The Great Cardio Debate — Part 3: The Case for Steady State Cardio

Amanda Young

In my previous post, I presented the pros and cons of interval training and now it’s time to examine the other- decidedly less glamorous- side of cardiovascular training…steady state cardio. Doesn’t sound nearly as fancy as “high intensity interval training”, does it?? While the name makes it sound like a snooze-fest, this is where modern fitness for the masses began…Jazzercise and Jogging.

Now, perhaps it’s the images of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, or your great aunt Bessie that are burned into your head that make it seem so “retro” and dated but we’ve come a long way baby. No matter how you feel about steady state cardio, I don’t believe that it’ll ever truly be dead…and nor should it be.

So what is it exactly? Steady state cardio (SSC) truly as simple as it gets people. It’s a workout or activity that is performed at a consistent, steady effort for an extended period of time- and you sorta just hold-it-right-there. If you are to maintain a constant effort over a longer duration, obviously the effort has to be significantly lower than during a HIIT session (if it’s not, I’d question whether you are REALLY doing those intervals). For some people, SSC is walking on treadmill at a moderate pace (perhaps at a slight incline) for 30 minutes and for others it may mean running, rowing or busting a move on the dance floor for an hour.

Okay, let’s get to it. The upsides of SSC:

  • It’s easier on the body, allowing for faster post-workout recovery, which makes it excellent for beginners and means it can be done more frequently than HIIT or strength training
  • Helps increase blood flow to damaged muscle tissues, enhancing recovery in the days following tougher HIIT or strength training workouts
  • Conditions the aerobic system like nothing else which (by the way) is responsible for a whole bunch of essential bodily functions like breathing, blood circulation, digestion, walking, sitting, sleeping, and the list goes on and on and on…Translation: if you have a crappy aerobic engine, every function your body does daily (whether it’s a conscious function or not) has the potential to be crappy too; conversely, by having a super-awesome well-oiled aerobic engine, every function will likely improve
  • Even your HIIT performance will improve with SSC because anaerobic efforts rely heavily on your aerobic system to get you back to normal during those rest intervals
  • The meditative, zen-like effect of locking in a pace and just cruising can be just what the doctor ordered in our chaotic lives when it’s hard to shut down and chill out
  • Makes it easier to maintain muscle mass because going above this moderate effort zone (like a HIIT workout) can cause your body to look to lean muscle as an energy source
  • Leads to a lower resting heart rate so you’ll have a rocking cardiovascular system AND be more stress-resilient, better able to relax and focus, and less tightly-wound (you know who you are…)

Wow, so what can’t SSC do? I mean this sounds like the answer to all your prayers, right? Well, I’d like to say: “why yes, SSC is the only workout you’ll ever need” but it’s not so I won’t. Frankly, SSC also has some significant limitations as well:

  • It won’t create that HIIT-induced afterburn since it isn’t stressing your body out as much
  • If fat loss (as opposed to weight loss) is your goal, SSC isn’t nearly as effective at torching fat cells as some other workouts
  • Some say “zen” and other say “BOOOOR-ing”- the monotony of SSC can be a bit maddening
  • Not only can it be mind-numbing but it can also feel like it takes…a…really…long…time…
  • AND it actually does take longer, a problem because time is a luxury many of us do not have
  • Repeating the exact same movement over and over with little or no variation (common in SSC) contributes to a higher number of overuse injuries among SSC-addicts
  • It’s not really effective for building muscle or increasing strength and/or power

I know, I know. I did it again. Wrapped it all up so nicely in a box with a pretty bow, only to smash the box by telling you that SSC is also not the magic pill. What can I say? Our bodies are extremely complex machines. Once again, the verdict is that SSC should not be the only tool in your toolbox. By the way, I hope by now that you’re seeing the pattern developing here.

Anyway, the primary take-away for this post is that SSC is a simple, no-frills, less stressful way to burn a whole pile of calories while improving the strength of your ticker- you know, that one muscle in your body that has to contract and relax, all day, every day, to keep you alive. Word to the wise: there are no days off for your heart so I suggest you be VERY nice to it!

One other critical take-away here is that while there has been a lot of SSC-bashing lately, its benefits are universally functional and easily translatable to daily life. This is so important because studies have shown that when people recognize the benefits of what they are doing daily, in everyday functions and tasks, they’re more likely to keep at it. Although, on the other hand, if the boredom and repetition are driving you bonkers, you’re probably not gonna stick with it in the long-term anyway…and there I go again with the back-and-forth! Sorry!!

Hopefully, there’ll be more definitive conclusions in my next post. Stay tuned…

Read Coach Alison’s full cardio series:

Part 1: Is Cardio Really King??
Part 2: The Case for Interval Training