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Steady State vs. Intervals in Real World Training – Q&A

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I got the following question in the comments section of one of the articles on interval vs. steady state training. In response, a poster named Roland asked the following

“Most of them tell people to do the intervals after the weights, so what kind of energy to they have left to do any hard intervals? Not much. But, if they said to do 30 minutes of cardio, how slow would they pedal? Pretty damn slow.I’m torn between thinking that they (the trainers) are outright wrong, and thinking that they know you’re right, and just choose to allow the trainee to believe that this is the best way because it drives them to work harder. I don’t think the average fat loss client works out all that hard with the weights, anyway. They are often newbies to weights and simply don’t know what they are capable of, so they go low. They do steady state cardio at a pretty low intensity, too. Intervals might be the only thing they do with any intensity. They KNOW intervals should be “brutal,” but since they only last 20-30 seconds each, they do them.”

Ok, let’s look at this since it is a good point. First off, I’d note that in the article Steady State vs. Intervals: Explaining the Disconnect Part 2, I specifically mentioned ‘making people work hard for a damn change’ as one reason that intervals might be generating superior results in the real world. No doubt, getting the average trainee who thinks they are working hard but really aren’t to go actually put out some intensity for a change is a good thing.

Tangentially: a lot of why a many systems of diet or training ‘work’ is because, at the end of the day, most non-idiotic approaches to diet or training will ‘work’. A lot of it is convincing the reader/trainee/dieter that the system is valid because, if they believe in them, they will follow them. And as long as the program isn’t truly ridiculous, it will then ‘work’. So, assuredly, if someone has been convinced that intervals are ‘superior’ by silly rhetoric and bad science and that causes them to actually work their balls off for a change, that will be of some benefit.

At least until they blow up from too much high-intensity training for too long on too few calories. Then they’ll end up on my forum asking how to ‘fix a broken metabolism’ or seeking out ‘adrenal fatigue’ supplements but I digres….. However, if you’re actually talking about a total newbie who is pansying around in the weight room, I’m not sure about the realities of them going and truly pushing hard on intervals. They may think they are but, the reality will likely be far different (in the same way they think they are working hard in the weight room and really aren’t). I just don’t see the average newbie willing to push themselves that hard. Which is, of course, a point I made in the article Steady State and Interval Training Part 1. As con #5 of intervals, I specifically listed

“Intervals hurt, especially intervals in the 60-90 second range where muscular acid levels are very high. If you’re not willing to push yourself, you won’t get much out of interval training.”

I simply find it hard to believe that a beginner who isn’t working hard in the weight room is going to magically start working hard on intervals just because they are short. Again, I’m sure they think they are but the intensity required to make intervals productive or worthwhile is very high. And the required intensity actually goes UP as the duration of the interval goes DOWN. I guess, after nearly 20 years of observing trainees in commercial gyms, I find it unlikely that:

  • A beginner is going to generate that level of intensity without a trainer or researcher standing there screaming at them to push
  • Someone who has trashed themselves in the weight room is going to have the energy to put much into intervals unless they drastically cut their weight volume back (and note that the interval guys are usually pushing intervals AFTER fatiguing metabolic weight training). And this was sort of the point I made in part 2 of the article on the main site along with last week’s blog posts: when trying to incorporate interval training into a training program, something else has to be cut back, reduced or even removed.

But that’s not what I see being recommended or advocated. People are being told to work harder, more often, WHILE cutting calories and carbs. Whether they are or not is probably debatable; for every person I see blasting themselves daily with intervals on top of too much weight training and just trashing themselves, there are probably 10 more who are just going through the motions and wondering why they haven’t become a FAT BURNING FURNACE (TM). The whole point of intervals is the intensity used (duration of course plays a role but intensity is the more major factor).

If you can’t go hard (either b/c you’re a newbie and don’t know how, or your tired from previous training), I would argue that it will have LESS benefit than a half-hour (or whatever) of proper steady state. Ten to fifteen minutes of half-effort intervals won’t burn many calories during the bout, you sure won’t get any HUGE EPOC benefit so all you’ve done is convinced yourself that you’ve done more than you have. I just don’t think you can have it both ways. You can’t argue in one breath that intervals are superior because of the intensity and then argue that noobs or tired trainees are going to get a benefit doing it more often (or after an excessive weight workout) if they aren’t actually able to go hard in the first place.

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