Why You SHOULD Run if You’re Trying to Build Muscle and How Steady State Can be Better Than HIIT

By on June 22, 2016

People are showing a lot of love for HIIT at the moment and often to the detriment of steady state cardio. For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, HIIT is ‘High Intensity Interval Training’ and involves alternating between high and low intensity exercise. For instance, you might sprint for 1 minute, jog lightly for 2 minutes and then sprint again for another 1 minute etc. Steady state cardio on the other hand is cardio that involves maintaining a consistent pace for 15 minutes to several hours. This might mean jogging a long way, swimming laps around the swimming pool or cycling.

sonic running2

But right now, everyone is hating on steady state and making HIIT out to be the answer to all the world’s problems. I’m going to explain the difference in terms of the effects both types of training have on your body and then I’m going to make the case for showing steady state cardio a bit more love again.

Why Everybody Loves HIIT

HIIT is a relatively new concept. Before that, everyone was doing steady state and specifically, the aim was often to try and maintain a 75%MHR (max heart rate). This is fast enough that it places an energy demand on the body but not so fast that the body can’t deliver energy to the muscles from fat. This makes the training ‘aerobic’ meaning that you’re using oxygen in order to break down fat and provide energy for continued exertion. The belief that training at higher intensities (say 90%MHR) would mean the body couldn’t burn fat in time and would be forced instead to use the energy from your muscles and your blood. While steady state training uses the aerobic system, high intensity training uses the anaerobic lactic energy system and anaerobic a-lactic energy system.

marathon

That’s right, I was too cheap to pay to remove the watermark…

In short, when you train quickly, you use up sugar from your blood and ATP from your cells instead of fat. Thus it was assumed that jogging was better for burning the maximum number of calories and the most fat in particular.

Until that is, it was discovered that using short bursts of anaerobic training (as in HIIT), could actually burn more calories in the long run. That’s because it reduces the blood sugar level, which then forces the body to burn fat subsequently even after you’ve finished training. This is what some people refer to as ‘the after burn’ effect.

Study after study showed that HIIT burned more calories than steady state. And then studies started to show that HIIT could increase the number and performance of your mitochondria (1). And then it was found that it could also improve your VO2 max more efficiently too (2).

And on top of all that, HIIT is also much quicker than steady state. With a 20 minute HIIT workout, you can burn just as many calories as you would do with a 40 minute steady-state routine (3). So why would anybody continue to use steady state?

Factor Number 1: HIIT is Brutal

The first thing I’d like to point out at this juncture, is that HIIT is brutal. A lot of people talk about using HIIT because it is quicker and thereby must somehow be easier than steady state. They see this as a ‘shortcut’ of some sort or a way to save time and energy.

But when I think of the people I know who have lost weight, they’ve all done it with steady state. Nobody I know has managed to lose weight with HIIT. And the reason, I believe, is that HIIT is so punishing. Have a go at the ‘tabata’ protocol right now. This is a 4 minute HIIT routine and by the end, your heart feels like it’s going to break out of your rib cage. And contrary to popular belief, tabata alone is not enough to burn significant calories and trigger a big transformation. It’s much more useful as a ‘finisher’ at the end of a workout.

running

Jogging on the other hand is actually pleasant. This is something you can do anywhere with no equipment, no instruction and no preparation. Just point yourself in a direction and run. I love it as a way to explore new areas and I constantly find new things in London by jogging to them. Typically, I’ll run for about 5 miles and this will burn about 700 calories. That’s a good number of calories.

Factor Number 2: Jogging is Better for Your Fitness

The issue I have with a lot of training advice is that it is entirely geared toward short-term weight loss. Sure, HIIT might be able to burn more calories in total, in the same amount of time. But what if your aim is just to get fitter and healthier?

When you train using high intensity, you cause the heart to beat so fast that the left ventricle (which stores the oxygenated blood before pumping it out) doesn’t get the chance to entirely refill in between contractions. When you train with lower intensity though, it has just enough time to fill all the way up. This means that steady state cardio is able to increase the capacity of the left ventricle and its strength. In turn, this lets you pump more blood around the body with each beat.

And it is this that helps you to lower your resting heartrate. In turn, that will improve your ‘parasympathetic tone’, which means you’ll find it easier to relax, recover and focus after training. It will also reduce your cortisol and thereby prevent the storage of visceral fat – the dangerous kind that surrounds your vital organs around your stomach.

marathon run

Better yet, this will help you to deliver more blood and nutrients to your muscles and your brain, it will increase your aerobic threshold and it will even help you to sleep better and feel more restored in the mornings. In short, using steady state cardio should help to improve your fitness, thereby helping you to train longer and harder and get better benefits from other routines.

Ultimately, this all comes down to ‘SAID’ – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. Our bodies adapt to the type of training/conditions we subject them to. We call on our aerobic energy system often both in training and in daily life and so training it will make you better in all kinds of scenarios.

Factor Number 3: Muscle Loss

The final issue to consider is muscle loss. If you train using HIIT, the objective is partly to reduce your blood sugar and other stored energy. And in fact, keeping blood sugar low is often recommended for people trying to lose weight.

But it’s not necessarily always a great move. That’s because stress = cortisol and cortisol increases both ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and myostatin – the protein that breaks down muscle cells to use for energy (3). Even psychological stress can trigger the release of enough cortisol to break down muscle tissue (4) – and remember that improved parasympathetic tone via steady state will actually help you to avoid that kind of stress too.

captain america running

Blocking myostatin production in animals causes them to suddenly balloon up in size and gain super strength. Increasing it causes them to break down their muscle tissue and quickly lose strength. HIIT increases myostatin, steady state decreases it. So

And that increased left ventricle means improved nutrient and oxygen delivery for the muscles too. So in other words, steady state cardio is actually good for maintaining muscle and helping with your overall body composition rather than just your ‘fat loss’. Even better is using resistance cardio, which means doing cardio in a way that also involves some form of resistance training – such as running on sand or cycling up a hill. This is also called ‘concurrent training’.

Conclusion

Please note that I’m not telling you to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That would result in a quick visit from the RSPCC…

HIIT is still good. It’s great for two energy systems and can improve mitochondrial function. It’s also perfect for training your ability to sprint or other perform for short bursts of intense activity.

Mirrors Edge Running

But steady state cardio is also great for you – and actually better if you’re looking to protect muscle. It’s also more fun and can be very rewarding once you get the hang of it. Concurrent training is even more beneficial. So my point is just to mix and match. Keep switching up your training and challenging your body in new ways.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

4 Comments

  1. Stanford Warman says:

    What about when we are just getting started from an obese (or morbidly so) state? I want to add more cardio and so far I have been but I find running incredibly difficult to do for more than 5 minutes and even at a 19 minute mile pace my BPM skyrockets, should I just be patient and tough it out or should I ease back into walking briskly until my BPM naturally improves or some combination of interval walk and run?

    • Adam Sinicki says:

      Walking briskly is absolutely a solid alternative. And then move to a light jog when you can. REALLY light jogging is absolutely fine BTW, and maybe even beneficial for some of the things talked about here. Good luck!

  2. Alex Lisovichenko says:

    Hi, I’m a fan of your YT and I used to run all the time, going 7 days a week for 7 miles a day without rest, and I find that it really reduced my stress. I’ve moved on to resistance training and HIIT, and I don’t know how to incorporate running with it without overtraining. For one, I’m wondering what do I do after I train legs for hypertrophy? I’ll usually do 6-9 sets of quads to failure (various exercises, most with heavy loads, some bodyweight overload), and 4-5 sets of hams/glutes with the same protocol. Do you have any suggestions as to how I could incorporate steady state cardio into this? I’m basically doing a 5 day a week split like this: 1: Chest/Triceps/Abs, 2: Back/Biceps 3: Rest 4: Quads/Hams 5: Shoulders 6: Conditioning 7: Rest. I really love the benefits of steady state cardio, but I don’t want to totally annihilate myself, as I had in the past. I want to make sure I still gain leg strength. How might you recommend I incorporate running into this schedule? Thanks.

  3. Scott says:

    It would be great if you could put the vast knowledge you have on exercise science and physiology into a console book. You do such a incredible job of explaining everything. Or if you could do a collaboration with Kool Skool, and have them illustrate the science and processes you discuss. It would be awesome!
    Thanks for all you do.

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