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Stead State vs. Intervals: A Conclusion

Over the past month of articles, I’ve been talking about the current fascination with interval training (for either fat loss or performance) with the main focus being on what I see as a myopic ‘intervals are always superior’ mentality (usually based on poor arguments).

A secondary focus has been on what I’m seeing people do in practice as they have been convinced (wrongly) that intervals are the only way to train.

At the same time, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not anti-interval. They are a useful tool and have their pros (and cons). It’s the uncritical belief that they are either the only or the best way to train (and the arguments used to support such) that I have a big problem with. Or the idea that they are the only type of training that can or should be done.

As a quick introduction, Steady State and Interval Training: Part 1 would be a good place to start for an analysis of what the pros and cons of steady state and interval training are.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am a wordy bastard, which is why I’ve been going on about this for a month. I also had a lot to get off my chest because the terrible advice and spurious arguments being made by the pro-interval camp piss me off.

But since some of you may be tuning in for the first time and/or you simply didn’t or don’t want to read the endless verbiage in the blog, I thought I’d do a quick summary to each of the articles I wrote along with a link to an article that sums up my recommendations to people.

After a brief introduction to the topic, the first thing I looked at was a research review on Endurance Training and Obesity: Effect on Substrate Metabolism and Insulin Sensitivity which looked at improvements in fat oxidation and insulin sensitivity for steady state versus interval training. Short summary: the steady state cardio showed a beneficial adaptation in both fat oxidation and insulin sensitivity that the interval training program did not.

Pole Vaulting for a Hot Body had to do with the commonly stated argument that you can run a marathon and still be fat but 400m runners are always lean, ergo interval training is superior for fat loss. There are several problems with this argument not the least of which that 400m runners do most of their work at low intensities and the high intensity sprint work they do is nothing like the type of interval training that is being advocated for fat loss in the first place.

In a continuation of that idea, I pointed out that the people making this argument are essentially comparing recreational runners to high-performance sprinters, which makes no sense. In Sprinters vs. Marathoners, I pointed out that ELITE marathon runners are always lean. It’s just a ridiculous argument all around and comparing recreational joggers to elite athletes is intellectually dishonest in the first place.

Another argument that the superiority of interval training rests on is that it generates an exceptionally large post-workout calorie burn. In the research review Effects of Exercise Intensity and Duration on the Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption, I put this idea to rest. While the relative burn following high-intensity training may be larger, the total absolute contribution is still miniscule (partly because the total calorie burn of the average interval sessions is pretty small, even a larger PERCENTAGE burn doesn’t amount to much). In one study, following intervals, a whopping 35 some odd extra calories were burned. Yippee.

There is also the simple fact that, almost no matter how you cut it, the total calorie burn during a longer steady state bout will be in excess of whatever occurs from interval training. In the article Steady State vs. Interval Training and EPOC: Practical Application, I compared interval workouts to steady state workouts from my own training (calorie values based on numbers taken from my Powermeter equipped bike, a Bodybugg and my new Polar watch that estimates calorie burn). This is in addition to the fact that, for the same or lesser calorie burn, intervals are MUCH harder and interval training can’t be done daily. And since most trainees train more than a handful of time per week, this is a problem.

Now, while most of the arguments that intervals are typically based on appear to be bogus, there is the simple fact that, for many people, they seem to be more effective for fat loss (at least under certain circumstances). I examined this apparent disconnect between the research and the real-world in the next two blog pieces.

In Steady state vs. Interval Training: Explaining the Disconnect Part 1, I examined the now infamous Tremblay interval study and offered the potential of muscle gain (only relevant for beginners who aren’t lifting) and increased fat oxidation as potential mechanisms for increased fat loss. I’d point out again that that study only showed a fairly small total fat loss in the first place, certainly nothing to write home about.

In Steady state vs. Interval Training: Explaining the Disconnect Part 2, I examined the potential of the hormonal response, blunted appetite (probably the real reason intervals show up as superior in studies with no diet control), and the simple fact that believing in intervals may get people training hard for a damn change. The simple fact is that, given that most people train like wimps, if you get them to work harder for a change, good things usually happen.

In an article on Exercise Efficiency, I examined yet another commonly held belief about steady state exercise, that efficiency improves drastically, reducing calorie burn. Simply, this is dead wrong, changes in efficiency take years of grinding effort (Lance Armstrong improved his efficiency by 1 percent per year and it took him 3-6 hours per day on the bike to do it) and only exert small effects on calorie burn anyhow. Of course there is the simple fact that, even if folks are getting more efficient during steady state, the workload can simply be increased during exercise to counteract this.

In a research review, I examined Metabolic Adaptations to Short-term High-intensity Interval Training, looking at the adaptations to short-term interval training. That paper made it clear that, at least in untrained individuals, fairly low volumes of high intensity training can induce adaptations similar to much longer duration steady state programs. While intriguing to be sure, there is the simple fact that this training was being done in isolation, there is also the question of whether beginners can even sustain the intensities or durations of interval training, along with the question of what happens after the first 2-6 weeks and whether or not the adaptations keep occurring (I’d note here that studies in trained endurance athletes show that interval training stops having much of an effect after about three weeks).

In Steady State vs. Interval Training: Summing Up Part 1, I made the point that all of the interval training studies or what have you have always been done in isolation. No hardcore fat loss or low-carb diet, no weight training, just intervals. I raised the question of why people are uncritically assuming that interval training three days per week can simply be added to the rest of training (or diet) without looking at the program as a whole. Because this is really at the core of the problems I’m seeing. People are taking isolated aspects of training and throwing them together without consideration of the whole effect.

In Steady State vs. Interval Training: Summing Up Part 2, I examined the three ‘prongs’ of current fat loss methodology that I currently see being abused. Those are very low-carb diets, interval training and metabolic weight training. Folks seem intent on not only taking the research on each individual component out of context but throwing it together in the training blender and hoping it sticks. And that’s before trainees, brainwashed by the silly idea that only intervals are effective decide to train more than three times per week. Folks are trying to do intervals 3-5 times per week with full body weight training several times per week while eating zero carbohydrates. And they are getting destroyed.

And finally that brings me to today where I can wrap up this series and move on to other things. As it turns out, I had already addressed this issue in some detail the article Steady State and Interval Training: Part 2. It basically summarizes what I think about how to best incorporate both interval and steady state training into a proper program for different athletes and folks of different training status (e.g. beginners, intermediates, athletes, bodybuilders, etc).

This is also a topic that I look at in some detail in the new Stubborn Fat Solution book because. Two of the protocols use intevals for very specific reasons so I had to address how to integrate them with other aspects of training so that dieters wouldn’t nuke themselves.

So that’s it, about a month of constant commentary. I’m sure I pissed some people off. Especially those for whom selling intervals to the masses is their bottom line. Something tells me I won’t get invited to the inner circle parties anymore. Hopefully I made some folks think about the advice they’re giving or taking or how they are training on a day-in, day-out basis.

But just in case, nobody has paid attention to a word of this, or simply missed the point, I’d sum up most of this by asking the following question:

If the typical high level athlete typically only performs, on average, two very high-intensity days of training per week, what makes the general trainee (seeking fat loss or whatever) think that they can or should do more?

More importantly, what makes the gurus, with all of their supposed years in the trenches training people, think it’s a good idea or something that that they should recommend in the first place?

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