One recurring theme I see in many fitness programs and websites (and I have been guilty of this myself) is the focus on high intensity workouts and the ridicule or disregard for low intensity training.
Mostly this has to do with the way people view cardio: the traditional, long duration, steady paced cardio vs. the short, varied-pace interval training which is recommended today. However, even in strength training I see more and more people discounting the effectiveness of low intensity training and making it seem like a complete waste of time.
Is this really the case? Is low intensity training useless and shouldn’t be performed at all or is there actually a place for it in your workout routine?
In this post I’ll cover the pros and cons of both low and high intensity training and show you how you should combine the two for the best fitness results.
What is High Intensity and Low Intensity Training
First, let’s make sure we all know what we mean by high and low intensity workouts. The way to differentiate between these two forms of training is by your heart rate. The higher the intensity of your workout, the faster your heart beats. High intensity workouts are often defined as those in which your heart beats at 75-80% of its maximum rate. There are various formulas for determining your max heart rate, but one of the common ones is 220 – your age.
So, anything above 80% max heart rate is high intensity and anything lower than 70% is low. In between it is considered moderate.
High Intensity Training Pros and Cons
- High intensity training simply takes less time. There is a reverse correlation between the intensity of a workout and how long you may pursue it. So, if you like to do short workouts, they should be intense.
- Metabolism hike – Research has shown that high intensity interval training (the intense form of cardio) doesn’t just burn calories during the workout itself but also produces a metabolism hike which may last for hours after the workout is done. It’s like a fire that has been put out but continues to emit heat even though no flames are visible. During this metabolic hike, your body continues to burn calories at a rapid pace, making weight loss easier.
- Improve burst physical performance – Short distance runners and athletes in fields which require a short-term burst of energy will benefit from this sort of training. It prepares you for big exertions done for a short time.
- Maintain muscle mass – There are some who claim that high intensity cardio is better for muscle retention than low intensity cardio. Muscle loss is one of the side effects of weight loss, which is why strength training is so important when you go on a diet. High intensity intervals may be beneficial too.
- Greater risk of injury – High intensity training exposes you to greater risk of injury due to the sudden and extreme pressure that you may be placing on yourself.
- Saps your strength – Research has shown that while you may burn a lot of calories due to the intense nature of your workouts, your non exercise activity level may be greatly diminished because you’ll just be too tired to do much and this may cause you to burn fewer calories overall .
- You should consider when to do your workouts. If you have a big event that night, this may not be the best day to do a high intensity workout.
- Can’t be Done With Other Exercise – Kyle Leon, author of the Customized Fat Loss program, claims that high intensity intervals can’t be done during the same workout as other forms of exercise. He says that you need to be fresh as possible when you do HIIT workouts.
I’m not sure that this is 100% true but it may be that your overall performance will suffer.
Note: Some people say that the major con of these workouts is that they are hard. I don’t thing that this is a real argument. One of the points of a workout is to be hard in order to get fast results.
Low Intensity Workouts – Pros and Cons
- Good for beginners – For people who are making their first steps in fitness, low intensity training is perfect. You need to get your body into the habit of moving and exercising before you begin to really push it.
- Improves health and facilitates weight loss – Research has shown that low intensity cardio does work. It helps reduce insulin insensitivity and promotes weight loss.
- Higher proportion of fat burn – This is the main reason why low intensity cardio is so popular (or was). When your body works in a moderate heart rate range, it enters what is known as the fat burning zone, where a large proportion of your burned calories come from fat.
- May be done with certain injuries – If you suffered a recent injury, this kind of training may be the only thing you should do. Consult with your doctor before pursuing any activity.
- Can be added to your current workout – One thing which I used to do and which Rusty Moore, author of the Visual Impact For Women, often recommends is to do a hard strength workout followed by a moderate intensity cardio. For instance, walking on a treadmill while watching TV.
The idea is that following a hard workout, you’re incapable of doing a rigorous cardio session. However, if you want to burn more calories, even a low intensity workout is better than doing nothing. I think this is a great idea and I highly recommend it.
- Time – This is probably the biggest problem. Getting results with low intensity cardio requires a lot of time.
- No after-burn effect – The post workout metabolic hike that you get with HIIT workouts is not present here. So, don’t expect your body to continue burning lots of calories for hours after the workout is done.
- Gives the illusion of a workout – A lot of people do low intensity cardio and little else. Often, this gives them the illusion that they burned a lot of calories while, in fact, they burned very little. This is the reason why so many people who do cardio fail to get results.
Why High Intensity Is Better For Fat Loss
If you burn a higher proportion of fat calories when you do low intensity workouts aren’t they better for fat loss?
The answer is no because we’re talking about proportion and not an overall amount. Let’s say, for example that you do a low intensity workout for 30 minutes and burn 200 calories, of which 50% are fat calories. In total you burned 100 fat calories.
On the other hand, let’s say you push yourself and burn 400 calories in 30 minutes, 35% of which are made up of fat. You burn a total of 140 fat calories, a 40% increase. This is why harder workouts are better for fat loss. They simply burn more calories.
How To Combine High and Low Intensity Workouts
High intensity training should be the main thrust of your workouts, where you both improve fitness and get the bulk of your fat burning. Low intensity sessions should be a welcome addition. This can be done in two ways:
- At the end of your workout, after you’ve completed your strength training or your HIIT.
- In your off days – When you’re not doing a hard workout but you still want to be active, taking a 30 minute walk is an excellent way to burn even more calories.
I hope that this post helped you see why low intensity workouts should not be discounted or avoided. They are beneficial and can help you lose weight faster. All you need to do is to use both high and low intensity workouts in the right order, and to know that there is a time and place for both.
1. Alahmadi MA, Hills AP, King NA, Byrne NM. Exercise intensity influences nonexercise activity thermogenesis in overweight and obese adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Apr;43(4):624-31.