Steady State and Interval Training: Part 2

In the Steady State and Interval Training: Part 1, I defined some terms and examined various pros and cons of both interval and steady state training. In this issue, I want to look at which type of activity might be best under certain specific training circumstances (note again: the focus here is on training for fat loss).

A couple of random comments

As mentioned in Part 1, interval training hurts. It’s difficult and you have to be willing to push to make them effective. Put differently, if someone is not going to work sufficiently hard at interval training, then there’s really no question about intervals versus aerobics. A half-effort interval workout doesn’t accomplish any of the things that interval training is trying to accomplish; if you aren’t willing to push yourself on the intervals, you should simply do regular aerobic training.

And, as mentioned in Part 1, thousands of people have lost fat without ever doing intervals. So while intervals may be more time efficient, and may generate more fat loss for the time invested, there’s certainly no requirement to do them to get leaned out. Can they be more effective under specific conditions? Absolutely. Are they mandatory to get lean? Of course not.

Additionally, I want to point out that intervals are not a year round kind of thing, even if that’s how people are using them. Endurance athletes typically only include them for intensive periods of 3-4 weeks, or occasionally for periods of up to 8 weeks. Yet somehow general fitness exercises are trying to do intervals year round. Folks shouldn’t be dieting more than 6-8 weeks without a break in the first place, they sure as shit shouldn’t be doing intervals for more than that without a break.

This is in addition to many people taking a good idea and being idiots about it; I have heard of people performing 2 hours of intervals (20 minutes on each piece of cardio equipment) following a lower body weight workout. That’s not productive training, that’s exercise addiction. I’ve heard of people doing intervals daily (or more). Elite endurance athletes typically only perform intervals 1-2X/week, what makes you think you need more?

Finally, and I’ll come back to this below, there’s no fundamental reason that this has to be an either/or choice in the first place. Endurance athletes typically do 3-5 steady state aerobics sessions and 1-2 interval sessions per week, there’s no reason that a dieter can’t do 2 interval sessions and 2-3 aerobic sessions/week as part of their fat loss efforts. Or, depending on the specifics of their training, a maximum of 3 interval sessions and 1-2 standard aerobic sessions.

Having said that, let’s look at some different population groups and how they might decide whether intervals or aerobics (or a combination of the two) might be best.

Beginners

A beginner just starting an exercise program will be best served with low to moderate intensity aerobics. They can begin to incorporate short intervals (15-30 seconds at a slightly higher intensity) after their first 4 weeks of regular training if desired. The only exception, as mentioned above would be something called aerobic interval training which is an entire separate topic.

Basically, beginners need to break in to aerobic training the way they break into any kind of training: slowly and gradually. Someone completely out of shape simply has no business working at the kinds of intensities demanded by interval training. The risk of injury is too high, the benefits too small. Even the original interval study (by Tremblay) had a 4 week break in period prior to beginning the intervals.

Once again, after 4 weeks or more of consistent aerobic training (where consistent means at least three times/week for a minimum of 20 minutes at a moderate intensity and beginners should gradually be increasing the duration of their cardio sessions as their fitness improves), beginners can begin to use interval training to continue improving fitness or increase fat loss. When intervals are first introduced, a small number of short intervals should be performed.

I would routinely have beginners start with 30-60 seconds pushing their normal cardio pace a bit and then resting for 4-4.5 minutes. This would be done throughout the entirety of their cardio session to begin introducing them to working a little bit more intensely. Over several weeks, the length of the interval would increase as the rest interval decreased.

Intermediate exercisers already involved in heavy weight training

This is where it gets more complicated because there are so many different ways that people might be training. As mentioned above, interval training is another high intensity workout and that has to be considered within the context of the overall training structure.

Local overtraining (of the legs) is a very real issue when you try to add interval training to a heavy leg training schedule. Someone who is trying to train legs twice (or more) per week and who adds intervals to that load can quickly run into problems. This applies to bodybuilders, powerlifters, and any other athlete who has to develop multiple capacities at once. There are a couple of solutions. This is why I didn’t include intervals in the Ultimate Diet 2.0; it already included 3-4 lower body workouts/week. Adding intervals would have just made overtraining a near guarantee.

The first is to cut back leg training (which should really be done on a diet anyhow, I’ll talk about training for fat loss in another newsletter) to reduce the overall training load. Basically, leg training should be moved to maintenance loads, with a reduction in volume, frequency, or both (intensity should never be reduced). If you were training legs for 6-8 sets twice/week you can cut back to 2-3 sets twice/week or perhaps 4 sets once/week and maintain leg strength (and size) for quite some time. Adding two days of intervals to your training, plus 1-2 regular aerobic sessions, works just fine (see comments below on sequencing). If leg training is cut back to once/week, or the volume performed more frequently is very low, intervals might be possible up to three times/week.

Athletes who need to lean out

This is another complicated situation because the term ‘athlete’ covers a lot of ground. Are we talking about an endurance cyclist who needs to drop some weight to be more effective on the climbs, a strength/power athlete who is cutting to make weight for a meet, a wrestler or boxer who needs to cut some fat.

The endurance athlete is probably already doing intervals and is already doing an absolute pile of long duration endurance training. Frankly, they are probably just better adding a bit more endurance work (30′ of extra low intensity stuff) to their main workouts or cutting back their calories a bit.

Strength/power athletes have to worry about any non-strength work cutting into their strength and performance. Many powerlifters, for example, perform a type of interval conditioning training involving sled dragging and this is arguably more specific to their sport. A great many of these types of athletes are also carrying a lot of body weight (whether muscle or body fat) and that makes high impact activities such as running a problem. Intervals can probably be worked in 1-2 days/week along with the addition of fairly low intensity (think brisk walking) cardio another 2-3 days/week. Overtraining and performance drop should be watched for closely.

Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders dieting, either for a contest, or to prepare for the next mass gaining phase, are somewhat separate from other athletes so I’m going to discuss them separately. Bodybuilding is, fundamentally, not a performance sport. So, strictly speaking, bodybuilders (unlike a powerlifter or olympic lifter) aren’t intensely concerned with poundage drops. However, dieting bodybuilders are concerned with muscle mass loss and this can be huge issue for naturals, especially if they are trying to reach contest shape.

Big drops in training poundages or intensity tends to cause muscle loss when you don’t have anabolics to stave it off; natural bodybuilders should be somewhat concerned of such. I would say that, contest bodybuilders, perhaps even moreso than the general public, has a tendency to overtrain on a diet. It’s not uncommon for bodybuilders to increase training frequency and volume, along with adding an absolute pile of aerobic activity (2 hours/day is not uncommon), all combined with a caloric deficit. This is, of course, illogical as hell: why would you add more training during the one time period you can’t adapt to it. Is it any wonder that natural bodybuilders overtrain and lose so much muscle trying to diet down?

To a great degree, I’d approach the choice of intervals versus aerobics for a bodybuilder similar to that of anybody else, even if I know most won’t listen to me: they should reduce their weight training volume and/or frequency during dieting. Intensity, in terms of weight on the bar should not be reduced. Basically they should do a handful of heavy sets to maintain muscle mass; if they simply must do more work, they can do some high rep short rest work akin to the depletion workouts in the Ultimate Diet 2.0 or something similar. There are a lot of metabolic type weight workouts (whether bodyweight, weight or kettlebell based) floating around.

To this, intervals can be added two to three times/week maximum with low to moderate intensity aerobic activity being performed several more times per week.

Sequencing training

Ok, I guess I could have really summed up the above by simply saying that beginners should stick with plain old aerobics and everybody else will need to either

  1. Cut back their leg training to incorporate intervals
  2. Just stick with regular aerobic training

In any event, I want to talk a bit about how to sequence intervals with weight training. I’m going to assume that the person in question is training lower body twice/week, doing intervals twice per week and doing aerobics on 2-3 other days. That would at least be close to an ideal situation under most circumstances.

There are basically two ways to go about it. The first is to do the interval workouts on non-leg training days. The advantage to this is that you get to be fresher for all of the workouts, since they are all being done rested. The disadvantage is that the chances of overtraining are higher because legs are being trained intensely 4 days/week. That is, if you do interval training 2X/week and train legs 2X/week on separate days, your legs are getting hit hard 4 days/week. This can be too much.

My preferred method is to do the interval training on the same days as your leg training. Preferably the workouts would be split up (i.e. intervals in the morning, weights in the evening, or vice versa) but that isn’t always possible. Intervals can be done after lower body lifting but I’d highly recommend staying away from anything that requires coordination. Trying to run sprints after heavy leg training is an excellent way to blow out your knee or turn an ankle; doing intervals before lifting just makes your lifting inefficient. You wouldn’t want to exhaust yourself with interval training before weights either, another excellent way to get hurt.

So let’s say we have an individual using a 4 day/week upper/lower split routine who wants to do 2 days of intervals and 2 days of aerobic training. Here’s how I would suggest sequencing it.

  • Monday AM: Intervals PM: Lower body weights
  • Tuesday AM: Aerobics PM: Upper body weights
  • Wednesday: Off (brisk walking would be allowed for active recovery)
  • Thursday: AM: Intervals PM: Lower body weights
  • Friday: AM: Aerobics PM: Upper body weights
  • Saturday Off (brisk walking would be allowed for active recovery)
  • Sunday: Completely off (everyone should take at least one day off per week).

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