led to believe, and often steady-state cardio is the better option. Let’s look at a few factors to keep in mind when you’re choosing what kind of workout you want to do.
Do you need to be fresh tomorrow?
One cool thing about low intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio is that it has almost no recovery cost. You can do it as a warmup for a lifting workout, as one of two workouts in a given day, or as a “recovery” workout on an active rest day. As long as you refuel afterwards, eating carbs to replace the muscle glycogen you used, your future workouts won’t take a noticeable toll at all.
HIIT, on the other hand, tends to leave us feeling pooped. If you work hard enough in your HIIT session, you might be too exhausted later on to get in another good workout. Depending on the type of HIIT you did, you may also have issues with muscle soreness at first. These don’t have to be total dealbreakers, but they may shift the balance in favor of LISS.
How much time do you have?
HIIT is often billed as a time saver, but it doesn’t always deliver on that promise. The total amount of time that you’re working hard might be small (just a few minutes, in many cases), but don’t forget that the reason you can go so hard is that you have nice easy recoveries in between the sprints.
When you add in the warmup and cooldown, a lot of HIIT workouts take 20 minutes or more, which is starting to sound like the same time commitment as a short session of non-HIIT cardio. And if you feel like collapsing in a puddle of sweat after your HIIT workout, that adds time, too. (I have never hopped up and gotten straight into the shower after any kind of HIIT.)
So if you’re deciding on a workout based on the time you have available, make sure to consider the full commitment. And if you’re looking to HIIT because you find steady cardio bo-ring, try these underrated cardio workouts.
Are you trying to burn calories?
Again, HIIT’s tradeoff for being short and efficient is that it’s intense. That might sound like a good thing, but remember that calorie burn depends on the total amount of work you do.
If you’re exercising as part of an effort to lose or manage your weight, guidelines recommend 50 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. You’re not going to reach that with HIIT alone, especially if you want to have the energy to do other exercise too, like the two days per week of strength training that are also recommended. A mix of HIIT and steady state cardio could do the trick, though.
Do you compete in a sport?
If you want to race a fast 5K or improve your performance on the basketball court or soccer field, steady-state cardio is great, but it can’t be the only thing you do.
HIIT and other types of interval training will get you breathing hard and sending enormous amounts of oxygen to your muscles in those all-out efforts. This type of training directly benefits your VO2max, a measure of cardio fitness. You’ll want to do intervals in addition to other types of cardio, but they’re definitely too important to leave out.
Are you trying to manage your blood sugar?
During intense efforts, your muscles are screaming out for nutrients—specifically, glucose. Because of that, exercise improves your body’s ability to use blood sugar, and it reduces insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is one of the hallmarks of type 2 diabetes and of pre-diabetes.
Intervals, including HIIT, are thus a great tool for people who want to help their bodies learn to use glucose better. HIIT is also, paradoxically, sometimes easier to get started with than steady-state training, because you only have to work hard for a short while and then you can rest. Again, this is a case where you still want to do steady-state cardio (yes, walking counts) but HIIT is a great addition.