Steady State vs. Interval Training: Summing Up Part 2

Before continuing I want to point everyone to a link that Chris Highcock of the Conditioning Research blog sent me regarding the issue of interval vs. long duration training for endurance athletes. It’s from the excellent Master’s Athlete Physiology and Performance page and has a great deal of absolutely excellent training information. You’ll note that the main thrust of that page is identical to what I’ve written in previous blog posts: the idea that high-intensity interval training can make up all or even the majority of training for athletes is utterly misguided.

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In Steady State vs. interval training: Summing up Part 1, I started to put together some of the information I’m blogging about by making a point about the types of problems I’m seeing in practice with the pro-interval myopia. Simply: given that a majority of trainees train more frequently than 3X/week, once they have been convinced that intervals are the only way to train, problems start. They end up trying to do intervals at every session, in addition to a heavy weight training load for the legs and they blow up.

But thats’ not the only problem I’m seeing and, today, I want to take another side-trip to look at the three distinct parts of what is currently being given to trainees in terms of how they should be training.

In a recent commercial fat loss product I listened to (yes, I have to read everything, even the stuff I know will be garbage) pretty much every interviewee’s answers can be summed up as

  • Intervals are best for fat loss
  • Metabolic weight training is the best for fat loss
  • Low-carb diets are best for fat loss

With the standard spurious arguments given for each.

What’s going on here, why are these three things coming up again and again and what’s the problem with what’s being recommended?

Simply, the problem I see is that people are taking a number of isolated data points (e.g. individual studies looking at only one thing) and assuming that, if they put all of those concepts together, thing will work even better. This is even assuming that the study results in question are actually saying what people say they are saying. Let me look at that quickly first.

For example, the superiority of intervals is usually based on the supposed afterburn/EPOC, an idea that research into EPOC shows is irrelevant. And even looking at the (non-diet controlled) studies comparing intervals to steady state, the results are hardly anything to write home about. Half a kilogram more fat over 20 weeks, a pound over 12 weeks, whatever. Yeah, you’ll be ripped by 2032 at that rate. Do intervals have advantages over steady state in some ways? Yes. But steady state has its own set of advantages (not the least of which that it can be done daily which interval can’t, or rather shouldn’t).

Both are simply tools with their own sets of pros and cons.

The one study suggesting a massive caloric expenditure from metabolic weight training has never been replicated and, while metabolic weight training may have other advantages (such as glycogen depletion, etc.) it also has limitations (not the least of which is that it’s an inferior way to maintain muscle mass on a diet). To say that metabolic weight training is de-facto superior is simplistically dumb and completely incorrect. All types of weight training are simply tools with their own sets of pros and cons and should be used accordingly.

I don’t want to get into detail on the lowcarb thing just yet, that could be another entire series of blog posts, especially with the low-carb retards coming out of the woodworks after the publication of Gary Taube’s book “Good calories, Bad Calories” (I’ll do a detailed review when I get a chance). Sufficed to say that while low-carb diets may have their advantages, they aren’t magic. At least one study have suggested exactly zero advantage over lowered carbohydrate but non-ketogenic diet when calories are controlled. Low-carb diets are simply one tool with its own sets of pros and cons.

The studies that low-carb advocates always like to cite are invariably not calorie controlled. And while the subjects may report that they are eating the same amount, this is unlikely to be the case. If low-carb diets have an advantage, it’s that most people spontaneously eat less. The only metabolic advantage is that, people on lowcarb diets are eating less calories.

But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that all three of the statements above are actually true, at least when studied in isolation. Let’s assume that intervals are superior to steady state, that metabolic weight training is best for fat loss and low-carb diets are superior for fat loss. At least by themselves.

What happens when you throw them all together?

In this case, some bad things. Because while glycogen depletion can improve fat loss (a point I made over 10 years ago in The Ketogenic Diet and used for a specific goal in the Ultimate Diet 2.0, even if everybody is only now jumping on that bandwagon), the simple fact is that high-intensity training can NOT be sustained in the long-term without dietary carbohydrate. Eventually glycogen gets depleted, performance falls off and folks overtrain.

Yet now we have people trying to remove all carbohydrates from their diet, while doing glycogen depleting metabolic weight training while trying to add glycogen depleting interval work three or more times per day. Because we have a bunch of gurus who took several isolated data points (of potentially limited validity in the first place), threw them in the training program blender and vomited out some real stupidity.

And that’s where the problem is coming in. It’s a training load that almost nobody could survive with adequate dietary carbohydrates (recall, as I’ve mentioned previously and the link at the front of this blog post clearly shows, most athletes don’t do intervals more than twice per week yet the average trainee thinks that doing them every day is a good idea) and folks are trying to maintain that for weeks on end without any carbs.

Which isn’t to say that elements of each of the above data points can’t be used, just that they need to be applied and properly.

Does metabolic weight training have its role? Absolutely. I used depletion work at the start of the UD2 cycle to deplete glycogen and improve fat oxidation and offered it as a possible way of generating a certain hormonal response in the Stubborn Fat Solution for Protocols 3 and 4.

Obviously intervals have their place for both fat loss and performance and they are used as part of two of the four protocols in the Stubborn Fat Solution and can be used during other diets for various reasons. The main point, and the thing that it’s time for people to realize is that interval training:

  • Can’t be done every damn day
  • Can’t be done forever without a break

And, of course low-carbohydrate diets have their place (my first book was a 300 page treatise on the technical aspects of low-carbohydrate diets so clearly I feel that they have their place). Again, the first 4 days of the UD2 cycle is low-carbs (prior to a three day very high-carb refeed), and one of the four protocols in the Stubborn Fat Solution is based around the fact that chronic low-carbohydrate diets can help mobilize stubborn body fat.

But that doesn’t mean that low-carb diets are magically de facto superior for fat loss or anything else. Especially if people want or need to perform a good bit of high-intensity training. Carbs will be required in that situation, whether they are consumed daily or during some type of cyclical diet is less relevant than the fact that they will be required at some point.

Essentially, if you want to completely remove carbs from your diet, the amount of high-intensity training of any sort will have to be reduced. And if you want to do a lot of high-intensity training, you will need carbs in your diet. Either diet determines the training or training determines the diet. But trying to do both often causes major problems.

Are you getting my point here? Not only have people completely lost their minds with the pro-interval rhetoric (developing training loads that no athlete would consider doing), it ends up being combined with two other variables that end up making the problem worse.

The body can only handle so much heavy training, which is why most of the training that most athletes do is low-intensity. Yet we have a situation, and I know I sound like a fucking broken record, where people are trying to sustain training loads that are simply inhuman in the first place. They want to add too many interval sessions to too much heavy weight training AND do it under conditions of both severe carbohydrate and caloric restriction.

And, at long last, the series finishes with Steady State vs. Interval Training: A Conclusion