With so many different types of exercise out there to choose from, it can be difficult to know which one is best for you and your goals. If you’re trying to build muscle and burn fat, you may be left wondering if you should be doing Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardio or High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as a supplement to your strength training. In order to answer this, you need to understand the differences between LISS cardio and HIIT.
So what are the differences between HIIT and LISS Cardio? HIIT, or High-Intensity Interval Training, is short in duration (5-20-minutes) and higher in intensity. LISS, or Low-Intensity Steady-State, is longer in duration (30-60 minutes) and lower in intensity. HIIT is also more efficient at burning calories than LISS.
As a strength coach, nutritionist and elite level athlete I have done extensive research into the differences between LISS cardio and HIIT in order to understand which is best for different goals. In this article, I’ll explain what the three main differences are between LISS cardio and HIIT, the best way to do them, as well as explain which is better for you to reach your goals.
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What is LISS Cardio?
LISS cardio, or low-intensity steady-state cardio, is a form of cardio exercise where you maintain the same low-intensity pace (that is, a steady-state) for a set period of time, usually for a minimum of 30 minutes. It’s performed at a steady pace so that you can sustain your energy for the entire duration. Some examples of this could be biking, running, brisk walking, rowing or swimming.
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What is HIIT?
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training, which is another form of cardio-based training but involves short bursts of very hard, or high intensity, work followed by recovery periods of low-intensity activity or rest. Learn whether you should do HIIT every day.
HIIT sessions are short in duration, usually around 20 minutes, because you push yourself as hard as you can each set. Some examples of HIIT would be circuit training with sprints, burpees, jump squats.
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3 Main Differences Between LISS Cardio and HIIT
There are 3 main differences between LISS cardio and HIIT.
1. INTENSITY OF ACTIVITY
As the names suggest, LISS cardio is much lower in intensity than HIIT.
Now, what does that actually look like when you’re training?
LISS cardio is designed to keep your heart rate at a sustainable rate, but still pushing your limits. That would be around 60-70% of your max heart rate. If you don’t track your heart rate, that would look like still being able to hold a conversation (but not sing), or noticing your breath quicken but not being out of breath.
LISS is a form of aerobic training which means that the exercise requires oxygen. During cardio and aerobic exercise, your heart rate and oxygen intake both increases. However, while “aerobic” and “cardio” are used interchangeably, “aerobic” refers to using oxygen when exercising, and cardio refers to your heart pumping.
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A HIIT workout is meant to push you to your upper fatigue limit.
This would look like performing as many reps as possible of each exercise at a max effort.
For example, sprinting for 20 seconds with 30-second rests, or a circuit with burpees, jump squats and push-ups to max effort with 30 second rests between. You should be sweating and not be able to hold a conversation as your heart rate should be working between 70-90% of your max heart rate.
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2. DURATION OF ACTIVITY
LISS cardio is typically much longer in duration than HIIT.
Think of a marathon vs a sprint.
When you are doing LISS cardio you are working at a pace that you are able to sustain over longer periods of time. LISS cardio sessions for the average person would be about 30-60 minutes.
Related Article: Does Interval Training Burn More Fat? (Science-Backed)
HIIT, on the other hand, is much shorter in duration because you are working at a pace that would not be sustainable for more than around 30 minutes.
During those 30 minutes, you’re performing a variety of exercises for 20-30 seconds, followed by a brief rest period and then continuing with the next exercise. This rest phase between sets helps you maintain the intensity in each set of the workout which delivers faster results.
Your rest periods for HIIT should be between a 1:2 to 1:1 ratio of work to rest. So for example, if you are going all out on a chosen activity for 30 seconds, your rest period will be 30-60 seconds depending on your fitness level.
Because you are working at such a high intensity, you should not be able to sustain the workout for much longer than 20 minutes, or each exercise for more than 30 seconds. That is a great way to gauge whether or not you are actually performing a HIIT workout.
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3. CALORIES BURNED
Many people would think that because LISS cardio is longer in duration, it will burn more calories. However, that’s not necessarily true.
Research shows that you can burn more calories performing a HIIT session than spending the same amount of time performing LISS cardio (Falcone, 2015).
To understand this better, let’s compare a 60-minute steady state run to 30 minutes of HIIT.
For the duration of that 60-minute steady state run, you might burn 500 calories. Once you finish the run, you stop burning calories
For the duration of that 30 minute HIIT workout, you might burn 200 calories. However, you will also continue to burn calories for the next 10 – 12 hours, at a rate of about 50 calories / hour. That means you can burn a total of 700 – 800 calories.
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How does that work?
This is called post-exercise oxygen consumption, also known as EPOC or oxygen debt. What this refers to is the amount of oxygen that is required to restore your body back to its resting state (McCall).
After high-intensity workouts, your body requires more oxygen to restore it back to its resting state – this involves replenishing energy stores, regulating hormones and repairing muscle. Because your body is hard at work getting this done, it will be continuing to burn calories long after you’ve finished a HIIT workout.
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Is LISS cardio or HIIT better for weight loss?
HIIT is better for weight loss than LISS cardio for a number of reasons.
First, as we discussed above, HIIT workouts burn more calories in less time than LISS cardio.
Second, the HIIT style of training is much easier to include in your routine regularly and consistently because of its shorter duration.
For example, making the time for a 60-minute run would be a lot more daunting than a quick 30 minute HIIT session during your lunch hour break, and you’re still getting more calorie burn.
A study compared the results between a group of participants who committed to three days a week of high-intensity exercise routine and another group who did five days a week of low-intensity exercise (Irving et. at., 2008).
After sixteen weeks, the researchers discovered that the participants who committed to high-intensity exercise routine for three days a week lost more fat than the group who showed up for low-intensity steady-state exercise five days a week.
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Is LISS cardio or HIIT better for muscle gain?
HIIT is better for gaining muscle as it usually involves some form of resistance training. Resistance training, or applying stress to your muscles, provides the necessary stimulus for growth.
However, research shows that HIIT workouts may not promote much muscle gain, but the benefit they will have over LISS cardio is that HIIT workouts will ensure the lean mass (muscle) you have is preserved.
Another study compared the effects of five weeks of HIIT and LISS on body composition and concluded that the LISS group discovered a significant loss of lean body mass, whereas the HIIT group didn’t see any changes to lean body mass (Kong et. al., 2016).
Therefore, if your goal is to have a lean muscular physique, combine 2-3 weight training workouts with 2-3 HIIT sessions per week to optimize your body composition.
Related Article: Can HIIT Be Done With Weights? (Yes, There Are 4 Rules)
HIIT vs LISS: Pros & Cons
So we know that HIIT is better for muscle preservation and fat loss, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it should always be chosen over LISS. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of HIIT and LISS.
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Burns more calories in a shorter amount of time
Doesn’t require many sessions in a week to achieve results
Increases metabolic rate
Preserves muscle mass
Combines aerobic exercise with resistance training which can provide a stimulus for muscle growth
Incorporates a lot of variety in movements
Related Article: 30 Minute Full Body HIIT Workout: Total Body Resistance And Cardio
The intensity of the workouts can cause muscle soreness (DOMS). Read our article on whether you should do cardio when you are sore.
Can’t be performed every day
Can lead to overtraining
Increased risk of injury if technique on exercises is compromised
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Improves cardiovascular health
Fast rate of recovery
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May cause a decrease of muscle mass
Can cause injuries from overuse (doing the same movements each session)
Takes more time to perform an effective LISS workout
Related Article: Can You Do HIIT And Weight Training On The Same Day?
How To Get The Most Out Of Your HIIT Workouts
When planning your HIIT workouts, it’s important to tailor your plan to your personal goals and fitness experience. You want to be pushing yourself hard enough but being careful not to over train and avoid injuries.
You also want to make sure that you continue to progress your HIIT sessions with different levels of resistance, weight and/or intensity and include a variety of exercises to target all muscle groups.
The FitBod App now includes HIIT inspired interval training that’s tailored to your goals and fitness experience, so that you can be sure you’re getting the most out of each session.
Get 3 free workouts on the FitBod App.
Related Article: 10 Types of Cardio Workouts For Fat Loss (That Actually Work)
Frequently Asked Questions
SHOULD YOU DO HIIT AFTER A STRENGTH TRAINING WORKOUT?
If your goal is fat loss, then doing a HIIT workout after strength training would be a good option. However, if your goal is to put on lean mass and you aren’t concerned with losing body fat, then you would be better off leaving the HIIT out altogether or doing a short amount of LISS cardio after your strength training session.
HOW MANY DAYS PER WEEK SHOULD YOU DO HIIT?
Three days a week is a good amount of HIIT. You want to make sure you’re allowing your body to rest and recover between sessions, which can take up to 24 hours. Since you are burning more calories, you don’t need as many sessions throughout the week when compared to steady-state cardio. Also, we know that it is much higher in intensity and therefore you cannot be doing it every day and be adequately recovered.
SHOULD YOU DO STRENGTH TRAINING AND HIIT?
Yes, HIIT would complement a strength training program well, especially if you’re looking to lose weight (body fat) while getting stronger. HIIT workouts may not promote much muscle gain, but they will ensure the lean mass (muscle) you have is preserved. Strength training will provide muscle growth, which will get you stronger and increase your metabolic rate.
CAN YOU LOSE WEIGHT WITH JUST HIIT?
Yes, you can lose weight by just performing HIIT so long as you are in a caloric deficit. If you are burning more calories than you are taking in on a daily basis, you will be in a caloric deficit that will lead to fat and/or muscle loss. As well, when we have more muscle, our body burns more calories in a resting state which can assist in burning fat and we know that HIIT is effective at preserving our muscle mass.
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While both HIIT and LISS have their own benefits, the differences between the two can help you understand which is better for your training goals.
If your goal is fat loss, HIIT will be more effective. This is because HIIT is higher in intensity and therefore requires less training time, less training frequency and still burns more calories.
If your goal is to get stronger, HIIT will be a better option as there is less risk of burning muscle mass.
This isn’t to say that LISS shouldn’t be included in your training, as it provides benefits for heart health, endurance and the lower intensity nature of LISS workouts means your body can recover quickly.
About The Author
Maggie Morgan is a level 1 PN certified nutritionist who specializes in sport, exercise and performance nutrition, a strength training coach, and an elite level athlete. Maggie has competed in bodybuilding, and is an international-level powerlifter. Currently undertaking her Masters in Counselling Psychology, Maggie is not only able to lead others in strength and aesthetics through her personal experiences and scientific nutritional foundations but additionally by addressing the psychological and behavioral implications of exercise and nutrition. Through her writing and work with clients, Maggie works to provide information that’s responsible, rational and backed up by research, science, and fact within the health and fitness industry.
Falcone, Paul H., et al. “Caloric Expenditure of Aerobic, Resistance, or Combined High-Intensity Interval Training Using a Hydraulic Resistance System in Healthy Men.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 29, no. 3, 2015, pp. 779–785., doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000000661.
Irving, Brian A., et al. “Effect of Exercise Training Intensity on Abdominal Visceral Fat and Body Composition.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 40, no. 11, 2008, pp. 1863–1872., doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181801d40.
Kong, Zhaowei, et al. “Short-Term High-Intensity Interval Training on Body Composition and Blood Glucose in Overweight and Obese Young Women.” Journal of Diabetes Research, vol. 2016, 2016, pp. 1–9., doi:10.1155/2016/4073618.
McCall, Pete. “7 Things to Know About Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC).” Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) | ACE Blog, www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5008/7-things-to-know-about-excess-post-exercise-oxygen-consumption-epoc.