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? Stick around because I’m going to get into 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?
Everyone knows that cardiovascular training should be one of the main components of a well rounded fitness routine but if you’re only doing hard core 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.
So what is steady state cardio?
It’s a light to moderate intensity cardio session lasting between 30 and 120 minutes where your heart rate stays level and doesn’t jump up and down like it would with high intensity training.
This is also known as your aerobic threshold and is where your body is still utilizing fat as the primary energy source. When training steady state cardio, you want to be at or just below your aerobic threshold.
If your heart rate is constantly going up and down, and much higher than your aerobic threshold, then you’re not doing steady state cardio.
WHY IS STEADY STATE CARDIO IMPORTANT?
During steady state cardio, you’re affecting two components of the human body. First you’re building a stronger more efficient heart and lowering your resting heart rate.
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.
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!
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.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that during steady state cardio you’re using fat as the main energy source?
Well, the more the body can use fat as the main energy source for exercise, the longer and harder you’ll be able to go. 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.
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:
Increased energy throughout your day
You can work out longer and harder
Quicker recovery from hard workouts
Increased ability to endure harder workouts, mental toughness
As you can see, everyone should be doing this form of training, but right now you’re probably wondering what forms of exercise can be used for steady state cardio, right?
EXAMPLES OF STEADY STATE CARDIO
My favorite form of steady state cardio is walking, but make sure you have some incline associated with it because walking alone will probably not give you a high enough heart rate.
Some other forms of steady state cardio include the following, as long as you’re doing them at a lower intensity:
The key with any of these is making sure your heart rate is not constantly going up and down. Below I’ll get into figuring out what heart rates you should be training at. Just know it’s called steady state for a reason.
HOW TO DETERMINE YOUR STEADY STATE CARDIO HEART RATE
Before I go over how to determine which heart rate you should be training at, you’re going to want to invest 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.
In a perfect world, you would determine your steady state cardio heart rate training zone 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.
If a VO2 max test is not feasible at this moment, then you can use the following formula: 180 minus your age. So using me as an example 180 - 40yrs old = a steady state training heart rate of 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 MUCH STEADY STATE CARDIO SHOULD YOU DO?
The next question I’m sure you’re wondering is how much and how often should you be working on your steady state cardio? A good guideline would be to start at 3-4 hours per week. If you’re just starting out that may seem like a high number, but just know it’s all cumulative. As your body becomes acclimated to the work, you can slowly start to increase that number and eventually get up to 7 hours per week.
You’ll be amazed at what starts to happen after about a month of incorporating steady state cardio into your fitness routine. For me, I went to do some high intensity training on a fan bike (I call this the crusher of souls) and quickly realized that I had a ton more gas left in the tank and recovered more quickly after each round.
So if you add anything to your routine this year, I encourage you to include steady state cardio!
Ready to get started? 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
Add 3 hours of steady state cardio to your routine each week
BULLETPROOF YOUR BODY
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.
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