Fat Loss: Steady State Vs Sprints

Hello and welcome back to the Vs posts that I have been writing sporadically of late. Seeing as fat loss season is in full swing I thought I’d try my hand at a couple of fat loss methods and compare the two to see what can be learned about which method my be better for your current routine to help you along the way to reach your ultimate goal of a fit, lean and muscular body.

To kick things off I wanted to take a closer look into the ongoing debate between steady state cardio and high intensity intervals as opposing or possibly complimentary fat loss methods. These two sides have been arguing back and forth for years. They quote studies, draw comparisons, look at examples that are similar and both camps are in disagreement over which is best. I have my own opinions, but they are based on personal experience. I’ll share those with you at some point, but let’s begin looking at these two very different methods more closely.

Some clarification is probably going to be needed before we get rolling along here. Let’s define steady state cardiovascular training as training where a decent and sustainable intensity is maintained for an extended period of time. Interval training is defined for our purposes as any form of training that alternates intense periods of activity with periods of lower intensity. This can include circuits and various exercise drills using equipment, but to keep the comparison simple I’m going to just deal with equipment used for cardio. Circuit training definitely qualifies and high intensity interval training, but it’s kind of an apples an oranges comparison at that point. To give the sprinting group some lose parameters, lets say that the sprinting involves a high intensity training period that alternates with an equal period of low intensity training. Alright, now that we know what we are comparing, let’s look at some other factors that we can use to compare the two styles of fat loss training.

First I’d like to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each form of training, beginning with steady state cardio. The first and most obvious argument for the steady state crowd is that overall you will burn more calories doing steady state cardio than you will with intervals. This is a pretty compelling piece of evidence as the simple math on fat loss is that you must use more calories than you take in, and the deficit will be made up in theory with the utilization of body fat stores. If you use steady state cardio to help create that deficit, or even to enhance it, then steady state seems to have an advantage at this point. There is more information to come however, so let’s wait and see what else can be uncovered.

A few more advantages for steady state cardio are that pretty much anyone can begin a low intensity steady state cardio regimen, as even brisk walking would qualify. To have an effective sprint session you not only need to already be in great shape, but you also need to possess a certain degree of athleticism as well. Another advantage is that the frequency of steady state cardio can be more regular. Multiple times daily if desired. Doing high intensity sprints twice a day for a week is probably going to run you into the ground, especially if you are lifting weights as well. Not to mention the impact involved with exercises like sprinting. Your body needs recuperation time from the intensity of intervals, so you simply cannot do it as often as steady state cardio.

Which brings us to the fact that regular exercise appears to help people adhere to a diet. If you are going for a run on a daily basis, chances are you aren’t eating garbage afterwards. If you are doing intervals only three times per week there is more room for issues of not sticking to the diet. High intensity interval training done a maximum of three times per week is the typically prescribed method by the commercial fitness empire. I believe that you can do high intensity interval training seven days a week if there is enough variance, and stretching and recovery is addressed as seriously as the training is.

There are also factors that don’t look so favorably toward steady state cardio. Steady state cardio is boring. Period. Unless you are running outdoors, it can be daunting to have to do. Not to mention the issue of muscle loss. Steady state has been shown to raise cortisol levels which is both bad for your muscles and it leads to fat gain, which is obviously the opposite of any fitness goal. There is also the issue of overuse injuries. Whether it’s running or the stairs, if you do something over and over, your body is going to break down or begin compensating with other muscles. This is when imbalances begin to form. Not to mention that unless you are pretty fit, the reality is that the number of calories burned may not be all that high. A brisk walk or light jog may only use 300 calories in an hour. That’s as simple as just eating a little bit less to provide the extra deficit.

Let’s move on to some of the advantages that sprinting has over steady state. Despite the lower number of calories burned while performing high intensity interval exercise, the sprints generate a much larger excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC which you may have heard of before. This means that more calories are burned post-training (not a lot mind you, but worthy of noting). Interval training also seems to improve the muscles ability to use fat for fuel more effectively. Another plus for interval training is it is very time efficient. Ten minutes worth of sprints versus an hour on a treadmill, and you can see why it is the personal trainers best friend. It is also more fun, plain and simple. As mentioned above, steady state is at best tedious, while sprints are invigorating. Looked at in this light, steady state is a chore while sprints are a challenge.

Something that goes against intervals is the fact that you already need to be in great shape and have tremendous athletic aptitude to even undertake this style of training. It is not for the beginner, or the intermediate when very high intensity is being generated. I often see beginners being forced to do sprints by their trainers, and to be honest with you, it looks awkward, painful and questionable as the best choice. Also, depending on your goals intervals can interfere with your other training. Doing hill sprints one day and attempting to do heavy squats the next will have dire consequences. My experience with sprints is your lower body power is always somewhat compromised. This also can lead to the possibility of injury due to muscle fatigue when pushing the pounds on the heavy compound movements that target the legs. My advice is to temper your enthusiasm somewhat with any of the heavier lifts.

With sprints it is a somewhat cumulative effect you are achieving, as opposed to maximum lifting. This type of training is intense-literally, and recovery is of paramount importance. Which brings me to another negative although it is somewhat subjective, and that is that intervals are painful. The lactic acid build up is incredible at times. Your heart rate is off the charts and most days it feels like you’re bordering on all out exhaustion. There are those of us who thrive on this kind of challenge, and those of us who hate it. This type of training especially when performed daily is for a certain kind of athlete and psychological make up.

Alright, now that we’ve covered some of the advantages and disadvantages of both forms of fat loss methods, where are we? At this point given the information that we have looked at, I would say that a very large factor in determining which form of fat loss is better is resting on the individuals abilities and pain threshold, or willingness to endure that pain. If you are dreading your training because you do intervals daily, its only a matter of time before you quit. Conversely, if you don’t have ten hours a week to run on a treadmill or find it dreadfully dull, you aren’t going to do steady state cardio either. It doesn’t really matter which method is more effective if you look at things in logical terms. Compliance is everything when it comes to getting results. If you hate what you’re doing, you won’t be long for it, plain and simple.

There is always the option of doing both as well. Fasted steady state in the am, with weights and some sprints in the evening, or vice versa. Either way, combining the two will definitely have positive results if for no other reason than the added activity and the variety of fat loss stimulus. Sometimes meeting in the middle is the best way to get a bit of everything as well.

That’s as far as we are going to venture down this path today, because I want to introduce more variables and before you know it, I’ll be up all night and this post will have turned into a book. So far I’m interpreting the information in a pretty straight forward way. First, you can only do what you are capable of doing and you should only do whatever method it is that you are going to stick with. It’s irrelevant which is better if you aren’t going to do it. Secondly, you have to take your goals into consideration. If having the biggest squat you are capable of performing is a priority for you, then high intensity intervals are not going to help you in that quest. Not to mention that having gigantic legs are not going to be conducive to being overly agile, and therefore likely to make effective sprinting difficult.

Until next time my friends,

Happy Lifting!

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