In Defense of Cardio

Steady state cardio gets a bad rap. STACK Expert Dalton Oliver explains how and when it can be effective.

Steady state cardio gets a bad rep. With interval training taking the spotlight, and ignorant discussions of "burning muscle" plaguing the blogosphere, many people have completely cut steady state cardio from their programs. The sad fact is, in high-frequency programs, steady state might be a more effective approach.

Rationale for Steady State Cardio

I wrote an article on jogging that covered this topic in light detail.

Although jogging is considered steady state training, steady state does not have to be in the form of jogging. Almost all the steady state sessions I program into my clients' routines consist of fast walks at a slight incline. Other forms may use the elliptical trainer or rowing machine. Normally the programmed intensity is around 60 to 70 percent of max heart rate, or just easy enough so that the trainee can carry on a conversation. It sounds lazy compared to interval training because it is—for good reason.

The beauty of this form of cardio comes not from the amount of calories burned in a given time, but from the lack of physiological stress associated with burning those calories. By keeping intensity relatively low, we keep from passing what's called the "anaerobic threshold." This is great, in high-frequency programs, for two reasons:

  1. The lower intensity enables us to rely more on fat stores than muscle glycogen to perform the activity.
  2. We require much less sympathetic overload from the nervous system than more intense versions of cardio.

Both of these points hold little significance for trainees who only work out three days per week, but have great benefit to athletes on high-frequency programs (e.g., five or more training sessions per week), during which we see a greater need to replenish glycogen at a faster rate. We also see greater amounts of systemic stress throughout the week. Adding intense modes of cardio to these training programs may delay recovery and even lead to maladaptations such as overtraining syndrome. This could leave our athletes weaker rather than stronger, and might even make them more susceptible to depression and hindered immune function.

"How much is too much" is a large gray area being researched every day. It's best left up to the individual coach to decide when to add or subtract from an athlete's workload. But increasing total caloric output without hindering recovery is, in a nutshell, my rationale for programming steady state into many of my clients' programs.

RELATED: I Do Cardio Workouts But I'm Still Fat. What's Wrong?

Rationale for Intense or Interval Cardio

More intense modes of cardio are still effective for trainees on low frequency programs, which includes the majority of Americans. Per unit of time, intense and interval cardio elicits more significant adaptations and expends more calories than steady state. It does this, however, by tapping the anaerobic threshold (expending glycogen in the process) and creating more overall systemic stress. Again, this is not a bad thing if the athlete only trains 3 days per week, but if the athlete is training more frequently (as most athletes do), we should begin prioritizing recovery above intensity. So although more intense modes of cardio are effective for many trainees, these forms should never be the only option for cardio.

How to Use Steady State Cardio

Steady state is a better option for trainees who already engage in high-frequency resistance training programs (5+ days per week) but need to cut body fat. Although it burns fewer calories per unit of time and elicits fewer performance adaptations, it doesn't detract from an athlete's ability to recover and refuel between workouts. If the athlete is driven to achieve a certain body weight and has plenty of time to engage in cardio, it may be a more productive method, since it can last longer and requires less recovery.

However, plenty of people use solid state cardio who shouldn't. For example, even though we know that steady state cardio is inefficient for short workouts, many opt for long walks as their primary mode of exercise. More effective programs for body composition prioritize high-intensity exercises. (You can start with this one.) If you're training less than five days per week and you opt for steady-state exercise, you will likely find that you're spinning your tires.

Choose your cardio based on the frequency of your training. If you train less than five days per week and have a limited amount of time, opt for intense, interval-style training. However, if you're an athlete who lifts weights or practices five days a week or more, start incorporating solid state workouts into your training. Both methods have their place. It's up to you to determine which is best for you.

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