Fast or Slow Exercise?


For those of us who are just starting out or getting back into doing some exercise, the question of whether to go fast or slow may seem moot.  Just getting going can be a challenge.  Likewise, even for regular exercisers, “go big or go home” may seem out of the question some days. 

But, since you are probably sitting down, let’s pause to consider the relative merits of going fast or slow in various exercise situations.  And if you are thinking that going fast has no appeal, no worries…there are plenty of reasons to go slow! 

Fast exercise gets you there faster

First of all, you may have heard that doing HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) for your cardio gets you more results than hanging in at a steady pace.  Just to fill you in if need be, HIIT could be like this:  on a treadmill, warm up first (of course), then go all out for 30 seconds, followed by 90 seconds of walking at a moderate pace.  Repeat several times, taking up to 20-30 minutes total.  There are plenty of variations of this, but they all alternate hard to very hard bouts with moderate intervals. 

HIIT is credited with being time-efficient, giving you quicker improvements in aerobic fitness, and is an efficient way to improve vascular function.   Great vascular function (aka circulation), reduces your chances of developing heart disease, and gives you improvements in cognitive function (not to be sneezed at). 

This is all very good stuff!  At this point you may be thinking that HIIT is the way to go, regardless of how you feel about it.

Slow (moderate) stacks up well

Not so fast!  In a recent meta-analysis of many studies looking at the difference in benefits between HIIT and steady state cardio (also known as MICT, or moderate-intensity continuous exercise) good old steady state came out looking good.  It does turn out that consistently adding HIIT to your workouts gives you greater aerobic improvements and vascular health than just sticking with MICT.  Having said that, it is not necessary to do HIIT for every workout.  Every other time will do nicely. 

HOWEVER, maintaining steady, moderate, aerobic exercise consistently is great for your glucose metabolism, and keeping down systemic inflammation.  Systemic inflammation can lead to all sorts of problems that relate to vascular health and metabolic function.  (Aside:  not to split hairs, but HIIT has the same effect as MCIT on improving fasting glucose, it’s just that MCIT is better at long-term glucose control.)   

There is considerable overlap in the benefits of either type of exercise.  Both types improve your good cholesterol, the HDL.  Both types can improve body composition, meaning, help you lose fat.  Fat loss from whatever method is related to lowering your LDL cholesterol.  Additionally, both types are good at reducing high blood pressure. 

So, there you have it.  Just keep on truckin’, and you will be helping your body.  HIIT will, however, get you superior aerobic and cognitive benefits.  You still get those from moderate exercise, just not as much.

Resistance exercise: slow

Now for resistance exercise, otherwise known as strength training. 

Here there is a lot to be said for going slowly. 

  1. First of all, there is the principle of TIME UNDER TENSION, which means that the longer your muscle has to work, the greater the benefits.  If you are whipping through your repetitions, your muscles are not going to get the workout they deserve.
  2. Taking your time with your repetitions also means that you can check out your form.  In this way you can make sure you are treating your muscles and joints to efficient movements that will also be safe. 
  3. The “no flinging” rule means you are being deliberate with your actions, and not rushing through to the end.  When taking your time, it gives you the chance to asses when you are getting fatigued, or if you need to stop due to some pain creeping in. 

Resistance exercise: fast

Having said all that, there are times when going fast is a good way to train your muscles.  As long as you are confident that your form is spot-on, of course.  Fast moves train your nervous system in ways that are different from taking it more slowly. 


  1. When you are moving fast, your nervous system has to fire up quickly.  But, inside your neuromuscular system there is a hierarchy.  When you are asking your muscles to move, the nervous system first recruits the slower-responding units.  Once that is accomplished, the fast responders get tapped.  The result?  Power!  All systems “go”!  This is what is happening if you ever watch power lifters compete. 
  2. There are times in our lives when we may need to react quickly, and with greater strength than usual.  If we have been training that system, we can do so more successfully and with less chance of injury than if we had not. 
  3. One more thing. These days they are recommending that older adults train for power.  Why?  Because as we get older, our reflexes slow down.  On top of that, the nerves that produce fast responses in muscles start to weaken, and even disconnect.  Fast nerve responses are the first to go, as it were.  Considering that older adults may also have some balance issues, it stands to reason that being able to correct faulty balance in a hurry or even move to lessen the effects of a fall could be huge. 

Bottom line

Fast or slow, it’s all good.  But, as I said above, it’s important to make sure your form is great no matter what speed you are going. 


© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Elena Ivanova / iStock


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