Is High Intensity Interval Training Better Than Steady State Conditioning?

When it comes to lifters conditioning is usually the last topic they want to hear about. For starters…it’s not lifting. Additionally, most individuals find it downright boring. Add on top that conditioning sessions can be harder than your everyday lifting sessions and it’s no wonder lifters avoid conditioning like the plague.

That being said you’ll almost always see a handful of conditioning sessions being added to higher level strength programs with good reason. Even for powerlifters who only have to perform single reps for their competitions, the added work capacity from basic conditioning can be a huge bonus to the lifters regular resistance training. Additionally, some base level endurance can be the difference between lasting an entire powerlifting meet, or fading out halfway through.

So conditioning is a good thing. Now you’re probably asking what kind you should be doing? You may have heard that H.I.I.T is undoubtedly the best kind of conditioning around, but that’s not always the case depending on the situation.

Much like you pick your resistance training program to be specific to your lifting goals, you should select your style of conditioning in the very same way. Figure out what your intended goal is behind your conditioning, and then choose the style that is most specific to that intended goal. For most individuals a balance between different conditioning styles will be the most bang for your buck, but this can change depending on an individuals own goals.

Here’s what you need to know about the differences between the two main styles of conditioning you’ll see the most, steady state conditioning and H.I.I.T.

1. High Intensity Interval Training:

What is H.I.I.T?:

You might get a different answer for this question every time you ask a new person. H.I.I.T training does not have a “true” definition and has become so popular in the fitness industry that a variety of different workouts all bare the name “H.I.I.T” leaving the answer to “what is a H.I.I.T workout?” a bit muddy.

The reality is most workouts labeled as “H.I.I.T” are actually just interval training sessions or circuit training sessions. Which there is nothing wrong with, it’s just not H.I.I.T.

The hallmark of a genuine H.I.I.T session is the “high intensity” part. You are shooting to exert yourself at around 80% or greater of your max heart rate. This type of exertion is impossible to sustain for long periods of time and as such your intervals during a H.I.I.T session will end up being naturally short. Another piece of H.I.I.T sessions people miss is the rest intervals are usually longer than most expect. Because the intensity level is so high rest times that are double to triple the amount of time your were training for are normal.

Energy System Utilized:

Proper H.I.I.T sessions will mainly be ruled by the phosphagen (for activities lasting 10 to 30 seconds) and glycolytic (for activities lasting 30 seconds to 3 minutes) energy systems. Both of these energy systems are similar in that they are anaerobic (function without oxygen). These systems rely on stored ATP (principle molecule for storing and transferring energy in cells) and converting carbohydrates into ATP respectively to provide the body the needed energy for this type of physical activity. Both of these systems are able to produce ATP rapidly, however, this rate of production cannot be sustained over long periods of time.

Pros: 

With H.I.I.T training you are going to be able to get in and get out with your conditioning sessions. For those of you who have tight schedules this may be the best route to take. You won’t see a “true” H.I.I.T session run much longer than 15 mins and if you do you’re probably getting into a different style of training that happens to be labeled as “H.I.I.T”. Additionally H.I.I.T sessions align very well with lifting goals. You’ll be training your body to handle high intensity efforts for short bursts which will very closely mimic your resistance training. H.I.I.T sessions can get you used to experiencing the stress of close to max effort exertion, without having to fatigue yourself with the load of an actual max effort lift.

Cons: 

H.I.I.T sessions are hard. There is no half-assing a H.I.I.T session and if you do you won’t actually reap all the purported rewards that H.I.I.T has to offer. These higher intensity sessions while beneficial can sometimes leave individuals feeling beat up coming into their next resistance training session. Athletes tend to adapt to this over time, but it’s good to note that if this is your first time training H.I.I.T style, it may take awhile to get used to it. Also, because these are shorter duration sessions, H.I.I.T does not prepare you for the long haul. You’re going to be extremely good at handling high intensity bursts, but the longer an activity carries on the bigger a disadvantage you’ll be at if you only train H.I.I.T.

Lions Den Elite Training H.I.I.T.

2.Steady State Conditioning:

What is Steady State Conditioning?:

Steady state conditioning is much easier to define than H.I.I.T. Steady state conditioning is any conditioning workout that is a continuous “steady effort” as opposed to something like interval training where your intensity level will constantly be changing. Your most common forms of steady state conditioning are the basic triathlon events running, biking, and swimming. However this is not to say that’s all you can do. All pieces of cardio equipment in your standard commercial gym will work for steady state conditioning, and some conditioning classes you find in commercial gyms may just be steady state conditioning under a fancy name.

Energy System Utilized:

Steady state conditioning utilizes our oxidative energy system. Unlike the phosphagen and glycolytic energy systems the oxidative system as it’s name would suggest is an aerobic system (utilizes oxygen to function). The oxidative system comes into play past 3 minutes of physical activity. Whereas, the glycolytic system will dip into carbohydrate stores to produce ATP, the oxidative system is able to utilize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to produce energy for physical activity. The utilization of oxygen also distinctly allows the oxidative system to provide our body energy for much longer periods of time compared to the anaerobic systems.

Pros: 

Steady state conditioning is easy. I don’t necessarily mean this from an exertion standpoint either. Most people just intrinsically “know” how to do a steady state conditioning workout is all. It’s much easier to tell someone to go jog, bike, or swim at a continuous steady pace for 25 mins than it is to explain different exercises needed as well as the interval timing and intensity level of a H.I.I.T workout. Steady state conditioning is also less fatiguing overall in comparison to a H.I.I.T workout. If you’re worried about your conditioning negatively impacting your resistance training, you won’t need to worry about that with steady state conditioning. Steady state conditioning can also be better from an injury standpoint as we can purposely choose “low impact” activities. Finally, steady state conditioning is your route to endurance. While you may not be beating everyone in a sprint, the longer activities carry out the more of an advantage you’ll have.

Cons: 

The intensity level of steady state conditioning is relatively speaking low, which means if you are exposed to periods of high intensity effort you may not be ready for them if all you do is train steady state conditioning. For athletes that regular compete in bursts of 60 seconds like powerlifters and strongman competitors this may not be the most bang for your buck. Steady state conditioning sessions also aren’t as easy on your schedule as H.I.I.T workouts. It could take you 30 minutes of training steady state to match what a 10 minute H.I.I.T session was able to do. The other drawback steady state conditioning suffers from is the sessions can be boring. Which makes sense if you are doing the same thing over and over again for 30 minutes or more. H.I.I.T definitely takes the edge in being a more “fun” workout.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.