Like most people, you’ve probably come across the LISS acronym typically attached to the word ‘cardio.’ But what is it, what does it mean, and how can you do it?
LISS stands for low-intensity steady state and refers to a form of cardio exercise where trainees keep themselves at 60 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate for 30 to 60 minutes. Popular cardio activities include fast or incline walking, jogging, biking, and using gym cardio machines like the elliptical trainer.
Read on to learn what makes low-intensity, steady-state cardio special, how it can help you, and how to do it to reap the benefits without putting yourself at risk of overtraining.
What Is Low-Intensity Steady-State Cardio?
Low-intensity steady-state cardio, also known as LISS, is a form of exercise where you maintain a lower intensity for a prolonged period. The goal is to raise your heart rate above 55-60 percent of MHR and keep it there to reap the benefits, which we will discuss briefly.
A popular example of LISS is jogging. You should feel moderately challenged from start to finish and be able to hold a light conversation with a training partner.
A good LISS workout is one where you can maintain a moderate pace for at least 15 to 20 minutes without taking a break. More advanced trainees can train continuously for 30, 40, or even 60+ minutes.
How is LISS Different From HIIT?
As discussed previously, the objective of LISS is to maintain a low intensity for a longer period. In contrast, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is about performing brief and intense rounds of exercise.
An example of LISS would be a jog in the park; an example of HIIT would be interval running or sprinting.
Due to the low intensity, trainees must do LISS for extended periods to reap benefits and burn enough calories. In contrast, HIIT forces trainees to do a lot of work in a short period, which means workouts don’t have to be as long.
If the average LISS session is 45 minutes long, a HIIT workout takes no more than 15––three times less.
3. Muscle Fiber Recruitment
In essence, the two are polar opposites. LISS recruits more slow-twitch muscle fibers and develops your endurance, whereas HIIT trains more fast-twitch fibers and is more beneficial for speed, explosiveness, and agility (1, 2).
4. Overall Impact
As a more relaxing form of exercise, LISS is a great way to calm yourself down and experience the common runner’s high (3).
In contrast, despite taking less time, HIIT is incredibly demanding and often leaves people quite tired.
LISS is beginner-friendly. Less intense activities provide a good start for people on their fitness journey, don’t take as much effort, and come with much lower injury risk.
In contrast, HIIT is not ideal for beginners because the activities are more challenging, and there is a higher risk of injury, especially when trainees lack experience in the activity they are performing and aren’t accustomed to the stress.
For example, a few years ago, I did a single interval running HIIT session. I hadn’t done any HIIT for a long time leading up to the point. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my adductors were on fire for ten days––so much so that I couldn’t do my squats for two weeks.
5 Impressive Benefits of Low-Intensity Steady-State Cardio
1. Cardiovascular Protection
An ever-growing body of research suggests that aerobic exercise is incredibly beneficial for cardiovascular health and could reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke (4).
Cardio exercise elevates your heart rate for a longer period, which makes it stronger and more efficient. As a result, resting heart rate decreases, and the heart can pump more blood with each beat.
Endurance athletes often have a resting heart rate below 60 beats per minute (BPM), sometimes as low as 30 to 40.
2. Improved Endurance
Another obvious benefit of cardiovascular exercise is that it improves endurance, which is highly beneficial for athletic performance and everyday life.
Gym-goers who only focus on strength training are at a disadvantage because they teach themselves how to exert maximal force for brief periods. They become great at specific activities in a controlled environment, but that strength rarely translates well into the real world.
By incorporating some cardio, trainees become well-rounded athletes capable of sustaining a moderate intensity. This can lead to better training outcomes, quicker recovery between sets and workouts, and an easier time carrying out physical tasks: moving furniture, carrying groceries, doing manual labor, gardening, etc. (5).
3. Great for Beginners
Many people struggle to start exercising because they fear intense activities like lifting weights and interval running. So, they procrastinate and tell themselves, “I’ll start working out when I have more time.”
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case, and more beginners should know that low-intensity, steady-state cardio is a simple and practical way for newbies to start moving and build exercise habits.
Simple activities people can do include incline and fast walking, stationary cycling, riding an elliptical, hiking, and swimming.
4. It Can Support Weight Loss
It’s a common misconception that doing cardio inevitably leads to weight loss. That isn’t necessarily the case because your overall caloric intake determines that (6). For example, you could do cardio daily, but you won’t get lean if you overeat.
That said, low-intensity, steady-state cardio can be beneficial for weight loss because it helps you burn calories, making it easier to establish and maintain the necessary calorie deficit.
Of course, you must still pay attention to your food intake to lose weight and maintain your results.
5. It Gives You a Break From ‘Intense’ Training
Pushing yourself to your limits during every workout can be mentally exhausting and affect your long-term motivation. You might be eager to work hard initially, but that enthusiasm often fades, causing people to give up and return to old behaviors.
One distinct benefit of low-intensity, steady-state cardio is that it provides a much-needed break from intense training, allowing for easier and less demanding workouts. The advantage is that, instead of always pushing yourself to excel, you can enjoy these no-pressure workouts and have a good time (7).
That way, you won’t always associate training with physical and mental exhaustion.
Various Ways to Perform LISS Cardio Workouts
Another considerable benefit of LIIS cardio is that you can perform it in many ways. Here are a few practical activities:
- Brisk/incline walking
- Biking/stationary cycling
- Riding an elliptical
- Using a rowing machine
- Using a StairMaster
Brisk and incline walking is perfect for beginners because they are more accessible and provide a good stimulus. Jogging is also a decent option but might not be as great for overweight folks because it could place more stress on the knees and ankles.
Aside from these, cycling, using cardio equipment at the gym, and swimming can provide a good workout, help you burn calories, and provide many associated benefits.
Should You Worry About Your Heart Rate Training Zone?
Heart rate ranges from resting, when you’re not doing any physical activity, to maximum, which refers to the highest number of times your heart can beat per minute.
Between these two values, there are heart rate zones, each corresponding to the level of training intensity and associated benefits. Here is how they look:
% of maximum heart rate
Light work - fast walking, warming up, etc.
50 to 60 %
Light - slow jogging, leisurely cycling, etc.
60 to 70 %
Moderate - lifting light weights at the gym, etc.
70 to 80 %
Hard - interval running, doing heavier sets, etc.
80 to 90 %
Max intensity - training to failure, sprinting, etc.
90 to 100 %
A good heart rate zone to aim for during LISS cardio is zone 2 - 60 to 70 percent of MHR. This is a good balance between effort and benefits and allows trainees to do longer sessions, burn more calories, and reap greater rewards.
One way to determine your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. For example, if you’re 38 years old, it would look like this:
220 - 38 = 182 MHR
The formula is imperfect, but it works well for the average, healthy trainee.
Once you have your heart rate, calculate 60 to 70 percent. In the above case, it would be:
182 * 0.6 = 109 BPM
182 * 0.7 = 127 BPM
The question is, should you worry about these heart rate zones? It’s not essential, but these zones serve as decent guidelines to regulate your intensity during a workout. Of course, you will need a heart rate monitor to track it during your training. One good option is the Polar H10 because it straps to your chest and provides a more accurate reading of your heart rate.
How to Integrate LISS Cardio Workouts Into Your Training Plan
Most of what we’ve covered today focuses on beginners who aren’t necessarily doing any structured exercise. But what if you’re already active and simply looking to add some LISS cardio to your existing training plan?
In such a case, you should be careful with four things to minimize the interference effect: modality, duration, frequency, and timing (8).
Not paying attention to these can cause cardio to get in the way of your regular training by affecting your performance and recovery. For instance, if you lift weights to gain muscle and strength, too much cardio can limit your rate of progression at the gym.
So, here are a few rules to keep in mind:
- Modality - pick less demanding types of cardio that don’t generate as much fatigue. Good options include walking, cycling, and riding an elliptical trainer.
- Duration - limit your cardio sessions to 30-45 minutes each. Anything longer increases the risk of fatigue and muscle soreness that can affect your performance on other activities.
- Frequency - have at least one day of recovery between cardio sessions to control fatigue. For example, if you’re doing cardio on Monday, have your next session on Wednesday or Thursday. Use your days off cardio to do your primary type of training.
- Timing - if you can’t do cardio on your days off from your primary type of training, do it after your main workouts or at least six hours before. Doing so will reduce the risk of interference.
Related article: Does Cardio Burn Muscle? No, If You Avoid These 3 Mistakes.
Final Words on Low-Intensity Steady-State Cardio
Low-intensity, steady-state cardio is a fantastic way to get active, improve your cardiovascular health, build up your aerobic capacity, and burn extra calories that can help with weight loss.
It is also an excellent way for beginners to get started with fitness and not feel threatened or out of place. Good LISS cardio activities include brisk/incline treadmill walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming.