Written by Nate Birner
When I’m interviewing a potential new member at my gym, one of the first criteria is gauging whether they’re looking for another high intensity cardio workout, or if they want something different.
I set it up this way because that’s what people have come to expect from most gyms these days, but it’s not what we do and I don’t want them to be disappointed with their experience.
So why are most gyms so focused on this style of training? And is it actually what’s best for their members? Let's take a look.
It’s Just Business
I don’t think it’s actually that the fitness industry is obsessed with HIIT-style workouts, it’s business after all. They’re just responding to the market and giving the people what they want. So a better question is, why is the market so obsessed with high intensity workouts? I tend to hear two main reasons people love their gym:
- It’s a great workout
- I love the people/vibes/energy
Of course people want to feel like they got a great workout, that’s what they’re paying for right? Going through hard stuff with other people builds connections. It’s one of the reasons why such tight bonds are formed in the military. It turns out this is a great business model for gyms too.
Moreover, cardio-based workouts are lower risk compared to something like barbell strength training, they use less equipment and take up less space. This allows them to see more people at once, requires less capital to invest in equipment, reduces liability, and sometimes allows them to hire less experienced trainers because their role becomes more about creating hype than correcting and fine tuning movement patterns. This is why your big box gym’s “strength workouts” often look suspiciously like doing cardio while holding weights in your hands. Overall, though, it sounds like a win-win for everybody right?
What Exactly is “Cardio?”
Everyone (correctly) knows cardio is good for your heart, but most people (incorrectly) believe cardio is the best way to burn fat. Yet, what exactly does “cardio” mean? Let’s discuss three different types of cardio…
Low Intensity Steady State Cardio
Examples: going for an uphill walk, bike ride, or jaunt on the elliptical.
Heartrate: around 120-130bpm
Duration: 45-60 min
This style of cardio is great for recovery and heart health. Your body will be burning primarily fat for fuel, but total number of calories you’ll burn is low so don’t get too excited about that. LISS is great to include in your routine for general health, recovery, or to slightly increase calorie deficit when dieting without having to further reduce food.
Examples: stair climber, jogging, going harder on the elliptical or bike
Heartrate: Around 140-165 range
Duration: 30-45 minutes
At this point you’re primarily burning carbs for fuel, which is fine. You’re also going to burn more calories per hour than with LISS, but unless you’re training for sports I suggest 30 min sessions, and 45 MAX. If you’re training for something like a marathon you will need to push yourself longer, but when your goal is just to look lean and fit, long duration medium intensity cardio will make it difficult to grow or keep your muscle - no bueno. Our bodies adapt to what we ask it to do, and you don’t need big muscles to run long distances.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Example: Tabata intervals, barbell complexes
Heartrate: around 175-180 or more (Maximum)
Duration: Short periods with rest
This may be the best form of cardio for aesthetics because it burns the most calories over the course of the day and can help build muscle.
To HIIT or not to HIIT
People think HIIT is very popular these days, heck I even say that sometimes, but the truth is that if your HIIT workout takes longer than 5, 10, maybe 15 min max - it’s not HIIT.
HIIT means MAX effort for a short duration. You are not physically capable of giving peak power output for longer than 5-10 minutes. If your performance isn’t starting to drop after several rounds of HIIT, and you don’t feel as if you’re knocking on death's door, then you likely weren’t actually giving max effort. More importantly, once your performance has dropped significantly, so too do the benefits of HIIT.
So what does this mean? It means your favorite 45-60 minute HIIT class that leaves you feeling smoked is not actually HIIT. Your big box gym’s Booty Burn 5000 class is not HIIT. Bootcamps are not HIIT (99% of the time).
They are all high intensity, long duration cardio. Basically, the exact opposite of what you want to do if your primary goals are to look lean and muscular while staying injury free.
What’s so bad about long duration, high intensity cardio? Most people coming to these workouts for general fitness bring baggage in the form of old injuries, muscle imbalances or compensation patterns. Even if they’re trying really hard to focus on form it will deteriorate as they get tired, and their body is naturally going to default to the movement patterns it’s used to, reinforcing the problems we’re trying to fix.
The constant high intensity work spikes cortisol (stress hormone) which puts the kibosh on muscle growth and makes it easier for your body to store every extra calorie it can find as fat (particularly around the midsection).
The huge volume of work and calories burned causes some people to be unusually hungry, which is a recipe for disaster when coupled with the cortisol spike mentioned above. This is one reason why it can be easy for an aerobics instructor, who literally works out all day, to still feel like they have a hard time getting lean.
Is it possible to get lean training this way by burning a lot of calories and not putting them back into your body by eating? Absolutely. My experience is that the people who finally find success with this style of training do so because it’s the only environment they’ve ever trained in where they are truly challenging themselves.
The vibes and community aspect push them to work harder than they normally would, and that is definitely a better choice than wandering aimlessly through the gym and dinking around with the small dumbbells for 20 minutes.
Plus, trying to burn lots of calories in your workout is like hedging a bet against the fact that most people aren’t as strict with their nutrition as they think they are. To be clear, I’m not suggesting these classes are bad for you or that you shouldn’t do them. I’m saying that, in a vacuum, they’re not ideal.
So what do we DO?
Did you start working out just for the sake of getting tired and sweaty, or are you trying to actually create a result? Most people don’t have a way to gauge the effectiveness of a workout beyond how exhausted they feel after. They are focused on the short term, temporary, physiological response of their body from doing hard work like feeling their heart beat out of their chest or their shirt getting really wet.
However, as we learned above, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually moving you in the direction you want to go, and sometimes might actually be moving you farther from it.
The problem is that those physiological responses have little to do with the long term, closer-to-permanent changes most people are actually trying to create like getting stronger, growing muscles, reducing fat stores, or bolstering our joints. Those types of results come from the cumulative effect of all your workouts over the course of time.
The solution for you, my dear reader, is to change the way you define a “good workout.” Rather than focusing on how out of breath you got or the sweat stain you left on the floor, lift weights and focus on executing the perfect rep. Then, write down what you did.
The next time you workout, do a little more. Did you get an extra rep, or use more weight, or a bigger range of motion, or less pain, or better technique? THAT’S a productive workout - whether you were out of breath and having a near death experience or not.
Do this 3-4 days per week. Go for a walk or do 30-60 minutes of cardio 3 days a week. This is plenty for general health. If you want to add some true HIIT to your routine, one or two days is all you need. And of course, clean up your diet. None of this is going to do anything to your waistline if you’re still eating like a teenager. Then, if you’re feeling especially masochistic and still want to do the occasional long duration cardio with your friends, knock yourself out.