Is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT Cardio) Better For Weight Loss?

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High Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT for short) isn’t a new style of training, but thanks to the likes of Joe Wicks and other Instagrammers, HIIT has been given a new lease of life.

With short, snappy and intense workouts that need no equipment, it’s easy to see why so many are ditching their steady-state cardio in favour of a HIIT workout.

Ah yes, ‘steady state cardio’. It’s the 45 minute plod round the block, the 100 laps of breaststroke in the pool or the 30 minute commute to work on a bike. It’s a cardio session where your pace is consistent and it doesn’t involve high intensity sprints or intervals like a HIIT workout. It’s the kind of cardio many folks force themselves to do when they start the new year with the old chestnut “this is going to be the year I get in shape”….

With the promise of a one-way ticket to leans-vile, everyone seems to be jumping on the HIIT train. 20 minutes of exercise in the living room rather than a 45 minute run in the rain, yes please! The research seems promising too with studies showing that folks generally prefer it to steady state cardio. HIIT seems to be great for adherence and folks who perhaps weren’t fans of exercise or had trouble sticking to a routine are finding a love for the shorter, snappier style workouts.

But the million pounds question that we all want to know is this; is HIIT cardio better for weight loss than steady state cardio?

What Are The Advantages Of HIIT Cardio?

It’s A Time Saver

One of the standout highlights of HIIT workouts has to be the fact that most workouts are over and done within 15-20 minutes. This can be great if the thought of a 45-60 minute stead state cardio session, like a run, is your idea of hell on earth! Typically most HIIT workouts will start with a warmup. This is followed by 15-30 seconds of high intensity exercise (let’s say burpees for an example) followed by 30-60 seconds of rest. You’d then repeat this for several rounds and you’re done before you know it.

HIIT Is Extremely Versatile

You can do hundreds of body weight  workouts in your own living room, in the park, in a hotel room etc.. No gym membership required and they’re extremely versatile. Get yourself a stopwatch or timer and some empty space and you’re good. Due to the popularity of HIIT, a quick YouTube search will return hundreds of results so you won’t struggle with a lack of variety.

Here’s a HIIT workout you can do in your living room:

It’s Great For Heart Health

One meta-analysis (a study of other studies) found that it significantly increases cardiorespiratory fitness by almost double that steady state cardio in patients with lifestyle-induced chronic diseases.

It’s Proven To Burn Fat

There are a lot of published studies that show it can help burn fat. A study in the International Journal of Obesity found that doing HIIT 3x per week reduced total body fat and increased insulin sensitivity.

HIIT Can Suppress Your Appetite

Research has shown that low intensity exercise can be a good way to suppress your appetite. If you’re trying to lose fat and the hunger pangs start, a short walk can be a great to increase calorie expenditure and mitigate the  tummy rumbling at the same time. HIIT cardio has been reported to do the same. The good news is that a recent study found that you can your suppress appetite with only 2 minutes of HIIT! As little as 4 × 30 s of “flat-out” cycling was sufficient to elicit a suppression of appetite and reduce a then hunger educing hormone ghrelin.

What Are The Disadvantages Of HIIT Cardio?

The ‘Fat Burning’ Benefits Are Over-hyped

While HIIT can be great for fat loss, it doesn’t appear to be any better than traditional forms of steady state cardio.

Wait, what?!

Yeah, soz to be the bearer of bad news. A recent meta-analysis comparing steady state cardio with HIIT found there were no significant differences in fat burning when the two groups were matched for time or energy expenditure.

This means that if fat loss is your goal, your total energy expenditure should be one of the main elements to focus on. If you can burn 500 calories doing steady state cardio compared to 300 doing HIIT, the steady state, assuming you’ll stick with it, is going to increase your rates of fat loss compared to HIIT.

The ‘Afterburn’ (EPOC) Isn’t Anything Special

People talk about the ‘afterburn’ effect or EPOC (Elevated Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption). Advocates of HIIT say that it’s amazing because, like weights training, you continue to burn calories even when you’ve finished exercising.

This is true but with HIIT, the EPOC is only around 13%. This means that if you burn 300 calories doing HIIT the EPOC is only an extra 40 calories bringing the total to 340. Yup, not that much really, is it? It’s a bit like green tea, it’s not really going to boost your metabolism like some claim.

[RelatedCan Green Tea ACTUALLY Help You Burn Fat & Lose Weight?]

It Isn’t Great For Folks With Sore Joints

If you’re prone to have joint issues or if you’re extremely untrained then HIIT isn’t the most joint-friendly form of exercise. Sprinting and throwing your body around if you’re untrained is a not the smartest of moves if you still want to have knees, hips and ankles that work.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommend that folks develop a ‘base fitness level’ first before going all out with HIIT. They suggest that beginners start with gentle cardio for 20-60 minutes per session, 3-5x session per week. This will produce muscular adaptations, which improve oxygen transport to the muscles. They say that:

“establishing appropriate exercise form and muscle strength are important before engaging in regular HIIT to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury”.

It May Hamper Your Weight Lifting Program

Because of the intense nature of HIIT it can mean that it takes you longer to recover compared to steady state cardio.  DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) may be present for longer. In some cases, this could hamper your weights training program. If you were doing a proper weights training split and focusing on body part more than once per week (eg 2 upper days, 2 lower days) then the addition of 2/3 HIIT workouts is a recipe for over-training.

It’s imperative to try and maintain strength and muscle mass when in a calorie deficit (trying to lose fat). If training frequency, intensity and volume drops because you can’t adequately recover from your HIIT sessions then it’s likely to result in a loss of muscle.

The round up

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Is high intensity interval training better for weight loss? I suppose the answer is – it depends. From a purely physiological perspective, it’s no better for fat loss compared to steady-state cardio. If you enjoy both and losing fat is your primary goal then it makes sense to do the form of cardio that will result in the greatest calorie expenditure. This is likely to be steady-state cardio.

However, if you hate steady-state cardio but you enjoy HIIT, go for it. If you’re able to factor it into your training routine and recover so that it doesn’t hamper your weights training routine, go for it. If you love it because it’s quick and you can do it at home, go for it.

Consistency is key. If you can’t stick with a steady-state cardio routine because you think it sucks but you love HIIT then it’s a no-brainer. Do what you enjoy the most.

Is HIIT Cardio Better For Weight Loss?
Scott Baptie

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.