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Steady State vs. Interval Training: Summing Up Part 1

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In the previous article, I looked at research examining The Metabolic Effects to Short-term High-intensity Interval Training.

Summing up briefly, it showed quite clearly that, at least in relatively untrained individuals, a short-term (2-6 week) program of high-intensity interval training (workouts typically done three times per week) can generate similar adaptations to longer duration training.

In that post, I finished by asking the following questions:

There’s no doubt (and I haven’t intended to suggest otherwise) that high intensity interval training can have benefits. It’s time effective and may induce similar performance adaptations to longer duration traditional cardio. With regards endurance athletes, it’s clear that even short periods of low volume interval training can have rather large benefits for performance.

But with most of the benefits seeming to occur with only a handful of sessions per week (2-3 is the norm) and with benefits appearing to end fairly quickly (3-6 weeks), we might ask what a trainee should do when either

  1. They need to train more frequently than that
  2. They are looking at their training over a period longer than a few weeks. That is, if interval training stops providing benefits after 3-6 weeks, what should a trainee do for the remaining 46-49 weeks out of the year?

There is also the issue of how intervals integrate with training when OTHER TYPES OF TRAINING (e.g. weight training) are being done. That is, what happens if someone is training their legs heavily in the weight room twice/week. How realistic is it to then add high intensity interval training to that workload?

As well, what happens when someone (e.g. an athlete or obsessive exerciser) is trying to train daily? What happens then in terms of how they structure their week? If you take much of the current guru-speak (e.g. intervals are the only beneficial way to train) at face value, you end up developing a training week that no human being can survive.

And that’s where I want to start today since this will let me start to put everything together to close out this particular blog post series.

To my knowledge, pretty much every study done comparing interval training to steady state (in terms of fat loss or metabolic adaptation) has done it in isolation. The subjects were neither dieting nor doing any other form of training.

Such as weight training.

As well, the frequencies were strictly controlled in those studies. In the performance studies, typically endurance athletes replaced a small portion of their total volume (15%) with intervals. Generally 6 sessions over 3 weeks (or 2 per week) were done. In the paper I reviewed Friday, the subjects did three interval sessions per week and nothing else. Again, that’s true of most of these studies. Oh yeah, the subjects weren’t dieting, of course.

Even in the now famous Tabata study, where the subjects were doing the four minute workout four days per week (the fifth day was a partial Tabata protocol with some steady state training), that’s all they were doing. They weren’t lifting, they weren’t doing any other kind of training, just going through hell on the bike.

So why are all the gurus assuming, uncritically, that interval training can simply be ‘tacked-on’ to a heavy weight training workout without problems? Or added to a calorie restricted diet without any problems? Why are trainees assuming the same thing?

Because, in addition to the current focus on interval training as apparently the ONLY way to train or lose fat, there has been a renewed interest in full body workouts (often of the metabolic type of training with high reps and short rests). I’ll come back to that and the diet issue in more detail on Wednesday, I want to stay focused here.

So we have people who are trying to hit legs in the weight room three times per week. Sometimes its heavy, sometimes it’s metabolic stuff, sometimes it’s a combination of the two. And then add intervals to that training load. Now, if they are smart and/or lucky, they end up ONLY training three times per week. At least that way their legs are only getting hammered (and I mean totally hammered) on those three days.

And, you know…whatever. I guess if someone only has three hours to train per week and can’t fit in any more training, they might as well blow themselves out every day and just go hard. Of course, this still doesn’t address what happens when intervals stop working at the 6 week mark (as they very well might) but, again, whatever.

If you have three sessions of an hour per week and that’s all you can train, you might as well make it as time efficient as possible. Do metabolic weight room stuff for 25 minutes, intervals for 20 minutes and that leaves 15 for warm-ups and cool-downs. As long as the other four days per week are completely off, this might be workable. For a while anyhow.

And you know, if the various ‘HIIT plus metabolic weight training for the win’ gurus would make the above very clear, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with what’s being said. I still think it will eventually burn people out and that periodizing the type of training done will work better but that’s an argument nobody wins so I’m not going to bother with it.

I would also note that nobody can say if the adaptation benefits to HIIT continues past 6 weeks in beginners. It’s clear that it more or less stops after three weeks in trained folks (even in the much talked about Tabata study, the major benefits happened by week 3 with only small further benefits at week 6).

But recall my question from above, what happens when athletes (or dieters), want to train more than three days per week. Because they usually do. Can they simply do more and more and more intervals (or complexes or whatever)? The answer, as you might guess, is no.

And that’s where I’m seeing real problems. I’m seeing people, having been convinced by spurious logic (bordering on outright bullshit) that ONLY intervals are productive training or useful for fat loss, that magically steady state can MAKE YOU FATTER, trying to do nothing but interval training.

Added to three full body workouts per week.

While restricting both calories and carbs.

This is absurd.  This is beyond absurd.

A quick tangent: Wanna know what I think about ‘adrenal fatigue’? I think that in 99% of cases, it’s simply overtraining being brought on by people following the idiotic training advice being currently given. If these people would simply stop training in such a retarded fashion, the current fad of ‘adrenal fatigue’ would simply go away in most cases. But that’s another blog for another day.

Anyhow, recall from above that high level endurance athletes typically only add interval training twice per week, replacing some of their weekly volume. And they aren’t usually weight training. The rest of their volume, about 85% of it is low intensity aerobic work.

As I discussed in Pole Vaulting for a Hot Body, 400 meter runners (who aren’t doing true ‘interval’ training anyhow) only train maximally twice per week. The rest is extensive tempo (essentially low intensity work).

Most elite powerlifters only train legs hard twice per week (and many train heavily once per week and lighter the other), the ones who train more frequently use much lower intensities (and often take drugs to support the training). And, yes, Olympic lifters usually squat daily, but a lot of it is low intensity and they take years to build up to that level (and of course, use a lot of drugs to support that level of training).

This is fairly common, most high performance athletes don’t even try to do more than two high intensity workouts per week for the legs (I’m focusing on the legs here since most interval modes use the lower body and this is the muscle group that is most commonly overtrained).

These are highly trained athletes who are usually eating plenty to support their training.

Even contest dieting bodybuilders, who are usually trotted out as the ones to emulate for fat loss typically move to a split routine with primarily low intensity cardio for maximal fat loss. Yes, some are now incorporating interval sessions such as my stubborn fat protocols but, the majority of their training is low intensity.

And that’s with a reduction in leg training frequency (one of my primary guinea pigs for the Stubborn Fat Protocol 2.0 cut his leg training back to only once per week to avoid overtraining his legs due to the intensity of the SFP2.0). And the legs often still fall apart after an endless contest diet.

Yet somehow the general public has gotten the idea that they can train legs heavy in the weight room 2-3 times/week (because full body workouts are in vogue) AND add intervals multiple times per week to that load (because ONLY interval training is productive apparently). While restricting calories and carbs. And this is being promoted in various media (books, e-books, blogs, etc) as the thing to do.

Did I mention that this was completely idiotic?

Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-intervals. Clearly they are time efficient and productive in many ways. But they are also a high intensity training session for the legs and have to be counted as such. And they have to be considered within the context of the complete program including any other types of training (whether for aesthetics or performance) and diet.

And this is what is not being done for the most part. People are simply taking isolated data points about diet or training and assuming that they can be stuck together to provide maximal results. And this is getting them into trouble.

The series continues in Steady State vs. Interval Training Summing Up Part 2

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