Which is better for Weight Loss – HiiT, Tabata or Steady State Cardio?

(Last Updated On: August 11, 2011)

Fitness danceHi Everyone! My last two articles, “Weightlifting Myths“and “Compound vs. Isolation Exercises” have focused on strength training. This week I would like to change direction and take on a topic that is getting a lot of talk in our forums and in the news – “Which is better for Weight Loss – HiiT, Tabata or Steady State Cardio”? Many of you may not be familiar with or fully understand exactly what these different types of cardio are, so let me first take a moment to define each of these terms.

What Is HiiT Training?

As I mentioned in a previous article of mine HiiT stands for High Intensity Interval Training and is considered by many to be one of the best ways to burn fat without causing your body to burn your own muscle tissue. This is because HiiT utilizes a lot of fast twitch muscle fibers and this helps to maintain lean muscle during your cardio workout, not lose it. This is important because you don’t want to lose the muscles you have worked so hard to gain.

Usually, HiiT workouts are only 15 to 30 minutes in duration, including the warm up. All HiiT workouts follow a similar strategy of short and intense workout sessions that alternate a high intensity work interval with a lighter intensity recovery interval. The most popular work/recovery ratio is probably 2:1 for a HiiT workout, but this is not a hard fast rule and different ratios of work/recovery can be used in your HiiT training sessions. Your heart rate during your recovery phase for each interval should drop to between 60% and 65% of your maximum heart rate. During the work phase you should be going all out and your heart rate should be between 75% and 90% of your maximum heart rate. A simple example of a HiiT workout for runners would be to do 10 intervals where you sprint for 30 seconds and then jog for 15 seconds for each of the 10 intervals.

HiiT is a special type of interval training that also offers the important advantage of continuing to burn fat for many hours after your workout has ended. This is known as “EPOC” (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption). This fancy term simply refers to the extra calories expended (above resting values) after a workout session has been completed. Studies have shown that the greater the intensity of the workout the greater the increase in EPOC. Since HiiT workouts are extremely intense workouts your EPOC will be much higher than if you had done a steady state workout. This means while you’re relaxing in your family room watching TV after completing your HiiT training session you will continue to reap the benefits of your workout because your body will continue to burn oxygen, calories and fat and a higher rate for many hours. This is not true for many other types of workouts like Steady State Cardio. Some studies, such as the Laval University study, that I have mentioned in another one of my articles, have even shown that you can burn up to nine times more fat after completing your short HiiT session when compared to a one hour Steady State workout. Wow, that sounded too good to be true so I did some research and read the study. After reading the complete study I now have my doubts and later in this article I will tell you why.

What Is Tabata Training?

Tabata training is really a very simple concept and is just an extreme form of HiiT training lasting only about 4 minutes, excluding the warm-up. A Tabata routine alternates 20 seconds of a maximum intensity exercise, followed by 10 seconds of rest. You then repeat this cycle 7 or 8 times. Here is an example of a simple Tabata workout that could be done outdoors on a running track (and yes, while advanced exercisers could also do this on a treadmill, you have to be very careful as this can be dangerous)

1) Run as fast as you can for twenty seconds,
2) Rest for ten seconds
3) Repeat seven or eight more times!

The only difference between HiiT and Tabata training is that all Tabata intervals are usually done at 90 to 100% of your MHR and HiiT intervals vary from 75% to 90% of your MHR. In other words, Tabata means all-out as hard as you can go for every interval, while the work intervals in HiiT Training, though very hard, vary in intensity and only occasionally require maximum intensity. Also, Tabata nearly always is defined as having a 2:1 work to rest ratio while the work to rest ratio in HiiT workouts vary greatly.

Most Tabata training is based on research by Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan. Participants in the study increased their anaerobic capacity by an average of 28% and their VO2max by 14%. This means that Tabata training increases both your anaerobic and aerobic capacity. The Tabata Protocol, published in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise in 1996 concluded that just four minutes of high intensity Tabata interval training did more to increase aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen)capacity than an hour of steady state cardio exercise did.

Though there are certainly disagreements between the proponents of Tabata training and steady state cardio, there is no doubt that Tabata training is a great way to improve your cardiovascular fitness in a short amount of time.

What Is Steady State Cardio?

Steady state cardio is any type of cardiovascular exercise performed at a constant intensity over a duration usually lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour. This method of cardio training differs from High Intensity Interval Training because it never changes very much in intensity from the start of the session to the end – hence the name “Steady State”.

Steady state cardio training usually involves low to moderate cardio exercises performed at 60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. Common Steady State exercises include typical things like, cycling, brisk outdoor walking or walking on the treadmill, a step aerobics class without intervals or a nice jog around the neighborhood. The “talk but not sing” test is a good way to make sure that your heart rate is in the right zone when performing a steady state cardio workout. Make sure you are able to talk but not sing during your cardio session.

So, Which Training Method Is Better For Weight Loss?

I know this is the question and answer you have been waiting for, ha!

Well, the answer is BOTH…but before I tell you why I first need to share the summary of the Laval study to support my answer!

The Laval Study showed there were 27 subjects that were divided into two groups – Steady State and HiiT. Some things I found interesting, yet confusing, in the study were that despite the fact that the participants in both groups had never regularly worked out before, neither group lost any significant weight after completing their program (20 weeks for the Steady State group and 15 weeks for the HiiT participants). In fact the Steady State group collectively lost a total of 1.1 lbs, while the entire HiiT group lost even less – only a couple of ounces! And while the HiiT group reportedly did lose more actual body fat  than the Steady State group, it was only 3 times the body fat (even this result is questioned by many people) of the Steady State group, not 9 times as is frequently reported. Ok, so knowing the outcome of this study, there are still many great benefits to Hiit/Tabata training as well as Steady State cardio so let’s look at those now.

A HiiT workout utilizes and will improve both the anaerobic and aerobic systems in your body. The reverse is not true of a steady state cardio workout. A steady state cardio workout will only improve the aerobic system and not your anaerobic system. HIIT workouts are believed to limit muscle loss that can occur with longer duration Steady State cardio workouts. Your goal in weight loss is to lose fat, not burn muscle. Since HiiT workouts are extremely intense workouts your EPOC will be much higher than if you had done a Steady State workout. This means while you’re relaxing in your family room watching TV after completing your HiiT training session you will continue to reap the benefits of your workout because your body will continue to burn oxygen, calories and fat at a higher rate for many hours. Because HiiT workouts are usually less than 30 minutes they are perfect for the person with limited time and a busy schedule.

Tabata is an extreme case of a HiiT workout and usually only lasts for 4 to 10 minutes. This may be the hardest workout you ever do in your life, but it is still a very short workout and you’re not going to burn anywhere near the same amount of calories as you would have in a one hour Steady State workout (calories burned = intensity x duration). I believe that Tabata workouts, as with all HiiT workouts, will continue to burn calories and fat long after you have completed your workout, but how much extra fat and how many extra calories you will burn is still an unknown as far as I’m concerned.

Steady State cardio will usually burn as much or more calories than a short HiiT workout because it is usually done for a longer duration. Steady State cardio is also safer and less likely to cause an injury than HiiT. Injury prevention is why I usually don’t recommend doing a HiiT workout more than two times a week.

So which is better – HiiT, Tabata or Steady State? Well, since each have their unique advantages (and disadvantages) and provide their unique benefits to a well rounded fitness program, I say use them all!!! It provides, great cross training benefits, shock training benefits, timesaver options, keeps you free of boredom and less prone to overuse injuries.

In a nutshell, I have always been a strongly believer that you should always seek variety and balance within your fitness training programs and stay away from anything that screams “the only way” to do something in order to get the best results. I hope this article clarifies any questions you have about these unique training systems as well as encourages you to give them all a try to reap their varied benefits!

by Cathe Friedrich

18 thoughts on “Which is better for Weight Loss – HiiT, Tabata or Steady State Cardio?

  1. Thanks for this, Cathe. I was wondering if the answer would be “all of the above.” 🙂 I struggle with joint issues and I have wondered if there’s a good way to do HiiT that is not to rough on the knees–every time I try an HiiT DVD workout it involves a lot of jumping that doesn’t work well for me. Anyone have a suggestion?

  2. Great article Cathe! Thanks! I’m happy to see you encourage all three methods! I def am in the same frame of mind that it’s all about balance…thanks for helping me understand all three methods even better!

  3. Thanks for a great article, Cathe. I found this very useful. I will continue doing what I am doing…..mixing it up and doing it all. HiiT, steady state, light weights, high reps…heavy weights….doing your workouts helps me do it all and satisfy all fitness requirements. Thank you for being such a great personal trainer.

  4. Lainie, I used to have what I thought were knee problems. I don’t know your age, but my chiropractor says that women over 40 have lost the muscle in the arch of the foot and as a result we overpronate — meaning that the foot rolls inward thereby throwing everything off balance. Once I started buying the proper orthotics and/or sneakers to address this issue, I know longer have knee problems. Worth looking into.

  5. Thanks, Michelle. I’m 36. I saw an orthopedic surgeon and he said my knees are actually poorly positioned–wish I could remember exactly what he said but apparently it’s just a natural genetic thing, apparently. He told me not to do step aerobics anymore (I couldn’t give it up but I went down to 4″ and stopped jumping) I do know I don’t have a problem with overpronation–I have a good arch and my feet don’t roll either in or out.

  6. Lainie, you can always do Hiit on a bike or elliptical if you have access to either. You can be very creative with your Hiit workouts and do whatever is comfortable for your joints. The important thing to remember is to just vary the intensity on your intervals…for example peddling fast for 1 minute and slow/resting for 1 minute, etc. Hope this helps.

  7. I got my elliptical as a Mother’s Day gift one year..I know, goofy right?! But, its what I wanted after having my first child and not being able to get to the gym. I am very familiar with knee issues (had a surgery 3 years ago) and I too find that if I do too much in terms of jumping or step, my knee will react negatively. I can still do it (and love it!) but I’m not getting any younger and do need to be careful sometimes. I usually get my Cathe DVDs or exercise equipment as “gifts”. Got a birthday coming up?? 🙂

  8. Thanks Cathe. This was a great article. But I have an additional question. If my goal to increase lean muscle, should there be a limit to the amount of cardio I do. I read elsewhere that cardio causes the body to store fat (rather than burn it) and that too much cardio will break down muscle.

  9. I sooooo LOVE these articles and especially your detailed (but easy to understand) way of explaining them. Thank you!!

  10. Thanks Cathe! A very informative article..I ‘ve heard about Tabata but I could not explain what it was….but now I can educate my participants!!

  11. I use a combo stepper/elliptical (one machine). On the minute mark I step as fast as I can for 15 seconds, I then switch to the elliptical motion for the next 45 seconds going fairly easily. At the next minute mark I step hard for 15 seconds etc. Repeat 10 times. I warm up and cool down with easy elliptical motion. This gets pretty tough and is definitely working for me better than steady cardio. During the “work” phase my heart rate is up to 90%. By the end it isn’t coming down much during the “rest” part.

  12. I agree with using more than 1. Doing HIIT 3 or 4 times a week takes the toll on the body. What I’ve found recently is if you employ a HIIT workout of some sort twice a week, your long slow runs get easier.

    Now I like to vary them but I also like to get in at least 40 minutes each workout. I’ve found that starting out running s decent pace, then walking, at the beginning thoroughly warms you up. I then run hard, counting 50 strikes with my right foot. That follows with either a slow jog or a brisk walk for 1 minute. I do this 8 – 10 times.

    Then, depending on how far I have to go to get back home, I’ll run at a brisk pace until I have about a 5 minute cool down walk to go. On Sunday’s, a 4 – 5 mile slower run becomes a piece of cake.

  13. Doing hiit can prevent muscle loss while steady phase cardio can cause muscle loss. That’s why the body composition of the sprinter and marathoner are different.

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