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HIIT Cardio vs. Steady State

7301-prime4Q: I’m in a quandary! I’m 50, preparing for a show. I’ve done cardio both ways, high intensity and low intensity. I get results either way, but I feel less drained, especially during contest prep, with lower-intensity cardio. It works really well for me in spite of everyone’s jumping on the HIIT bandwagon these days. Are you still doing low-intensity fasted cardio?

A: That’s a good question, especially considering all of the attention that high-intensity cardio has been getting. The important point to keep in mind is your goal. For bodybuilders, physique competitors, figure competitors or anyone who loves to pump iron and look muscular, your goal when dieting and/or doing cardio is to drop bodyfat without dropping any of your hard-earned muscle. You’ve spent months in the off-season busting your butt to add muscle overall and to bring up any weak points. You certainly don’t want to sacrifice any of that muscle in your cutting phase.

Here are my hard-and-fast rules of thumb for cardio:


• Don’t let your cardio interfere with your recovery from weight training.

• Give yourself at least one week for every pound of bodyfat you need to lose.

• Start doing your cardio sessions first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.

• Start with a minimal amount of cardio, 15 to 20 minutes per day.

When it comes to dropping bodyfat, that’s what I tell everyone. I also tell people, “Do as little cardio as you can get away with while dropping fat at the rate you need to drop it.”

Add cardio time gradually and only as necessary.

When you hit fat-loss plateaus, add more cardio sessions per day.

Yes, I still do quite a bit of my cardio at steady state. I would call it moderate intensity, at 70 to 80 percent of max heart rate. I do throw in some high intensity—90 to 100 percent of max heart rate—regularly and strategically, but I don’t want it to interfere with my recovery.

For example, I usually do my weight training in the late morning or early afternoon. I don’t want to do a high-intensity morning cardio session on my hard leg day. Typically, I’ll do a moderate-intensity session that morning so that my legs are not fatigued when I hit the squat rack.

I will also stick with moderate-intensity cardio on the day after my hard leg workout so that my legs have a chance to recover from the severe bombardment they received the previous day. That leaves me five more days in the week where I can alternate moderate intensity steady-state cardio with HIIT sessions. If I’m walking around at work and my legs are feeling very fatigued or sore, then my next cardio session is going to be moderate intensity steady state. If everything is feeling good, relatively speaking, I’m going to kick up the intensity at my next session.

Sometimes my work schedule will dictate the type of cardio that I do. When I’m crunched for time (which has been quite often this fall), I opt for high intensity. One of the strategies that I’ve employed this year is to spike my heart rate (to 95 to 100 percent of max) early in a cardio session and then back down to 80 percent for 15 to 20 minutes. I get on a Lifecycle and start with an easy two-minute warmup. Then I try to reach max heart rate as quickly as possible, which usually takes about five minutes. After that, 80 percent feels easy!

Another consideration when planning your contest preparations is giving yourself enough time to lose the fat slowly and methodically. In order to drop the fat without losing muscle along with it, give yourself at least one week for each pound of bodyfat that you need to lose. If you’re not quite certain how much you are going to need to lose, include a two-to-three-week cushion If you’re ready early, you can increase your calories and/or decrease your cardio. That’s the best possible position to be in.

That said, on the occasions that I’ve been ready a couple of weeks early, I started freaking out, wondering if I could maintain it for two more weeks. Trust me, it’s much easier to get lean and maintain for a couple of weeks than to push your contest prep down to the wire. The freaking out is just the bodybuilder “going mental.”

A question that I often get is, When should I do my cardio? And should I do it fasted or not? That’s an area of debate among trainers. In my three decades of doing my own contest prep and working with hundreds of clients, I have found that doing cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach has an almost magical fat-burning effect. When I’ve tried to rationalize that it would be more beneficial to sleep a little longer and do the same amount of cardio when I had a break later in the day, it just didn’t work the same. I’ve seen numerous clients experience the same thing.

Yes, there are some coaches (whom I greatly admire and trust) who say that you will get a better fat-burning effect and spare muscle if you take in a little food before your first cardio session. In my experience fasted cardio works best. If you are concerned about tapping into protein for energy, take some BCAAs prior to training, or sip on Xtend while doing your morning cardio.

How much cardio should you do? Everyone who’s interested in getting lean asks that question. As I said above, you want to do as little cardio as you can get away with while dropping fat at the necessary rate. That can vary tremendously from person to person, and it can vary for one person from year to year, depending on circumstances. I’ve had years that I’ve ended up doing two hours plus per day trying to rid myself of the last tiny bit of fat (that wasn’t water I was holding), while in other years I’ve done little to no cardio and gotten shredded.

Always start with a minimal amount, say 15 to 20 minutes per day. If you hit plateaus or have to speed up the process, you will need to add cardio time. If you start out with a shitload, you might end up having to do five shitloads by the time you reach your contest. Who has time to do that much cardio? Start small and gradually add minutes or sessions as needed to keep the fat coming off.

My first strategy when I hit a plateau is to add an evening session—again, not overly long, maybe 20 to 30 minutes of moderate intensity or 10 to 12 minutes of high intensity. From there you can either gradually increase the intensity of your cardio or increase the volume. In years that my metabolism was slower, I would sometimes do three to five short cardio sessions per day. I remember one year in which every time I needed to wait on a late client, I just hopped on the treadmill or exercise bike and burned calories for five or 10 minutes while I waited. When the fat is stubborn about coming off, every little bit helps.

So, that’s all of my wisdom concerning cardio. Just don’t forget about nutrition. You can do all of the HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio you want, but if your diet isn’t right, you’ll be spinning your wheels. But that’s a subject for another column. Give these ideas a spin, and figure out what is best for you and your body. Contest prep involves a lot of trial and error—because everybody is different.

Editor’s note: See Dave Goodin’s blog at Click on Blogs in the top menu bar. Check out his new Web site at To contact Dave directly, send e-mail to [email protected]IM


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