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  • Writer's pictureCoach Matt Pippin

What Is Steady State Cardio and How To Use It



It doesn’t matter if you're a certified gym rat or just getting back into fitness, trying to lose weight or looking to improve sports performance, steady state cardio should be at the center of your routine.


So what is steady state cardio and why does it matter? Keep reading because I’m going to share the ultimate guide to everything steady state cardio, including how to get into the steady state zone, what exercises will get you there, and how often you should do it.


WHAT IS STEADY STATE CARDIO?

Steady state cardio, also known as Zone 2 heart rate training, is a light to moderate intensity cardiovascular training session lasting between 30 and 120 minutes, and done 2-3 times a week. The goal of keeping your heart rate “steady” in your Zone 2 heart rate range, as opposed to it constantly changing up and down.


Everyone knows that cardiovascular training should be one of the main components of a well rounded fitness routine but if you’re only doing hardcore spin classes, boot camps, or other forms of high intensity training, you’re leaving a ton of gains on the table by not incorporating what is arguably the most important ingredient in your training - steady state cardio.


In this blog, I'm answering all of your steady state cardio questions including:

WHY IS STEADY STATE CARDIO IMPORTANT?

During steady state cardio, you’re impacting two key components of your heart that ultimately improves the health of it. In a day and age where heart related deaths are on the rise, heart health is more important than ever. Here are the two main reasons steady state cardio is important.


Reason #1: You’re Building a Stronger, More Efficient Heart

Your heart is a muscle that needs to be trained just like your glutes and biceps, and during steady state cardio you’re conditioning it to pump more blood with every beat. This means your heart is getting more done, with less effort. When this happens, you're lowering your resting heart rate.


If your heart only needs 45-50 beats per minute to fuel the body when sitting on the couch resting, then your body is working at a higher level than if it needs 70-90 beat per minute like a typical deconditioned human would be.


Get your heart to work smarter not harder!


Reason #2: You're Building a More Efficient Energy System

The second reason steady state cardio is so important for the human body is because it helps you create a more efficient energy system, which is kind of like the difference between getting 50 miles per gallon in your car vs. 20.


When you're doing steady state cardio, your heart rate is at it's aerobic threshold and this is where your body is still utilizing fat as the primary energy source. This is a good thing. If your heart rate is constantly going up and down, and much higher than your aerobic threshold, then you’re not utilizing fat, you're using carbohydrates. Why does this matter?


The more the body can use fat as the main energy source for exercise, the longer and harder you’ll be able to go in any activity. Fat gives us 9 calories of energy for every 1 gram of fat, where as carbs and protein only yield 4 calories per gram. By performing steady state cardio, you’re increasing your aerobic threshold (the heart rate for when the body switches the energy source from predominantly fat to glucose). When your aerobic threshold is quite high, you can use fat as the dominant energy source, meaning you can go harder and longer than someone who is less conditioned.


EXAMPLES OF STEADY STATE CARDIO

There are so many great modalities you can use with your steady state cardio, as long as you’re doing them at a lower intensity:


  • Cycling

  • Elliptical

  • Stairmaster

  • Fan bike

  • Dance class

  • Rower

  • Running


The key with any of these is making sure your heart rate is not constantly going up and down. In a few sections, I’ll get into figuring out what heart rates you should be training at. Just know it’s called steady state for a reason.


DOES WALKING COUNT AS STEADY STATE CARDIO?

Walking is a great way to get your steady state cardio in as long as you’re still in the beginning stages of your cardiovascular journey. For example, if it’s been at least 6-12 months since you’ve exercised, then yes, walking will be a perfect modality to use. However, if you’ve already been doing steady state cardio training for a while, your heart rate won’t climb high enough during walking. Remember, the only rule you can’t break with steady state cardio, is that you must be in your Zone 2 range.  


If you have access to a treadmill that allows you to increase not only the speed, but the incline as well, then this can be great choice to get the intensity up if needed. When transitioning to an incline, start to increase the grade conservatively, and see how not only heart rate reacts, but your ankles and knees as well.  


One more thing to consider when using a treadmill is to not hold onto the railings if possible. Holding on lowers the intensity of the exercise and it changes how you walk. When you walk, your arms are meant to swing front to back and your torso and pelvis are meant to rotate. Holding on prevents this from occurring.  


THE BEST FORM OF STEADY STATE CARDIO

I get this question a lot, and I get it for anything new I’m teaching someone. I hate to burst your bubble but there is no "best" form of steady state cardio. 


 

There’s just one rule you need to follow when choosing which modality of steady state cardio is right for you: Your heart rate must stay in the right zone (Zone 2), during the duration of the training session.  


 

The trick to making it seem like the “best” is finding what works for you and what you will actually enjoy doing.


Here are couple of things to think about when choosing which modality you want to use for your steady state cardio:


  • Running isn't the best choice. Running is usually the first form of cardio people think of when starting to build their cardiovascular system. However, running is usually too high of an intensity (meaning your heart rate will be too high) to be considered steady state cardio if you’re a beginner. As your aerobic capacity increases over time, slow jogging can eventually be used for steady state cardio. You’ll know when it’s time by monitoring your heart rate to see if you can stay in Zone 2.   

  • What type of environment do you enjoy being in when exercising? Some people love to be out in nature riding their bike, where as others would rather be inside with no bugs, cruising on an elliptical.  

  • What level of mobility do you possess? Rowing and running require a good amount of mobility from your ankles, knees, and hips where as a bike, elliptical, and stairmaster require much less.  

  • Variety is the spice of life! Mixing up which modality you use is not only good for your sanity, but can also be a great way to get more of a larger variety of movements in. Moving your body via walking, biking, climbing, stairs or even swimming will allow you to use different muscles to give your body a more well-rounded training regimen.

BENEFITS OF STEADY STATE CARDIO

Besides having a lower resting heart rate and more efficient energy system, steady state cardio has a long list of benefits that should make everyone consider adding more of it to their fitness routine. They include:


  • Improved heart health

  • Increased energy throughout your day

  • More endurance to work out longer and harder

  • Quicker recovery from hard workouts

  • Improved ability to burn fat

  • Mental toughness


As you can see, everyone should be doing this form of training, but right now you’re probably wondering if there are any downsides to steady state cardio, right?


DRAWBACKS OF STEADY STATE CARDIO

There can be a few perceived drawbacks to this style of training, however, the benefits clearly outweigh any of them. Just like with any road block, there are some simple solutions so don't let these be excuses to keep you from trying it.


Drawback #1: Steady State Cardio Can Be Time Consuming

Let’s face it, trying to squeeze 30-120 minutes of steady state cardio into your already busy schedule can be brutal. Putting your steady state cardio on your calendar, and/or investing in your favorite cardio machine for your house are some simple way to make sure you get it in.  


Drawback #2: Overuse Injuries 

A common concern I hear from clients for not getting steady state cardio training in is that they are scared of overuse injuries because of the receptive motion. I get the concern, but if you increase the mobility of your ankles, knees, and hips, as well as mix up your modalities of cardio, this can be avoided with ease.

  

Drawback #3: It's Monotonous

Spending 3-4 hours per week doing anything, let alone on a treadmill or indoor bike, can start to get a little boring. I personally combat this by binging my favorite shows that my wife has no desire to watch, or I listen to a podcast or audiobook. Be a little selfish and think of this as a time for yourself. You deserve it!


Drawback #4: Weight Loss Plateaus/Muscle Loss

Some research states that the body’s metabolism may tend to slow down or stall if steady state cardio is used too much, or that it can reduce the amount of muscle on the body. This is caused by consuming too few calories, and especially a reduction in protein intake. Make sure you’re consuming enough calories as well as protein and this should be negated.  


Pros and cons of steady state cardio training

IS STEADY STATE CARDIO GOOD FOR WEIGHT LOSS?

Steady state cardio can be an excellent way to lose weight at any stage of your fitness journey, you just have to build up your aerobic threshold to do so. Let me explain…


If you’re just getting into the steady state cardio world, you most likely have what’s called a “low aerobic threshold.” Aerobic threshold is the heart rate at which your body stops using fat as an energy source and switches to burning carbohydrates as the primary energy source. The lower the aerobic threshold, the more likely you are to be using carbohydrates as your source of energy.


But if you’re trying to lose weight, you want to be using fat as the primary energy source as much as possible, which happens with steady state cardio after a few weeks. 


Over time with consistent doses of steady state cardio training, the body's aerobic threshold slowly starts to increase. This will allow you to be in that fat burning state and as a bonus, it stays in that state while doing anything in your everyday life. Washing dishes, walking up a flight of stairs, or just going for a walk around the block, fat burning is still happening!  


One thing to keep in mind is if after 6-12 months you start to notice that you’re no longer losing weight, or you feel like you’ve hit a wall, you must start to look at your nutrition. As I mentioned earlier, if your calorie and protein intake is too low, weight loss will plateau. This is true for any kind of training, not just steady state cardio.


HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING VS. STEADY STATE CARDIO

When researching steady state cardio you’ll inevitably come across High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). HIIT is NOT steady state cardio and they are very different. HIIT is a form of training where you switch between bouts of high and low intensity training cycles, thus training in different heart rate zones. An example of this style of training would be riding a bike at 90% effort for 20 seconds, followed by 40 seconds of 30% effort, and repeating for 10 rounds. 


The Goal of High Intensity Interval Training

Those who are fans of high intensity interval training love it because you feel like you've gotten the best workout with the biggest burn, the highest heart rate and the most calories burned.


The real goal of HIIT that most at your boot camp probably don't realize, is to increase your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can utilize during intense exercise). Your VO2 max measurement is one of the ways to determine one’s fitness level.  


When to Use High Intensity Interval Training

HIIT is a great form of training and very popular, but in my opinion, is best used after you’ve developed an appropriate foundation of heart rate training with steady state cardio. You wouldn’t lift 300 lbs your first time in the gym would you? No, you would start with maybe 5 lbs and build up to higher weight. That’s what steady state cardio is in relation to HIIT. 


If you’ve just started training steady state or have never done any kind of cardio training, HIIT may be too demanding on your aerobic system. However, if you wait until you’ve been consistent with your steady state for 3 months, HIIT can be a great addition to your training program and you’ll get better results. 


How to Combine High Intensity Interval Training with Steady State Cardio

After that 3 month mark of consistent steady state cardio training, if you want to incorporate HIIT, a good rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule. 80% of your time available for cardiovascular training should be spent doing steady state cardio and the other 20% should be spent doing HIIT.  


HOW TO DETERMINE YOUR STEADY STATE CARDIO HEART RATE

At this point, you've heard me mention that with steady state cardio, you want to be in your Zone 2 heart rate range, but how do you know what that is? There are two preferred ways, a VO2 max test, or calculating it yourself with a simple formula.


Finding Your Zone 2 Heart Rate With a VO2 Max Test

In a perfect world, you would determine your Zone 2 steady state cardio heart rate by going through a VO2 max test. This would give you the most accurate aerobic threshold and that’s the heart rate you want to predominantly train at.


If you look up VO2 max testing in your area, there’s usually a performance gym, cardiopulmonary rehab facility, or a physical therapy clinic that will provide this. It’s worth the $100 or so since you get a ton of useful information. This is me during my VO2 max test when I first started exploring steady state cardio in 2019.


VO2 max test

Calculating Your Zone 2 Heart Rate with a Simple Formula

If a VO2 max test is not feasible at this moment, then you can use the following formula to calculate your Zone 2 heart rate: 180 minus your age.


Using me as an example, I'd take 180 - 40yrs old = a steady state training heart rate of 140 BPM (beats per minute). This is the BPM you want to stay at or just below. In general, you want to stay within 10-15 beat range below this, but not go higher than it. That means your Zone 2 heart rate range is 125-140 BPM.


If you’re just starting on your fitness journey I would subtract another 15-20 bpm off of that number from the total. If you’ve been exercising for a very long time and have plenty of months of cardio under your belt that the normal formula should be just right.


How to calculate zone 2 steady state heart rate

HOW TO MONITOR YOUR STEADY STATE HEART RATE

Now that you know how to determine your Zone 2 heart rate you should be training at, you’re going to need a tool to help you monitor it. For that, I always recommend investing in a heart rate monitor.


Unfortunately, those wearable devices like smart watches aren’t very accurate once you start moving around. Your best bet is to buy a chest strap. Polar is the godfather of aerobic exercise and makes the most user friendly chest strap out there. I recommend it to all of my clients because it syncs with most cardio machines and smart watches, and comes with an app on your phone to store and track your progress.

HOW MUCH STEADY STATE CARDIO SHOULD YOU DO?

How much steady state cardio you should be doing each week is dependent upon how fit you are and how much time you have available.  


How Much to do if You’re a Beginner

If you’re just starting out, I suggest sessions lasting 15-30 minutes and performing them 2-3 times per week. This is great regimen for the beginner, and will allow you to slowly acclimate to the demands of cardiovascular training.


As your fitness level increases, you can also increase the intensity of the exercise, while keeping your heart rate in Zone 2. After 3-6 months, if time allows, you can start to increase the duration of your sessions to 45-90 minutes.  


How Much to do if You’re Experienced

For those of you who have already been training your steady state cardio consistently for a while now (at least 6 months), then you should be shooting for sessions that last 45-90 minutes, and do them 2-3 times s week. This is the perfect amount of time to acquire all the benefits of steady state cardio training.


As your fitness levels continue to improve over time, you’ll need to increase your exercise intensity to stay in the same Zone 2 heart rate training range. For example, if you’re using a bike, your wattage (exercise intensity) will have to go up if you want to maintain the same heart rate you had before.  


I know, I know. Not everyone has 3-4 hours per week free to get their steady state cardio in. If this is the case, then you just do the best you can. 1 hour a week is still way better than nothing. As I mentioned earlier, putting the training sessions in your calendar or purchasing a piece of home exercise equipment may be a great way to increase your available time. Also, it’s all cumulative, so squeezing in a quick 15 minutes here and there throughout the day may be another great option. 


How much steady state cardio should you do?

HOW TO ADD STEADY STATE CARDIO TO YOUR EXISTING ROUTINE

Incorporating steady state cardio into your existing routine may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. As I mentioned earlier, steady state cardio is all cumulative.


  • First, break down how many hours a week you have to exercise (including mobility, cardio, and strength)

  • Set aside the amount of time you need for strength & mobility training

  • Once you see how much time is left, you know what you can use for steady state trining


If possible, perform steady state cardio on days you’re not doing your strength training. This allows you to have shorter training sessions, as well giving you the ability to give as much effort as possible to your strength training.


Example Steady State Cardio Program

Here are example programs for those who are new to steady state training and for those more experienced.  


How to add steady state cardio to your routine

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO SEE RESULTS?

You’ll be amazed at what starts to happen after about a month of incorporating steady state cardio into your fitness routine. it will sneak up on you too! For me, I went to do some high intensity training on a fan bike (I call this the crusher of souls because it's so hard) and quickly realized that what used to feel horrible, was a little bit easier! I had a ton more gas left in the tank and recovered more quickly after each round.


See what one of our YouTube subscribers experienced after watching the video above about steady state cardio:



NEXT STEPS

If you add anything to your routine this year, I encourage you to include steady state cardio! You now have all of the tools to get started at any fitness level. Ready to go? Here's what to do:

  • Calculate what your steady state heart rate is

  • If you don't have one yet, get a Polar chest strap to measure your heart rate

  • Choose your exercise modality (biking, elliptical, stairmaster, etc.)

  • Determine how long your sessions will be and block it out in your calendar (remember, this is YOU time!)

  • Get ready to feel the difference!


BULLETPROOF YOUR BODY

Adding any kind of new activity to your routine might bring on aches and pains. That's where mobility training comes in. For my favorite mobility exercises to bulletproof your body, click the link below where you can get my 3 must-have mobility moves for free. Once you try them, you’ll see why they’re my all-time favorite.


*Some of these items were found on Amazon so I wanted to be sure to mention that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

 

ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN

Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.

Certifications:

  • NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

  • Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist

  • Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach

  • Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)

  • Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor

  • Weck Method Qualified

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