post HIIT vs Cardio: Differences & Benefits

HIIT vs Cardio: Differences & Benefits

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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As a personal trainer, I am frequently confronted with the age-old question from clients: "Which is better, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or steady-state cardio workouts?"

While many seek a definitive answer, I have always hesitated to offer a straightforward response because the decision is more than a simple preference.

Motivated to help you make an informed decision about which option to choose, I devoted several weeks of research to delve into the differences between HIIT and cardio, exploring the advantages and limitations of each workout approach.

Quick Summary

  • HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and traditional cardio can help improve cardiovascular health, but they differ in intensity and structure.
  • HIIT workouts typically require less time and encourage maximum effort, whereas cardio exercises are more joint-friendly and require shorter recovery periods.
  • According to the National Institute of Health, HIIT workouts can burn more calories than cardio workouts simultaneously and boost aerobic and anaerobic systems, enhancing stamina and performance.
  • In my opinion, ensuring you have the proper flexibility, mobility, and core strength is crucial before incorporating a HIIT workout into your routine.

What Is the Difference Between High-Intensity Interval Training and Cardio?

A couple doing HIIT and Cardio side by side

The difference between high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and low-intensity cardio is their intensity and duration.

HIIT demands more oxygen for working muscles, releasing stored glucose during short bursts of intense exercise for twenty to sixty minutes.

It burns more calories than steady-state cardio, with heart rates reaching eight to ninety-five percent of the maximum, compared to fifty to seventy percent in cardio.

In my experience, steady-state cardio is ideal for beginners and older individuals due to its joint-friendly nature, while those diving into HIIT benefit from guidance by a qualified personal trainer for proper form and technique.

“HIIT workouts offer a quick alternative to steady-state cardio. Typically in a HIIT class, you’ll burn more calories in a shorter amount of time. Expect a tough and varied session when attempting HIIT, as it involves short bursts of explosive energy with rapid recovery.”

- Jack Claxon, Personal Trainer

What Are the Benefits of HIIT?

A group of people doing HIIT

HIIT offers improved athletic performance, weight loss, positive mental health effects, increased insulin sensitivity, calorie afterburn, enhanced heart health, and reduced abdominal fat.

  • Performance Boost: While steady-state cardio targets the aerobic system, combining aerobic and anaerobic HIIT reaps benefits from both, according to the National Institute of Health [1].
  • Insulin sensitivity: PubMed and Medical News Today research highlights HIIT's effectiveness in improving insulin sensitivity, making cells more efficient in utilizing blood glucose [2] [3].
  • Weight Loss Advantage: HIIT cardio provides enhanced weight loss and surpasses steady-state exercises in maximizing calorie burn, as per PubMed research [4].
  • Calorie Afterburn: The "after-burn effect" or EPOC occurs after a HIIT workout, maintaining elevated Resting Energy Expenditure when done at least three times a week , according to Harvard Medical School [5].
  • Abdominal Fat Reduction: HIIT reduces abdominal fat, especially in individuals with type 2 diabetes, positively impacting aerobic and anaerobic fitness, according to Journal of Obesity [6].
  • Heart Health Improvement: Research from Science in Sports and Exercise indicates that engaging in twenty HIIT sessions enhances heart health and overall physical fitness [7].
  • Shorter, Impactful Workouts: Even a brief 10-minute HIIT session, thrice a week, positively impacts the body, increasing oxygen delivery to muscles and improving metabolic health, as per Journal of Sport Sciences [8].
  • Mental Health Benefits: HIIT, besides physical benefits, positively affects mental health, particularly for individuals with mental illnesses, as per PubMed research [9].

Related Article: The Best Fat Burning HIIT Workouts

"HIIT is a great regimen for people who are young and healthy. If you’re older or have heart disease, check with your doctor before trying it."

- I-Min Lee, Professor of Medicine

What Are the Benefits of Cardio?

A person doing cardio at a gym

Cardio offers benefits like reduced cardiorespiratory stress, increased endurance, quicker recovery, effective weight loss, improved aerobic metabolism, enjoyable workouts, and the convenience of requiring no gym equipment.

  • Reduced cardiorespiratory stress: According to Medical News Today, moderate-intensity cardio enhances endurance without excessive strain, making it beginner-friendly [10].
  • Increased endurance: A longer, moderate-intensity cardio workout can increase endurance in both your cardiovascular system and muscles.
  • Enhanced well-being: Similar to HIIT, steady-state cardio swiftly delivers oxygen, reduces blood pressure, and aids fat loss for overall health, as per PubMed [11].
  • Accelerated recovery: Less stress in steady-state cardio reduces recovery time, beneficial post-weightlifting.
  • Improved fat burning: Steady-state cardio emphasizes fat burning over carb usage, unlike high-intensity exercises, according to MDPI research  [12].
  • Increased aerobic metabolism: According to PLOS Biology, prioritizing steady-state aerobic exercise develops efficient slow-twitch muscles, improving aerobic metabolism [13].
  • Enjoyable workouts: Cardio workouts, unlike intense HIIT, trigger endorphins without overwhelming discomfort, as per the National Institute of Health [14].
  • No gym equipment needed : Cardio exercises with just body weight are accessible, eliminating the need for fancy equipment

Related Article: The Best Cardio Workouts for Weight Loss

“While there are days when it's ok to partake in less intense cardio—like when you're super sore from a workout you conquered the day before—consistent days of steady-state cardio in which you don't challenge your cardiovascular fitness will likely not produce desired results.”

- Kira Stokes, Personal Trainer 

The limitations of HIIT and Cardio

A gym coach writing down on a notebook

In my fitness training experience, cardio takes a lot of time and can get boring, while HIIT, although it can be tough and more likely to cause injuries, might be too much for beginners and could make people feel overwhelmed.

Cardio Limitations:

  • Time-consuming: Steady-state cardio demands longer durations, potentially discouraging those unable to commit an entire hour to exercise.
  • Risk of injury: As per Harvard Medical School, cardio workouts may lead to injuries without proper technique; experts advise limiting sessions to 150 minutes weekly to prevent overtraining [15].
  • Potential boredom: Steady-state cardio can become monotonous, especially on treadmills, due to extended durations and fewer intense spikes.
  • Weight-loss plateaus: Relying solely on steady-state cardio for weight loss may result in plateaus; incorporating varied workouts is crucial.

HIIT Limitations:

  • Discomfort: HIIT's high intensity can be uncomfortable, pushing individuals to exert themselves significantly.
  • Not beginner-friendly: HIIT may not suit beginners or those returning from injury; starting with aerobic interval training is recommended.
  • Increased injury risk: Compared to cardio, HIIT poses a higher injury risk, particularly in the knees and shoulders, according to ScienceDaily [16].
  • Burnout or overtraining risk: The intense nature of HIIT raises the likelihood of burnout, potentially causing individuals to drop out of their fitness routine.
  • Form and technique crucial: Proper form, core strength, flexibility, and warm-up/post-exercise stretching are essential in HIIT to avoid injury.

“Boredom is the number one enemy of fitness. If you're bored or sick or your workout, you're far less motivated to get through it. Changing things up—going for a run outside, taking your bike for a ride, joining a dance class, or trying kickboxing, for example—will go a long way toward keeping you on track with your fitness efforts.”

- Andrew Peloquin, Fitness Editor



Is Cardio More Effective than HIIT?

No, cardio isn’t more effective than HIIT, as both can be effective when combined with a proper nutrition plan. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and the choice between cardio and HIIT depends on available time, desired results, personal preferences, and physical limitations.

Is 20 Minutes of HIIT Enough?

Yes, 20 minutes of HIIT is enough to see results when performed thrice weekly due to its high intensity. You can further enhance your results and avoid hitting a plateau by increasing the duration and intensity of your HIIT exercises.


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