Cardio 101 – Exploring Steady State, Complexes & High-Intensity Interval Training

Everyone hates cardio.

Well some people have embraced it – first as a necessary evil to reach a specific fat loss goal, then eventually as an OCD-driven compulsion, afraid that they are going to reach “lifted out of the side of the bedroom by a crane” levels of obesity if they miss two cardio sessions in a row.

Okay, perhaps I am exaggerating. The truth is, that MOST of us aren’t cardio fans, but do see the usefulness of it.

I listened in once as two friends of mine had an interesting debate on cardio. Both were exercise phys students, one coming from the endurance sport world and the other a competitive powerlifter. The 158-pound triathlete said, “I want to be functional. With all due respect, at 262-pounds you could not run if you had to.

My other friend grinned and said, “At 262-pounds, I never NEED to run from anything.

I suspect that most of us nod our heads in agreement but also understand that, for longevity’s sake, we sometimes need to lean out and step up onto the treadmill, bike or elliptical.

Skim through any issue of Powerlifting USA and you see practically an ongoing-obituary column (many from cardio-vascular disease) and a recent trend for top powerlifters to enlist bodybuilding coaches like Justin Harris, John Berardi or Shelby Starnes to cut away excess weight. The combo of good diet and fat burning cardio has them looking better, lifting strong in lighter weight classes and hopefully living longer.

The Devil, broken down into 3

With cardio, we have three major styles: steady-state, anaerobic complexes and high-intensity interval training (HIIT):

Steady-State Cardio

Once considered the king of aerobic fat-burners, steady-state cardio (long, slow sessions geared towards keeping your heart rate within a particular fat-burning zone) has fallen from its lofty perch in recent years. Why? Quite simply, its ability to preferentially burn bodyfat stores (in contrast to stored glycogen or aminos) just has not been shown to reliably work. It does little to affect EPOC (Excessive Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) which has a much bigger effect on fat burning long after the workout ends.

When is it used? It is good for the first two weeks of the program for those that are “aerobically-deconditioned.” Go for 30 minutes at fast walking pace. Use breathing as your barometer of pace. The old rule “walk at a pace that allows you to converse,” is good advice.

Metabolic Training Complexes

These are the current king of lean muscle cardio protocols, which is why you see them used to get Hollywood stars (like the cast of “300”) into action hero shape. Metabolic Training is short and intense and, best of all, is not done on a treadmill or stepper.

This involves the performance four or more bodyweight or weight training exercises in giant-set fashion. This is similar to the GPP/Core Series I have recommended in previous articles as a pre-workout warm-up, except you will be using heavier weights.

Kettlebells (see Kettlebells for the Uninitiated) are particularly well-suited to this type of training since they allow for fast lifts (KB Snatches, Swings or Squat Thrusts) that don’t require years of biomechanics training with an Olympic coach. Rep speed dramatically impacts the effect on your metabolism. Doing snatches with a pair of 45-pound kettlebells moves a lot of weight from floor to overhead at a fast pace. Try one minute of these and they will get you sucking air hard.

KettleBells – A good choice for Complexes

To setup a metabolic training complex, choose a handful of compound exercises that work a majority of the prime movers of the body in one series.

For example:

1) Push-ups
2) Burpees
3) Dumbbell Clean-and-Press
4) V-up Leg Raises
5) Under-grip Chins

Move directly from one exercise to the other (no rest) and do three to four of these series with a 60-90 second rest period between them (no rest between exercises).

When doing these for metabolic conditioning, I recommend 6-10 reps (you can go higher in reps with some exercises that rely on bodyweight, such as chins, push-ups). You can also mix sprints or jump-roping between each exercise for variety.

Metabolic training complexes tend to be best for days off, particularly the second day of a two-day gym break. They may be too intense for a first thing in the morning workout following a low carb day.

For a more in-depth article on Complexes, check out Complexes for Fat Loss.

HIIT – High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT is the bodybuilder’s choice for fat- burning. It involves periods of sprints (60-90 seconds) interspersed with recovery periods of 60-180 seconds in which you just walk at a fast pace.

If you are like me, you will enjoy the fact that, while steady-state cardio doesn’t seem to cause you to breathe hard or break a sweat until 6-7 minutes into the workout, the first sprint of a HIIT session while get you further into the sweat zone than you ever get in a steady-state session. Twenty minutes is plenty of time to get it done with HIIT. As you progress, increase your speeds in both the sprint and recovery phases, increase sprint times, and reduce recovery periods.

The beauty of HIIT is that it is “front loaded.” By that, I mean that you have the advantage of reaching a metabolically stimulating state faster. I find with steady state cardio it seems to take eight to ten minutes for me to even feel a significant increase in my core temperature or respiratory rate. With high-intensity interval training, I am gasping for air after my first sprint interval.

For those new to HIIT, we want to give you some basic progressions to break into it gradually. While lifters have the natural tendency to rush everything, there is something to be said for working your way patiently through the levels. You may be able to jump into Level Five on your first day, through sheer force of will, but the speed of your sprint and moderate phases will be slower than they would be if you had let yourself build conditioning.

Also, why do more than you require if you are enhancing your conditioning and burning fat with a cardio session of lower intensity and duration? It’s like swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer.

Keep in mind that, although we use the term “sprint,” HIIT Cardio does not need to be done through jogging (on a track, trails or treadmill). You can just as effectively perform it on an elliptical, bike, Airdyne, rower, stepmill or whatever cardio device you prefer.

High-Intensity Interval Training – Basic Progressions

The Warm-up period is a gradual increase in rate to warm-up to the moderate jog.

Moderate varies widely depending on your conditioning. At Levels One through Three, this is the fastest walk possible without breaking into a jog. At levels Four and Five, it is a slow jog done at whatever pace allows you to recover from your sprint.

High is full-on, gasping-for-air sprinting, whether one a track, treadmill, bike or elliptical.

The Cool down is a self-explanatory two-minute period to reduce your heart rate slightly and ease back into the non-jogging world.

These are just examples, and you can adapt as needed. Once you reach whatever level you choose to end up, you can continue to intensify things by increasing the speed of you sprint and moderate periods. The best way to do this is to make a goal of increasing the distance covered in the time allotted, even if just by a tenth of a mile.

Consider doing your cardio outside – you may even run into a chick like this!

Putting it all into Practice

The best strategy is to cycle different cardio styles into your week, two or three HIIT sessions with a couple longer, steady-state sessions with perhaps a session of anaerobic complexes with the prowler/kettlebell/bodyweight exercises on the weekend for variety.

As far as timing of your sessions, the important part is that you do them. In a perfect world, you would do steady-state after your strength training to take advantage of the depleted glycogen levels. Anaerobic complexes and HIIT sessions however, focus on creating a metabolic effect through EPOC (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption) so they should be done separate from your strength training sessions by a few hours.

Basically, steady-state cardio burns most of its caloric expenditure during the cardio. The complexes and HIIT create a metabolic demand on the body and cause an increased calorie burning effect for a number of hours after the session. Therefore, a 7:30AM weight training session followed by a 6:00PM HIIT session boosts the metabolism twice in a day (elevating it at a significant level all day).

Give these ideas a try and you may find that not only are you in better condition (both aerobically and bodyfat-wise) but the challenge may make you hate cardio a little bit less!

Written by Steve Colescott

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Cardio 101 – Exploring Steady State, Complexes & High-Intensity Interval Training discussion thread

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.