High intensity short workouts vs. long sustained workouts: which one is best?

Brett Kirkland Blitz Conditioning Cross Mountain Climber

It seems like my health news feed is peppered every week with new research that is coming out comparing high intensity interval workouts to sustained cardiovascular workouts.  Statements like:

“Four minutes of high intensity interval exercise a day is the same as a 45 minute run”


“Long and low intensity workouts are more beneficial than short intense workouts”

Are hitting the news stands and magazines with more intensity and frequency than bowel movements after a spicy meal.  The fitness industry is like any other industry in that we’re prone to taking something and re-naming it many times over during the span of a few years to keep the consumer thinking that it’s new.  For example, circuit training in group classes is also called supersetting in the bodybuilding community and it’s called interval training in the running, biking and swimming community. Circuits are about stringing different intensities or exercises together and doing them one right after the other.  Let’s face it, the act of lifting weights and moving them has been around since the dawn of mankind.  In any fitness setting whether it’s on our own, in a group class, or with a personal trainer, we should feel as if we’re being pushed to our physical and mental limits and then beyond them.  If we’re not challenged we’re not changing.  There are equal pros and cons for high intensity interval training and for endurance training.  Any coach or trainer worth their weight will tell you that periodizing a program by changing up the way we exercise every so often is the most optimal way of staying healthy.  Experiment with different workout styles: if you’re in a weight lifting program then try joining an exercise class or going swimming once a week.  You’ll notice that this change-up actually leads to increased strength in your original program.  If you run as your method of exercise, add one day of body weight based interval training or a weight lifting program to the regimen.  Improving upper body and core strength will drastically improve your speed and endurance while running.

Unfortunately there is no four minute workout that will replace sixty minutes worth exercise every day.  Many of the studies that are quoted in the news look at a small study group.  It’s difficult to make inferences or conclusions that apply to millions of people when it’s only been tested on 100 people and I don’t think the researchers themselves intended to do it.  It’s our society’s need to find a quick fix for everything that drives this insanity.  Of course when starting to exercise for the first time 4 minutes might be good enough.  It’s with the understanding however that you will be increasing it over the next weeks.  My recommendation for any new workout or fitness style is first to make sure that it’s safe for you then if you’re interested try it out and see what you think.  Whose to say that a dance class a week doesn’t compliment tire flips and chin ups for your own style of workouts!

As Hal Johnson always said:

“Keep fit and have fun!”

About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

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