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Steady State vs. Intervals: Summing Up

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.

Isolation or Integration

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.

Where the Problems Start

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).

Repeating The Question

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.

Back to the Topic at Hand

In addition to the problems I described above, there are others.  So let me take a 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.

The Supposed Superiority of Interval Training

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.

Low-Carb Diets

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 zealots 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.

How to Combine All of the Above 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.

Conclusion

While I covered a lot of information in the past series of articles, I want to sum up briefly.  First let me make it clear that I’m not anti-HIIT.  Like all training methodologies it has its place in training along with its own set of pros and cons.   The main point I’m trying to make is that the current fascination with HIIT to the exclusion of all other types of training is nonsensical.  This is even moreso the case in a fat loss situation when you have people throwing it together with other dietary and training approaches with no consideration for their interaction.

The simple fact is that high level athletes rarely perform more than 2 HIIT sessions in a given week.  The simple reality is that you’re not an elite athlete and the idea that you can or even should do more is folly.    HIIT is a tool.  Like any tool it can be used improperly.  And trying to do it daily is using it improperly.

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