Clarifying Cardio Confusion

Do you have cardio confusion? How long should your cardio session be? How many days per week? What is the proper intensity? To compound the issue, there are many different methods being employed. Let’s break it down.

  • LISS (low intensity steady state) cardio refers to an endurance based aerobic workout that involves continuous, steady effort with no variance in energy output.
  1. Fast walks or slow jogs
  2. Walking on an incline on the treadmill
  3. Moderate swimming
  4. Rowing machines
  5. Elliptical
  6. Exercise bike


  • HIIT stands for high intensity interval training and allows an athlete to achieve greater work at a higher intensity than if she simply did a steady state cardio session. The rest intervals involve active recovery and give you an opportunity to spend more time in the upper aerobic zone. The period of effort is usually 30 seconds to 1 minute and the recovery is 1 to 2 minutes. I typically follow a 2:1 ratio of work to rest. Your maximum effort during the work is at or around 80-90% of maximum heart rate. Research indicates that HIIT–
  1. Raises fat burning hormones
  2. Suppresses insulin levels
  3. Raises the metabolic rate more than other methods


  • Interval training is not to be confused with HIIT. Although, the two methods are similar, there is a distinct difference in intensity. Traditional interval training has varying degrees of intensity within one workout. You add a higher intensity period of exercise at 70-80% maximum heart rate with a lower intensity period. In contrast, HIIT has much more intense work cycles.


  • Tabata is another form of interval training that uses 20 second all out intervals followed by brief 10 seconds rest periods. The pattern repeats for a total of 4 minutes. The rest and work periods are much shorter than HIIT, and you are pushing to reach 85 to 90% percentage of maximum heart rate.




  • SMIT (supramaximal interval training) involves performing all out intense bursts at 100% or more of your VO2 maximum (maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in) followed by complete full rest periods or no activity for longer than 2 to 3 minutes. Hill sprints, short track sprints, and shuttle runs are ideal for performing SMIT.
  1. SMIT cannot be used as your only conditioning method because of the intensity. Incorporate both HIIT and LISS as well.
  2. SMIT intervals are higher in intensity and require lengthier recovery periods.
  3. Use non-weight bearing methods in order to save your joints.
  4. Use 4-8 intervals (5-15 seconds a piece). Keep your work to rest ratio at 1:20 and  slowly decrease towards 1:12.

Starting line


Here is one of my favorite HIIT workouts:

  • 1 minute at a level 10
  • 30 seconds at level 15
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 16
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 17
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 18
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 19
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 20
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 19
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 18
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 17
  • 1 minute level 10
  • 30 seconds level 16


  1. Start gradually. Training too hard too soon can result in injury. You need to build a good base of at least 30 minutes steady state sustained aerobic activity a few days per week before considering introducing higher intensity training methods.
  2. Train within your heart rate zone to be sure your body is actually working. If you train below your heart rate zone, you will produce very little benefits.
  3. Do not overtrain. Fat burning health benefits usually occur within under 45 minutes to an hour.
  4. Consider time, intensity, and frequency. All of these will vary based on goals. However, an example for general fitness would be 45 minutes at 75% maximum heart rate 4 times per week.
  5. The method of training you choose will depend upon your goals. My current goal is to to keep body fat low and retain muscle. I do 20 minutes per day alternating HIIT and steady state mostly using the stair master. Keep in mind that HIIT or SMIT training is not appropriate for everyone and leads to a higher rate of injury.


American College of Sports Medicine, (2014). ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (9th Edition). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

Steady State Vs. Interval Training: Which One is Best for Your Clients? (July 2015).
Pete McCall  

ACE ProSource, (October 2013). Is Tabata All its Cracked Up to Be? Talisa Emberts, M.S., John P. Porcari, Ph.D., Jeffery Steffen, Ph.D., Scott Doberstein, M.S., and Carl Foster, Ph.D.

GET SMITEN, (March 2014). Is It Better Than HIIT? BY TEAM FITRX


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s