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What Is Steady State Cardio (and Does It Have Any Benefits)?

We discuss a lot of training here that focuses on HIIT, or high-intensity-interval training. And while I’ve found (and plenty of research shows) that it’s truly the most efficient form of training to boost metabolic efficiency and slash fat, I do want to bring steady-state cardio back into the mix.

It’s easy to focus on the shorter-term benefits HIIT offers and totally forget that steady-state does offer some benefits HIIT doesn’t.

In truth, cardio doesn’t have to be a steady state vs. HIIT conversation. Both forms are valuable tools to have in your regime because they accomplish different things.

High-intensity interval training will maximize your physical exertion and push you to your limits, while steady state cardio is perfect for building stamina and endurance. An effective fitness and training schedule will include a little bit of both forms of cardio, as well as weight and resistance training, to maximize your body’s performance and increase your overall health and strength.

What is Steady State Cardio?

A couple miles on this bike? Steady-state cardio.

To put it simply, steady state cardio is a continuous form of aerobic activity in which you exert a steady level of energy for an extended period of time. When you see a long-distance runner running for an hour at a steady pace, for example, they’re performing a steady state cardio activity.

These activities usually require that you use moderate levels of intensity so that you can sustain the movement over a longer period of time, which can vary from person to person. For instance, a jog at a moderate pace for thirty minutes might exhaust someone who hasn’t jogged much, while the same amount of time may seem like nothing to a professional athlete.

The most concrete way to define the intensity of your cardio is to determine your maximum heart rate and measure how your activity level affects it. Effective moderate intensity steady state cardio workouts will generally aim to hit about 55% of your maximum heart rate.

What’s the Difference Between Steady State and HIIT Cardio?

HIIT involves performing higher-intensity activities (think sprints, jumps, and burpees, for example) for shorter intervals, which can bring your heart rate up to 80% or more of its maximum rate and push your levels of physical comfort. In contrast to the long-distance runner performing steady state cardio I mentioned above, a HIIT workout might involve a sprinter dashing back and forth in intervals, or someone performing a circuit of high-intensity aerobic activity with breaks in between their sets.

Steady-state cardio, on the other hand, aims to keep your heart rate moderately high, but steady, with no “rest” intervals in-between.

Examples of Steady State Cardio

Steady state cardio encompasses a lot of the “classic” cardio activities that might come to mind: jogging, swimming, and biking, to name a few. You can also do a lot of steady state cardio at the gym if you’re using the treadmill, elliptical, or stair climber at a steady but moderate pace – you should feel a little out of breath, but still be able to carry on a conversation. Even going on a difficult hike can be considered steady state cardio if you’re keeping a steady pace and using a decent amount of energy.

Benefits of Steady State Cardio

In the ring, endurance matters.

Because HIIT workouts have become so popular for weight loss and training, people tend to overlook the benefits of steady state cardio or consider it an outdated form of exercise. Because steady state cardio tends to eat up more time than HIIT exercises and can be a boring, repetitive chore if it’s the only exercise in your workout toolkit, it’s not pretty common to exchange a longer jog or swim for a shorter workout.

Now, while I’m all for HIIT, I do think taking this view can limit your performance when it comes to endurance and overall health. We’ve all heard the recommendations to get in at least 30 minutes a day of aerobic activity, and there’s a reason for that: it keep your heart strong.

When you regularly perform steady state cardio, you increase your body’s ability to perform over longer periods of time and improve your heart health and stamina. Incorporating steady state cardio into your workout rotation will also increase your muscles’ ability to use oxygen more efficiently, which is a huge deal for athletes who need to sustain moderate or high levels of activity for hours at a time!

Take being in the ring, for instance: I’m doing plenty of short bouts of intensity followed by recovery … but overall, I’m having to last through several rounds. This would only be possible with a high level of endurance, and that comes from training my body to withstand long periods of high activity.

How to Incorporate Steady State Cardio Into Your Regime

Like I mentioned: you don’t have to choose between HIIT and steady state cardio, and frankly, you shouldn’t. The ideal is to incorporate both.

If you’re already doing HIIT workouts regularly, aim to toss in 1-2 longer cardio sessions a week (jogging/biking) for at least 30 minutes. And remember, this is longer and slower, so get your heart rate up and try to maintain a steady pace. Eventually, start challenging yourself to jog or bike for longer at the same pace.

If you’re just starting out, aim for 15-30 minutes of the same (and don’t worry if you have to stop and take a break – you’ll get there).

Follow up those runs and bikes with a great stretching session as well, which will also turn steady-state into a mild recovery day.


The main takeaway here?  
You don’t want to depend on steady state cardio on its own to try to balance out a bad diet or lose weight, but it can work wonders in taking a fitness regime that includes more high-intensity activities like HIIT and weight training to the next level. Find time in your schedule for different cardiovascular activities and reap the benefits of explosive workout performance and increased stamina.

One thought on “What Is Steady State Cardio (and Does It Have Any Benefits)?

  1. Great summary. I Totally agree.
    Just would like to emphasize the fact that what is actually steady state cardio is not what most people see or do in the gym! (A big mistake)
    Most folks and too many experienced lifters have the mental image burned into their brains of someone huffing and puffing sweating and agonizing on a treadmill, bike or elliptical. This is NOT what Steady State Aerobic training looks like.
    The Heart rate is EVERYTHING. Steady state aerobic or cardio training mandates only a slightly elevated heart rate. If you cannot carry on a conversation without gasping slightly for air, your heart rate is too high!
    This point cannot be over emphasized for the majority of gym goers and fitness buffs worldwide!
    A good reference range might be your maximum heart rate (based on your age) and then -60. i.e. a 60 yr old would have a maximum heart rate of 180. 180-60 = 120. So, 120 would be this person‘s steady state cardio target number.
    For this person in average physical condition, 120 would hardly feel like it was doing anything. THAT’S WHAT IS NEEDED! -That’s the ticket to success here.
    Bodybuilders use this method, because it works. A heart rate higher than a persons target number will actually begin to burn muscle instead of fat! As, the body begins to protect itself and it’s fat stores and switches to carbohydrates and muscle for energy instead of fat.
    This is the last thing a bodybuilder wants to do as they are trying to maintain the highest amount of muscle possible while also losing the most subcutaneous fat as possible before a show.
    Therefore, it should also be the last thing anyone wanting to efficiently burn fat would what do in their quest to lose fat and maintain or gain muscle.
    Good Luck to all!

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