High vs. Low-Intensity Training: The Debate Continues

By: Jason Lewis

One of the many intense debates going on in the fitness industry today compares the merits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with those of low intensity steady state training (LISS).

HIIT involves short and explosive sprints with rest periods in between. It’s similar to the interval training that sprinters, as well as football and basketball players, perform.

LISS involves a much longer duration of continuous movements, but at a dramatically slower and less intense pace A workout a distance runner or cyclist typically performs.

For the everyday athlete who is looking to get into great shape or the weekend warrior who is looking to compete in their recreational sport, such as basketball, lacrosse, tennis, running or obstacle courses such as mud runs, the question floating around the Internet is which form of training is better.

According to ATLX expert Dr. Rob Ziltzer, who is a board-certified obesity medicine specialist at Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Arizona, they are both effective ways to burn calories, manage weight and enhance fitness levels. He asserts that an individual should do the form of training that best suits him or her.

“Any sort of exercise from a fitness standpoint is good,” Ziltzer said.  “I suggest that people do the type of exercise that they enjoy doing, because that is what they will sustain. If you hate doing sprints, but you think that’s better for you, only to stop doing it because you don’t like the way it makes you feel while you’re doing it, then that defeats the purpose.”

Ziltzer has run several marathons and has also worked with several NFL players to manage their weight. He believes that a solid diet plan is more important than waffling over which form of training to use.

“From a calorie-burning standpoint standpoint, it actually doesn’t matter,” Ziltzer said. “Exercise is one of the most important keys to weight maintenance. I think that a mistake is that a lot of people try to lose weight through exercise alone. Whether you do low-intensity [or] high-intensity, even if you’re running marathons, you’re not likely to lose weight through exercise alone.”

Ziltzer points out that an hour of exercise can burn off a few hundred calories, but that a person can put those few hundred calories right back on in seconds by eating a few cookies.

Even though Ziltzer believes that maintaining a solid diet is more important, he does point out the differences between HIIT and LISS that could help a person determine which method to employ.

“From a fitness standpoint, people who are able to function at a higher intensity level have better heart fitness,” Ziltzer said. “If you can climb stairs, you’re going to be in better shape than if you were only able to walk on flat ground. The person who can climb stairs, which has a higher intensity, will develop and maintain better heart fitness.”

But Ziltzer cautions, using HIIT can increase the chances of injury because it causes more muscle damage. He advises not to perform HIIT more than a couple times per week because of the risk of injury.

“If you want to build up your bicep muscle, you’re not going to weight-train that muscle every day,” Ziltzer said. “You’re going to give yourself some time to rest, and give the muscle some time to repair. When you start working out on muscles that are already remodeling and rebuilding, and tendons and joints for that matter, when you don’t give your body a chance to adapt to the stress, that’s when you increase the risk of injury. So I wouldn’t do sprints every day.”

Ziltzer, however, recommends performing LISS more often. He says that LISS should be performed three to four times per week to be most effective.

“When you go more than a couple days of rest, you actually start de-conditioning,” Ziltzer said, “meaning that you lose the endurance that you built up.”

He continued, “If you consistently run eight miles, lets say four days a week, you’re probably not getting a lot of muscle remodeling or muscle damage. However, high-intensity training, because you’re pushing yourself to your limits, will lead to more changes in your muscle and more damage. If you do high-intensity training often, you risk injury.”

The weekend warrior should also train with the program that suits the type of sport that they are performing. For athletes of sports that use more explosive movements, HIIT would be more beneficial. For endurance sports, LISS is more beneficial. For sports that combine both, such as basketball, tennis, lacrosse, or obstacle course races such as mud runs, Ziltzer recommends using both HIIT and LISS.

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