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Home » OSL Blog » HIIT vs Cardio: Is One Better for Your Health?

HIIT vs Cardio: Is One Better for Your Health?

November 4, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. HIIT and cardio are both types of exercises that have their benefits and their drawbacks.
  2. Which is better for you will depend on your goals, preferences, and limitations.
  3. Before starting any new form of exercise, be sure to learn proper form and technique to reduce the risk of injury.
  4. If you want to start a HIIT routine, be sure that you have flexibility, mobility, and core strength before trying any of the exercises.

Which of these scenarios sounds more appealing to you:

  1. Lacing up your shoes, leaving the house, and starting to jog at a steady pace. A few minutes in, you pick up the pace and continue to run for 30 – 45 minutes around the neighborhood. When you end up getting closer to home, you slow back down to a jog before you head in to make your morning shake and hit the shower.
  2. Getting up early and heading to the gym. You do a quick 3 – 5 minute warm-up, then get right to your workout. Short bursts of ball slams, burpees, jumping power slams, deadlifts, and planks with a minute or two rest in between. Before you know it, 20 – 30 minutes have passed, your dripping sweat, and ready to hit the showers.

As an OSL reader, we tend to think you lean more towards #2, but we really don’t know. If you prefer scenario #1, then you probably prefer cardio. Scenario #2 is all about high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Neither is necessarily right or wrong, and they both have their benefits and drawbacks. Today, we’re going to focus on HIIT vs cardio:

  • What they are
  • Similarities and differences
  • Benefits and drawbacks
  • If one is better than the other

First, let’s take a look at what HIIT and cardio are and what they do for the body.

HIIT vs Cardio Explained

HIIT is the acronym for high-intensity interval training. You might also know it as high-intensity intermittent exercise or sprint interval training.

HIIT is a type of cardiovascular exercise that alternates between intense anaerobic exercise and short recovery periods. 

Man Lifting Ropes

When it comes to training using HIIT, the standard method is:

  • High-intensity exercise: completed for a duration of 30 seconds up to a maximum of three minutes. Most common time frame is one to two minutes.
  • Low-intensity exercise: complete for a duration of 30 seconds up to the maximum time the high-intensity workout is performed. If the max time for high-intensity is two minutes, then no more than two minutes for low-intensity. It is generally done for half the time of the high-intensity exercise.
Man Running in the Morning

Cardio is short for cardiovascular exercise, also called steady-state cardio. It’s a form of aerobic exercise that ranges from low to high intensity dependent on the type of exercise performed.

What’s the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise?

  • Aerobic exercisedefined by MedicineNet.com as “Brisk exercise that promotes the circulation of oxygen through the blood and is associated with an increased rate of breathing. Examples include running, swimming, and bicycling.”
  • Anaerobic exercise – literally translates to “the absence of air” or “without oxygen.” Anaerobic exercise “consists of brief intense bursts of physical activity, such as weight lifting and sprints, where oxygen demand surpasses oxygen supply. [It] is fueled by energy stored in your muscles through a process called glycolysis.”

Now that we know the difference between HIIT vs cardio, let’s see the differences and similarities. We’ll also discuss any benefits or drawbacks to either form of exercise.

In the end, we’ll try to determine if one beats the other in the battle of HIIT vs cardio.

Which is Preferred by Bodybuilders?

When it comes to HIIT vs cardio, bodybuilders would definitely prefer to perform HIIT exercises

Man Lifting Tire

Any type of weight lifting is considered an anaerobic exercise just like HIIT. For most weight lifters, especially powerlifters and bodybuilders, HIIT is part of their normal activities.

One of the benefits that bodybuilders get from HIIT is the body’s increased ability to eliminate lactic acid buildup. The process of glycolysis breaks down glycogen, which converts to energy. 

Then, the lack of oxygen in the muscle causes lactic acid to build up in the muscle. This lactic acid build-up fatigues muscles faster than aerobic exercise

By repeating anaerobic exercises like heavy weight lifting, the body is able to build tolerance and eliminate the build-up.

This eventually means that lifters can lift heavier weights for longer periods of time between rest and recovery. Which results in increased muscle mass and strength.

Even in the Golden Era of bodybuilding, high-intensity, low rep weight lifting was popular. The term HIIT may not have been coined yet, but that didn’t stop them from doing these anaerobic exercises.

Extremely Muscular Men at Gym

Legends including Serge Nubret, Franco Columbu, Mike Mentzer, Casey Viator, and Lou Ferrigno preferred to work out this way.

Even back then, they knew the benefits of low-rep, high-intensity heavy weight lifting on their physiques.

Weight Loss

When it comes to one form of exercise being better for weight loss, there is a clear winner. HIIT is definitely better at burning calories and helping you shed unwanted pounds.

The biggest reason is the anaerobic form of exercise. It burns more calories than cardio both during and after exercising. This phenomenon is called the afterburn effect, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) effect.

What is the EPOC effect? It basically means that your body continues to burn calories hours after your high-intensity workout is over.

Man Body Transformation

Now, we’re not saying that you’re going to burn hundreds of calories more without any extra work. But studies do show that for a few hours post workout, you can burn up to 250 extra calories.

And every calorie burned counts, right?

This is certainly not an invitation to eat more, however. Remember, to lose weight you have to eat a calorie deficit each day.

To get the best results from your HIIT exercises, it’s best to workout early in the day. Due to the afterburn effect, you want to work out at least eight hours prior to bedtime.

If not, you might have too much energy and have a hard time falling asleep.

Exhausted Man at Gym

You also don’t want to do this form of exercise more than twice a week. Allow your body sufficient time between workouts to rest and recover.

Opt for low impact exercises in between, like steady-state cardio rather than HIIT.

When it comes to HIIT vs steady-state cardio for weight loss, some studies do support HIIT as a better fat burner. If you are looking to boost your weight loss or get over a plateau, consider HIIT over cardio.

Time Limitations

If you are limited on time but still want to get an effective workout in, then you’ll want to do HIIT. It is definitely the “work smarter, not harder” form of exercise.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has minimum exercise recommendations for adults. Moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) weekly or 75 minutes (1.25 hours) of vigorous activity.

They recommend 300 minutes (5 hours) weekly for the best heart health benefits.

Shirtless Man Doing HIIT

Depending on how busy you are, it might not be realistic to spend that much time each week exercising. That is one of the reasons that exercising using HIIT has gained in popularity. 

More and more, we are leading busier lives, with more time constraints. HIIT offers a full-body workout in about 30 minutes or less for most people – no wonder it’s an attractive option. 

Especially when you’d have to do cardio twice as long and may not get all the benefits of HIIT. On days where you just don’t know how you’ll fit in the time to exercise, opt for a quick HIIT routine.

It’s better than not getting in your daily activity goals!

Learning Curve

When you are just starting out with exercising, there is typically a learning curve to get over. Comparing HIIT vs cardio, which do you think is easier to learn?

Pretty much anyone with some athletic ability can do cardio. Running take less skill than swimming or biking, though there is some technique needed. If you don’t run properly, you can cause strains or injury to your lower body.

Man tired On Treadmill

HIIT requires proper form and training to do exercises correctly to avoid the risk of injury. To be successful, you need to have:

  • Flexibility
  • Mobility
  • Core strength
  • Developed muscles

Exercises that focus on jumping, balance, and strength need to be done before attempting HIIT. Also, make sure to stretch before and after you exercise to reduce the risk of injury.

You can start out with easier exercises and then advance to more complex ones as you learn. But going too hard or intense can cause muscle tears, cardiac episodes, or falling injuries.

If you want to learn more about proper technique for some HIIT exercises, make sure to check out:

When it comes to skills involved, HIIT is harder to learn, especially for a beginner. 

Endurance vs Distance Training

If your goal is to compete in a competition, the type of competition will determine if HIIT vs cardio is better.

Man in Obstacle Course

Planning on doing an endurance race like an obstacle course or a mud event? Then you’ll want to focus your weight training efforts using HIIT exercises

In an obstacle course event, you’ll race between obstacles and then likely have to wait your turn to complete the obstacle. This hurry up and wait type of competition is very similar to HIIT style workouts.

The high-intensity intervals and then low-intensity recovery periods are perfect to train yourself for these competitions.

Low Shot of Marathon

Do you have a goal to complete a distance marathon? Then you’ll definitely want to focus your efforts on a steady-state cardio exercise like running. Train several times a week so you can work up to the race distance.

When it comes to HIIT vs cardio for endurance or distance, HIIT works for endurance while cardio works for distance.

Mental (and Physical) Health

When it comes to mental health, do you think there is a winner between HIIT vs steady-state cardio? It turns out, cardio is better for your mental and physical health, especially when just starting out.

HIIT is good for those who are easily distracted and many find it less boring. The routine can also be switched up more than a typical cardio routine, which is limited.

Man Celebrating Completing Hike

Cardio counters being bored in a few different ways. It actually helps with mental clarity, reducing stress, and building determination. Anyone who has gone for a long run in nature can attest to its therapeutic abilities.

Due to the type of high-intensity workout that HIIT is, it puts much more stress on you – physically and mentally.

When comparing steady-state cardio to Tabata, participants felt the HIIT style exercise was far less enjoyable.

This very well could have been due to the style of HIIT. For those who don’t know, the Tabata protocol workout is a very specific type of HIIT.

You work up to a max of eight intervals of 20 seconds super high-intensity followed by 10 seconds of rest.

Man Running On Mountain

It sounds really easy – you can do anything for 20 seconds, right? But it is actually rather difficult, as evidenced by the fact that you have to work up to eight intervals.

One thing to consider is your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), which is 220 minus your current age. If you are 25 years old, then your MHR would be 195 (220 – 25) beats per minute.

Let’s take a minute here to discuss the implications of exceeding your MHR.

Dangers in Exceeding your Maximal Heart Rate?

If you haven’t heard about your MHR before reading this article, you may not know what the big deal is. We wanted to give you some more information here to make sure you are informed of the potential dangers.

According to this study, the correct equation used to calculate your MHR is slightly different. It should be (207 – 0.7 x age) for active adults. As a 25-year-old active adult, your MHR would be 189.5, rounded to 190 beats per minute.

Person resting during workout

What happens if you exceed that? You could be at risk for major adverse cardiovascular events (MACE) or premature death. The chance is higher for males than females, especially as they age.

Now, we’re not going to say that your heart will spontaneously combust if you go over 190 – 195 beats per minute. But regularly stressing your heart above 85% of your MHR could:

  • Make your body weaker, not stronger
  • Reduce performance
  • Prolong fatigue and recovery

These are all things to consider when determining whether HIIT vs cardio is a better option for you. If you choose HIIT, just limit the amount of time you spend and don’t make it the only form of exercise.

Risk of Injury

When it comes to comparing HIIT vs cardio, HIIT definitely has a higher risk of injury compared to cardio.

Person with Shoulder Pain at Gym

This is mainly due to the intensity with which the exercises are performed. The quicker and harder you work, the more likely you are to tear, pull or strain a muscle. One study even suggests that HIIT can be attributed to kidney damage in some people.

From 2007 to 2016, almost 4 million injuries were recorded in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. The most common demographic reported? White men between the ages of 20 to 39.

There was a substantial increase in these types of injuries:

  • Concussions
  • Punctures
  • Strains
  • Sprains
  • Nerve damage
  • Dislocations
  • Internal organ damage

And the injuries stemmed from HIIT type equipment including barbells, kettlebells, and boxes. Lunges, pushups, and burpees were the most common HIIT exercises reported with injuries.

Runner with Foot Pain

Most people who prefer cardio do so because of its many cardiovascular benefits. Still, prolonged running, for example, can increase the risk of musculoskeletal stress fractures.

It’s not without its physical risk, though HIIT has a higher chance overall.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Let’s do a quick recap of the benefits and drawbacks of each type of exercise.

Benefits of HIIT

  • Reduce fat while gaining muscle
  • Workout in less time
  • Equipment is optional
  • Increases your metabolism
  • Can be done almost anywhere
  • It’s challenging (in a good way!)
  • Mental stimulation
  • Reduces boredom
  • EPOC effect
  • Teaches the body to eliminate lactic acid more efficiently
  • Ideal for endurance competition training

Drawbacks of HIIT

  • High risk of injury
  • Prior skill involved
  • Need to work up to this form of exercise
  • Proper form is required
  • Warm-up and post-exercise stretching is mandatory
  • Recovery time between sessions is a must

Benefits of Cardio

  • Improves lung capacity
  • Reduces health risks
  • Equipment is optional
  • Reduces stress
  • Strengthens the heart

  • Most anyone can do it
  • Improves mental clarity
  • Ideal for distance training
  • Less risky than HIIT

Drawbacks of Cardio

  • Doesn’t work as fast as HIIT for weight loss
  • Limited exercises, might cause boredom
  • Can be time-consuming
  • Not preferred exercise for bodybuilders and weight lifters

Who Wins the Battle of HIIT vs Cardio?

At the end of the day, both HIIT and cardio have their benefits and drawbacks. It really depends on your goals for which would be better.

To get the most well-rounded workout, do both HIIT and steady-state cardio combined. Focus on cardio more but add in HIIT once or twice a week to get a quick, impactful workout.

If you haven’t done either, start out with cardio first. Build up to where you can do moderate activity continuously for at least 30 minutes. Then do HIIT to get the benefits, especially for weight loss. 

Workout Log

If you are a seasoned bodybuilder, then you’ve likely been doing a form of HIIT exercises already.

We’re curious, if you are a regular weight lifter, do you incorporate cardio as part of your routine? Or do you mainly stick to mostly HIIT style workouts?

Whether you prefer HIIT vs cardio, you can’t really go wrong with either. Though, you need to make sure you are physically ready before you dive into HIIT exercises.

Any type of routine exercise is better than a sedentary lifestyle for your health. A combination of both is ideal for most, as long as you are moving and getting your heart rate up!

Which do you prefer, HIIT or steady-state cardio? What are your favorite types of exercises in either category? We want to know what you think, so give us some feedback in the comments below!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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