These days, hardcore workouts seem to be the “in” thing. Take a look through almost any fitness magazine, and you’ll see seemingly endless variations of crazy circuits, HIIT (high intensity interval training), and other difficult training that leaves you in a pool of sweat and fatigue. However, there was a time when low intensity steady state training ruled the day. And it very well may be the case that low intensity steady state training should still be a big part of your routine.
Low intensity steady state training is essentially just doing light and easy cardio. How light and easy? According to Alex VanHouten (National Development Specialist and Master Trainer at Life Time Fitness Centennial near Denver, CO), it’s when you’re doing any sort of cardio activity at a consistent 50-60% of your maximum heart rate for longer durations.
So if high intensity interval training would be short, hardcore bouts of work on the rower, sprinting, or doing burpees; low intensity steady state training would be jogging, going easy on the bike or elliptical, or even going for a moderately fast-paced walk for 45-60 minutes.
Although it’s fallen out of favor in many circles with the rise in popularity of high intensity interval training, low intensity steady state workouts have many benefits that shouldn’t be ignored. Firstly, they aren’t nearly as hard on you as HIIT can be. HIIT, while effective, can easily lead to overtraining and / or burning out the CNS (learn more about CNS fatigue here). Lower intensity work is much less likely to cause either.
The lower intensity work is also great for burning calories. HIIT is often thought of as a superior fat loss tool because of the calories you continue burning after your workout is over. However this isn’t as much of the case as you might think.
Calories continue being burned because of EPOC – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. According to the Journal of Sports Sciences, HIIT continues to burn an additional 14% of calories after your workout is over. So if your session burned 300 calories, you’d continue to burn an additional 42 calories over the next 18-36 hours.
However, research shows that low intensity steady state cardio has an EPOC of 7%. While this is only half of what it is for HIIT, remember that low intensity workouts tend to burn way more calories because they’re longer. In fact, when you combine EPOC calories and calories burned during the workout itself, the cumulative total is almost assuredly going to be higher with the lower intensity sessions.
Low intensity steady state work is also pretty much impossible to do incorrectly. Interval training has to be done pretty much as hard as possible in order to elicit the proper physiological response. This means that if you don’t perform it intensely enough, you simply just won’t get that much out of it. However, with low intensity steady state training, as long as you’re putting the work in, you’ll get results.
While low intensity steady state work is definitely important, it shouldn’t make up your entire routine. A well-rounded program would combine training of various modalities and intensities in order to provide results across a broad spectrum. That being said, you don’t want to underestimate the effectiveness of slow, easy aerobic cardio.
It might seem old school to jog, hop on the bike, or even just walk at a low intensity steady state pace. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still work. It burns a good number of calories (both during and after your workout), is easier on the body, isn’t as likely to lead to overtraining, and is almost impossible to do incorrectly. Take a measured approach, balancing it with HIIT, and you should be quite pleased with the results.