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Interval Training: Is It Really The King Of Cardio Workouts?

When it comes to what cardio exercise produces the best overall benefits high intensity interval training is the undisputed champion in my book. There are numerous fitness trainers today promoting “aerobic exercise” as being the best cardio for “fat burning” but I’m here to tell you that from my experience they’re flat out wrong.

Sure they’ll back up their claims with exercise science and give you some talk about the Krebs cycle, but are you more concerned with what some textbook says or what you see in the mirror?

If anybody tries to tell you that you MUST be in a certain heart rate range to burn fat when doing cardio, know you’re being fed a bunch of B.S.

If you don’t believe me try the low-moderate intensity aerobic exercise for a while then come back and tell me how it’s working for you. If you don’t see the results you want you can give interval training a try.

The concept I’m talking about is when a trainer or some other so called “fitness expert” advises you that you need to be in a certain prescribed heart rate range in order to be in your individual “fat burning” zone.

They’ll either determine this magical “fat burning” zone with a written formula like the Karvonen method or by assessing your oxygen consumption through a Vo2 max test. The idea is finding out when your body is in the “aerobic” energy system (meaning in the presence of oxygen) and what your heart rate range is during that particular time.

They’ll do these calculations and tell you that you need to stay in your aerobic zone as that’s where your body uses more fat for energy. They’ll also tell you that when you get into the “anaerobic” energy system (meaning you’re in the absence of oxygen…or you’re out of breath) your body doesn’t use fat for energy.

Alright, here’s the deal…they’re absolutely correct about these claims!

All of this is true according to exercise science. No arguments from me on that.

But here’s the problem. Just because it’s true in theory doesn’t mean it’s going to be your best choice for fat loss at the end of the day. More on that in a minute…

I’ve seen exercisers who were given these “fat burning” heart rate ranges go as insane as to tell me they simply couldn’t push themselves any harder because they’d be out of their fat burning zone!

It’s like they’d been brainwashed with this idea. It was nothing more than fear based on a misleading claim…“Oh no, Shane I can’t run any harder than that because then I’ll be over 140 beats per minute and I won’t be burning fat.”

What a bunch of hooey. If they only knew the truth!

A lot of times you’ll placards on cardio equipment with charts identifying these same target heart rate zones according to the user’s age with one zone labeled for “fat burning” and one zone for “cardiovascular endurance.”

This is a joke as well for two reasons.

Number one because of something called bioindividuality (people are all different; age alone is not a very accurate predicator of results).

And number two because they’re promoting the same myth that aerobic exercise is best for fat loss.

While it’s true that moderate “aerobic” exercise at longer durations does allow the body to release more fat for fuel DURING the time of exercise it still can’t compete with the fat burning benefits of high-intensity interval workouts AFTER the workout.

That’s why I believe long-slow-distance cardio workouts for healthy individuals looking for weight loss are eventually a BIG WASTE of your time!

They’re just nowhere near as effective in transforming your body, increasing energy, and improving your health like high-intensity interval training.

In the past I used to suggest that my clients perform the long-slow-distance workouts in the beginning for several months then progress to burst or interval traning workouts later. I have since changed my position on this after research and personal evaluation/experimentation.

Now, I believe you should progress to interval or burst style workouts as soon as possible. You can simply scale the intensity according to what you’re able to do. I’ve found that most healthy individuals will see significantly FASTER improvements when their work capacity is challenged on a regular basis.

It’s the general principal of adaptation. Give your body some work capacity it can’t do today but keep doing it and one day it becomes easy.

My new recommendations for cardio are doing some type of high intensity “interval” training 2 x week and 3 x week of activities with low-moderate intensity like jogging, basketball, swimming, walking, or other light cardio.

That is unless you simply just love spending a lot of time doing cardio.  But in all seriousness and respect that may be true if you’re a cyclist or someone who simply enjoys doing distance running. My fight is not with you…If you love doing those activities keep on keeping on, you have my blessings. (although I would have to share the gospel truth with you about what long-distance running does to your body over time)

I’m talking to the person who wants desperately to lose weight and spends hours doing cardio with not much to show for it. And they’re ticked off by, frustrated, and ready to say heck with it.

My conversation is with you. Stop this senseless work for nothing!

Regardless of what anybody tells you, if you’re doing low-moderate intensity cardio you’re going the long way around the barn.

You need to be doing high-intensity interval or burst training if you want to see real results, fast. I’ve seen this time and time again with my personal training clients and I’ve seen it with my own results.

Personally, I hate doing cardio…I think it’s boring. That’s why I initially got curious about high-intensity interval training in the first place. Hey, if I could get my workouts done quicker and see better results then I figured it was worth trying.

Turns out that not only is high-intensity interval training quicker to do but it really does produce 10x the results of long-slow-distance cardio at a moderate intensity.

I started doing some research on the subject and found that high intensity interval training really is the king of cardio.

A 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that after just two weeks of interval training, six of the eight participants (college-age men and women) DOUBLED their endurance, measured by the amount of time they could ride a bicycle at moderate intensity before exhaustion. Eight volunteers in a control group, who did not do any interval training, showed NO improvement in endurance.

Numerous studies also confirm the fat loss benefits of high intensity interval training. A 2006 study also published in the Journal of Applied Physiology had eight women cyclists complete 10 sets of four minutes each of hard riding, followed by two minutes of rest. The participants  completed a total of seven workouts over a two week period.

What the researchers found was that after the interval training workouts, the amount of fat burned by the body increased by 36 percent!  The real secret is not the amount of fat that is burned during the workout but rather AFTER the workout.

So you see while it’s true you don’t burn much fat while you’re exercising in a “high-intensity” anaerobic state, you sure can burn a lot more fat after the workout is over. There are several reasons for this that hinge on oxygen consumption and hormonal changes.

Listed below are some of the benefits that high intensity interval training has over traditional long-slow-distance cardio workouts.

1. The body will use a significantly more energy from fat “post workout” after the completion of a high-intensity interval workout compared to a long-slow-distance cardio session.

2. The body will release growth hormone (powerful fat burning hormone) in response to high intensity interval workout compared to no increase in this hormone level with long-slow-distance cardio.

3. The body will release adrenaline and nor-adrenaline (two other powerful fat burning hormones) in response to high intensity interval workouts compared to long-slow-distance cardio sessions.

4. The body will see a significant increase in metabolism following the completion of a high-intensity interval training workout compared to very little from long-slow-distance cardio sessions.

5. The body will improve in cardiovascular endurance and stamina much quicker with high-intensity interval training workouts than with any other cardio training method.

There is no question about intervals being the king of cardio from what I’ve personally seen work on clients, work on myself and in the research. But forget all the research and don’t just take my word for it. Got out and try doing high-intensity interval training for yourself.

I’ll go ahead and tell you right now that just because they’re short duration doesn’t mean their easy. Quite the contrary, if you don’t push yourself with intervals you’ll negate all the benefits. All the hormonal changes come from going in and out of the high intensity states (approx 90-95% max heart rate).

This means you have to be working hard, not just lollygagging along. If you don’t want to go hard then I suggest you stick with the low-moderate intensity, aerobic work and simply accept the fact that it’s going to take you longer to reach your goals.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fitness expert, speaker, author, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. Learn more how you can receive a no obligations FREE trial of his Charleston personal training programs and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Fitness Training.