Cardio vs HIIT vs Weights

As almost all exercise is important, what’s the difference between the big 3: cardio vs HIIT vs weights? While the opinions fly all over, here is an article from NerdFitness where they discuss the matters and where you can read more in detail.

Cardio vs HIIT vs Weights

In 2010, we compared the caloric burns from cardio, interval training (including but not limited to HIIT), and weight training, walking you through the pros and cons of each.

Ultimately, we advised you to choose the exercise that best fit your definition of fun (6th rule of the Rebellion!). If you’re not enjoying it, try something different!

You may have noticed, however, that we tend to promote weight and interval training far more than cardio. As Steve infamously explained: “I’d rather punch myself in the crotch than spend two hours on a treadmill.” (Coming soon to a t-shirt near you.)

It appears that steady-state cardio — at any intensity — has been losing the publicity battle to HIIT and other forms of interval training, as well as weight training, in this young 21st century.

As we Rebels know, leveling up our lives means questioning everything and acknowledging that dearly-held beliefs may, in fact, be resting on shaky foundations. So, just like Melisandre had to rethink her belief in Stannis as the Prince Who Was Promised, it’s time for us to take a closer look at the new research behind our recommendations.

So What Does the Science Say?

We scoured the research to ask ourselves: six years later, what does the science say in 2016?

We found that the majority of studies do in fact conclude that HIIT is equal to or better than cardio for improving overall health and fitness. Case closed? Not exactly: if you look beyond the two-sentence summaries, things aren’t so cut-and-dry.

Researchers in this July 2015 study, for instance, analyzed multiple HIIT vs cardio trials and declared HIIT the winner. But if you read the fine print in the discussion portion of the study, the researchers actually described the conclusion as saying HIIT had “a possibly small beneficial effect” over cardio (our emphasis).

Remember: HIIT isn’t called high intensity interval training for nothing. It’s tough. That might be an understatement. Most people do not do HIIT regularly because it is so darn hard.

So when we saw this we thought: Wait a minute — are you telling me that HIIT is lots of pain for not-that-much-gain?!?

According to this study, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Whether or not the grueling intensity of HIIT is worth the minimal gains is up to you. For some Rebels, especially those with limited time to train, getting the most ‘bang for your buck’ and counting every last tenth-of-a-calorie may matter a lot, whereas others will prefer to take the longer, less orc-filled (and easier on the joints) road to Mordor.

One study doesn’t topple a juggernaut, but we’ve shown you this example because it’s representative of how the research in this battle of HIIT vs cardio is less concrete than the “DO THIS NOT THAT” headlines suggest. (Check out the links throughout this section to see this ambiguity in action.)

But let’s dig into the central issue here: the afterburn effect.

Then and Now: HIIT vs Cardio Afterburn

Six (!) years ago, we argued that the afterburn effect was a key reason why cardio was inferior to interval and weight training. Also known as EPOC, or Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption, it’s the amount of oxygen your body needs to return to its normal, resting metabolic state (more oxygen needed, more calories burned).

HIIT = more afterburn, so HIIT = better. Right?


Well, in a 2015 study, researchers compared the afterburn of cardio, HIIT, and weight training workouts. They concluded that both HIIT and weight training produced more afterburn than cardio for up to 21 hours post-exercise, but, surprisingly, they also noted that theirs is the only study showing that HIIT has a higher afterburn than cardio when the workouts burn the same number of calories.

That’s worth writing again: these researchers claimed that their study was the only one for which HIIT had a higher afterburn than cardio when the workouts burned the same amount of calories.

Well, at least the HIIT workout gets me the same amount of calories in less time, right?


Yeah, you read that right: wrong.

Both workouts took about 40-45 minutes (as did the weight training regimen). While it’s true that the HIIT protocol included relatively long 2-3 minute recovery intervals when rest times were factored in, the results suggest that HIIT may not be vastly superior to cardio here.

(The researchers also acknowledge that their best-case scenario — that HIIT and weight training each burns up to 300 more calories per day — will inevitably decrease as bodies adjust to training regimens.)

This last point is a great reminder that the biggest caloric gains and losses ultimately happen in the kitchen: (Neither EPOC, nor or anything for that matter, can make up for EBOC: Excess Brunching Over Coffee/Champagne.) You can’t outrun your fork (another rule of the Rebellion!).

When fitness author Lyle McDonald explored this question using a power meter bike and an electronic calorie-counter, he found that a seemingly impressive 7% difference in afterburn between a 30-minute HIIT workout and 30 minutes of cardio translated to just 14-21 calories. (You can usually burn more than that by adding 5-10 minutes to a cardio workout.)

As for weight training, afterburn appears to increase with exercise intensity, but the actual gains measured vary widely, from 6 to 800 (!) calories. Because weight training has so many benefits already, any afterburn we do get is like the shiny gold and hot-rod red accents on Iron Man’s suit: not as functional as the sweet hand and feet repulsors that allow Tony to fly and fight bad guys, but still awesome.

Speaking of extra features, we thought HIIT helped to make your heart more adaptable and handle the stresses of physical exertion and daily life. While the jury’s still deliberating on the best regimen to elevate heart rate variability (HRV) – a new measure of this adaptability – it looks like any aerobic exercise will help, as long as you’re not overburdening a weakened heart with extreme events or workouts.

Read more at NerdFitness



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