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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
October 05, 2022
LISS cardio stands for low-intensity steady-state training, and in the past, LISS workouts were the go-to for cardio exercise. And what's not to love? Basic and easy to follow, to perform LISS, you simply jump on a treadmill, set it for a relatively easy speed, and go.
However, over the last decade, another exercise has become the premier form of cardio training. It's known as HIIT, and it has pushed poor LISS into the dark corners of gyms everywhere. Is HITT really superior to LISS, or is LISS better than HIIT? Which one should you do?
We're going to examine those questions and then some! This post will discuss:
LISS stands for low-intensity steady-state cardio, the opposite of high-intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT. This simply means it's a form of continuous exercise performed with a low heart rate and a steady pace.
But it's important to realize that this does not mean easy. Low-intensity, or even low-impact workouts, are not synonymous with low effort.
Proof: How easy is it to complete endurance events such as a marathon?
That said, there is sometimes confusion with the vernacular, and low-intensity steady-state training can be muddled with exercising at a moderate pace. The point is, we're not going to distinguish between the two because most people who talk about LISS workouts simply mean an exercise routine performed at an easy pace.
In addition, when terms like low intensity or easy pace are used, it's not necessarily a subjective measurement. Instead, it's based on physiological variables, primarily your heart rate.
Generally speaking, LISS is steady state cardio performed at 65-75% of your maximal heart rate.
Just like intense exercise, there are numerous methods of low-intensity exercise.
In fact, you can perform just about any type of cardio at a lower intensity. If you want to add some LISS aerobic exercise to your program, here are some of our favorites.
Also, if you have any health concerns, it's important to speak with your doctor before starting a new regimen or workout split.
This might be our favorite. Because the treadmill is on an incline, it mitigates how fast you need to go. Brisk walking is usually more than enough to reach your target heart rate.
Unlike high-intensity training, walking on an uphill treadmill is quite "easy." Again, by "easy," we mean you're not putting much stress on your joints.
However, it can be very tough. If you want to increase the intensity, you don't need to speed up. You can just increase the angle.
Incline walking is a great exercise to strengthen the legs, particularly the posterior muscles. At the end of the day, you're essentially performing a staircase workout. This same result is achieved with a stair climber.
So, the next time you want to perform cardio for weight loss, get on a treadmill, increase the angle, and watch a movie.
Swimming is the ultimate form of LISS training, especially for those who want to do cardio without running. It's a full-body exercise that seriously works every muscle in the body.
Because it uses so much muscle mass, it can get challenging fast. And if you are keen on keeping your heart rate down, use a stroke different from freestyle. For example, the breaststroke works really well.
Swimming is the one sport that puts virtually no stress on the joints and is an excellent form of LISS that gives your body some rest.
Let's be clear: Cycling can definitely be high-intensity exercise if you want it to be. Cycling is what was used in the first Tabata workout experiment, which was one of the original forms of high-intensity workouts.
However, you can also easily control your heart rate and peddle a bit slower.
If you're cycling on the road, you should be aware that it's very difficult to keep a steady pace and maintain the same intensity levels. This is because you are dealing with things like traffic as well as hills.
Now, this isn't bad. It just requires a wider range of intensity and is difficult to perform as a true steady state. If this is an issue for you, a recumbent bike workout may be just what you're looking for.
Most people who talk badly about LISS do so because they don't want to perform a LISS workout. And that's because while low impact and at a steadier pace, LISS workouts are still challenging.
Here's why LISS cardio is a must.
LISS is easy to perform. We know we said above that LISS does not mean "easy," but that is in terms of the entire process. When you are just getting started, it's easy to do.
We often see a young personal trainer with a brand new client that's also brand new to the gym. On their very first day, the trainer has them doing set after set of Tabata.
In this context, HIIT sessions can be too hard to do as it requires advanced fitness levels and excellent cardiovascular health to perform effectively.
In comparison, LISS workouts can be completed for any length of time, making them adaptable for any athlete. And as there's less stress, it's a much safer option.
In the same vein as above, we again hate seeing a fitness trainer trying to prove how good he is by having an obese patient run sprint intervals.
Of course, we know that plenty of large trainees can do this easily. Have you ever seen an NFL lineman move?
But in this example, we are talking about an obese gym goer who is just starting their exercise journey. Jumping right into high-intensity activity will harm them in numerous ways, including:
A much better option for a new trainee is to knock out some steady-state training. Perhaps our favorite workout routine for this situation is to put a treadmill on an incline and rock it.
Due to the added intensity from the incline, the trainee can effectively perform this walking workout routine and get awesome results, particularly when they're making sound nutritional choices and prioritizing high protein low fat foods.
VO2max is considered to be the primary variable that determines a person's fitness level. It tells you how well a person can utilize oxygen.
In other words, a person with a high VO2max can use the same amount of oxygen better. This allows more work with a smaller amount of required oxygen.
Both HITT and LISS improve VO2max effectively.
HIIT is generally the prescribed form of cardio for fat burning. However, many studies have shown that over the long term, there is no significant difference in HIIT's effect on body fat.
Interestingly, some studies have shown that LISS, not HITT, is more effective in improving fat distribution as it gets you in the fat burning zone².
At the same time, walking at the same pace for a sustained period is a favorite amongst bodybuilders for burning calories. This is due to low stress and can mitigate any rise in cortisol.
While we won't say LISS training is better than high-intensity interval training, we will say it can be very effective at hitting body recomposition goals.
In layman's terms, work capacity is how much work you can perform without fatigue. LISS training seems to do a better job at this compared to running a HIIT workout.
This is due to the nature of LISS training. You are forcing your body to replenish ATP for extended periods with no recovery time.
As a result, your body learns to recover while it's moving.
A lot of fuss has been made about LISS cardio and burning fat as if running 5k a day isn't going to help you lose weight. In fact, a 5k can burn anywhere from 300-550 calories for guys weighing between 150-220 pounds.
As there is a lot of nuance on this subject, we encourage you to read our article on HIIT vs. steady-state cardio for fat loss. It's important to understand that LISS cardio workouts most definitely aid in fat loss, especially for obese and overweight adults.
Using the same scenario above, if an overweight trainee attempts to use HIIT workouts for fat loss, they'll only be able to complete a few rounds before they're too tired to continue.
In comparison, if you put them up on a treadmill for 30-45 minutes, they'll burn significantly more calories.
One issue with HIIT workouts is that they are extremely stressful on the joints due to the high impact. If you are already performing a lot of training with movements like heavy squats and deadlifts, adding too much HIIT can be a recipe for disaster.
Moms-to-be will also appreciate how low-impact LISS cardio can be. If you're planning to workout while pregnant (you should!), the less stress placed on your joints, the better.
Using some low-intensity exercise training is a great way to reap the benefits of cardiovascular training while saving your joints.
Even if all you care about is building muscle, including LISS is going to help.
Have you ever seen those guys who are winded after each set they do? There's no way they can train to their optimal potential like this, yet they still think cardio will kill their gains.
Maybe an excessive amount will but including a moderate amount of LISS cardio will improve your body's ability to recover during rest periods. This means more work and MORE gains.
While we're fans of LISS cardio sessions, there are drawbacks. Here are some of the most prevalent drawbacks of performing LISS cardio.
Now, we don't think LISS cardio is boring, but it's not uncommon to hear this complaint.
This is likely due to people doing LISS because they think they have to rather than wanting to. If you just prefer variation and quicker routines, circuit-style training is probably more in your wheelhouse than LISS cardio.
Fun fact: The phenomenon, known as a runner's high, is very real¹. We would bet that people who think LISS is boring have never run at an intensity or duration to experience this.
Regardless, we get it. It doesn't matter that LISS provides many health benefits if you don't do it consistently. If that's you, we recommend you find a for of exercise you look forward to.
So this one obviously has a ton of nuance attached to it. As mentioned, LISS exercise can be very challenging.
At the same time, many trainees can become complacent with their training and fall into a rut.
If you don't push yourself to increase your intensity, "going through the motions" is a fate that affects quite a few trainees. Try to apply the progressive overload concept even to your cardio routines. Go a bit further, or slightly faster, or create some sort of variation so you continue pushing.
While HIIT workouts can cause injury due to the high intensity, LISS can cause injury due to overuse injuries.
Because LISS cardio workouts are done at a lower intensity, they are usually performed for a longer duration of time.
This means your body is open to more pounding in the long run (pun intended).
For example, compare running interval training with five 100-meter sprints to one long run of 1,600 meters (1 mile). During the mile, you'll place up to 3 times more pounding on your joints.
To be clear, this is not exactly apples to apples, as you will but a higher amount of force on your joints during the sprints, but you get the idea.
We are not saying LISS is more dangerous or that it's dangerous at all. It's just another factor to consider.
First, it doesn't matter what type of exercise you do. It's going to raise your cortisol levels. This is even true with weight lifting.
Cortisol is your body's stress hormone and is released during times of stress. Therefore, it should be clear why weight lifting, like that intense back and shoulders workout you just finished, releases it.
However, what makes LISS different is that cortisol is released for an extended period. Further, you are depleting your glucose stores for energy.
As a result, you increase the chances of muscle wasting as it’s a catabolic hormone (you can read more about this here, and also compare anabolic vs. catabolic hormones). This is when your body breaks down muscle for fuel from its amino acids.
Don't let this scare you, though. All you need to do is keep your duration short. If you are concerned with muscle wasting, we suggest keeping your LISS training to 30 to 45 minutes.
We won't dive into this too much, but we need to mention it. Fasted cardio has blown up in the last decade or so and contains a ton of misinformation.
First, we like fasted cardio and believe it offers unique benefits. This includes increasing fat utilization and improving sugar levels.
However, study after study has shown that it's not necessarily advantageous for weight loss.
Regardless, if you do want to do fasted cardio, you should choose LISS as its lower intensity nature is optimal. You're getting all the benefits, yet mitigating the chance of muscle loss.
Hang in there, as this needs some explanation.
Many people claim that HIIT is faster to do because it only takes 10 minutes. However, that doesn't paint the whole picture.
When you are performing HIIT workouts, you must complete an extensive amount of warm-up and stretch before your session. This could even include dynamic bodyweight warm-up exercises and can take at least 10 minutes, if not more.
When you're doing LISS, the random time that's always given is 45 to 60 minutes. However, it doesn't have to be. For example, running a 5k may take you less than 30 minutes. For a 150 pound-man, this equates to a 300-330 calorie burn. Guys who weigh 200+ can expect to burn 500-600 calories.
Again, there are a lot of factors that determine caloric burn. But if you're performing LISS to burn fat, an extra 300-330 calories in 30 minutes is not horrible at all.
The point being is that you don't have to perform LISS for 45-60 minutes, and after you consider the warm-up required for a HIIT workout, the difference in time isn't as large as it may have seemed initially.
When comparing LISS cardio with HIIT, our conclusion is that you shouldn't compare them.
The fitness industry loves to pit methods against each other as if you can't just do both. The reality is that LISS has benefits that you can't get from HITT and vice-versa.
In other words, each one is great for different reasons. Here are three factors to consider:
As mentioned above, while everyone can benefit from a LISS workout, only those with an intermediate or advanced level of fitness will be able to effectively perform HITT. We've already spoken about LISS being easy, so we won't delve too much more into this.
The most important thing to know is that if you're new to training, you should be doing LISS, perhaps paired with the beginner version of this strength training program.
The biggest difference between HIIT and LISS exists between the different metabolic systems they train. As mentioned, LISS cardio primarily trains the aerobic system.
In comparison, more intense workouts, like HITT, will primarily train the anaerobic system. HIIT consists of short bursts of high-intensity intervals, which causes a quick, yet short demand for ATP.
This is primarily accomplished through the ATP-CP system for activities less than 30 seconds and glycolysis for any interval that lasts from 30 seconds to 1 minute and 30 seconds.
It's important to realize this as many people assume since both are cardio activities, they do the same thing. They don't.
This is why a sprinter will never beat a marathoner during long runs, and a marathon runner will never out-sprint a sprinter. These are two entirely different metabolic systems, which need their specific training.
When looking at cardio sessions for the untrained individual, you will see a similar scenario to the "beginner gains" in the gym. This is when a new person can increase muscular strength and muscle size regardless of what they do.
When looking at fitness variables such as VO2max and anaerobic capacity, studies show that both HITT and LISS cardio cause similar increases³. This is because untrained individuals have such a low baseline that any stimulus works.
As mentioned, instead of wondering what's best, just use both. This is the most obvious answer, not to mention the fact it's what's suggested for athletes⁴.
Then you don't have to worry about which one is better. We understand some people are biased toward one or the other. This is fine as you can favor that style, just so long as you include the other to some extent.
So how much LISS do you need? That's a tough question to answer.
For example, a generic suggestion is to perform three LISS cardio sessions weekly, like an incline walking treadmill workout for weight loss, each 45 to 60 minutes.
However, we fully believe you should also do some HITT, so now you're up to at least 4 cardio sessions a week. This will be an extra 2.5-3.5 hours of weekly training.
Therefore, at an absolute minimum, you should perform 3 cardio sessions per week, consisting of at least one LISS workout and one HITT workout.
It's important to note that this is for those with advanced fitness levels. If you're a beginner, start with three LISS workouts weekly, eventually working up to adding a HIIT routine. If you're trying to create a workout program to meet your goals and needs, read up on the FITT principle first.
We like LISS cardio. In fact, we like most types of training as they all have unique benefits. This also includes running 1-2 HIIT sessions in your fitness program, assuming you have the appropriate fitness level.
Regarding LISS workouts, it's an excellent method to improve your cardiovascular health and improve body composition. Better yet, this is all while mitigating any stress on your joints. Remember, there's a reason there are so many benefits to riding a stationary bike.
Perfect for all fitness levels, adding some steady-state cardio to your exercise program will benefit you immensely.
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