High Intensity Interval Training

Fat Blaster or Risky New Fad?

high-intensity-workoutLike most people, you probably get bored at the gym on occasion, but a method of training long known to runners has made its way into the mainstream and can add some serious spice to your routine. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a form of cardiovascular exercise that involves alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with short recovery segments. High-Intensity Interval Training first gained notoriety in the 1980’s after British athletics coach, Peter Coe, decided to take a new course in training his son, track star Sebastian Coe. Inspired by German doctor Woldemar Gerschler’s 1930’s research, as well as the 1950’s workof Swedish physiologist, Dr. Per-Olof Astrand, Coe guided his son to various world track records and gold medals in the 1500 meter at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games. What makes HIIT unique is its ability to force the body to continue burning fat long after the workout has ended. This ‘Afterburn Effect’ is achieved through EPOC or Excess Post-Oxygen Consumption (for more on the Afterburn Effect see this month’s Lean article).

High-Intensity Interval Training is about raising the heart rate for a short period, then recovering for a short period. But this isn’t ‘recovery’ in the traditional sense. You don’t get to plop down on the gym floor with your water bottle like you’re going to want to do. You perform the same exercise at a much slower pace, switch to a non-cardio movement, or simply catch your breath. For example, you could alternate sprints on a treadmill with pushups or sprints with walking. Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata conducted a famous study that showed 20 seconds of maximum effort cycling followed by 10 seconds of low intensity cycling for four minutes provided the same benefit to VO2 max (maximal aerobic capacity) as 45 minutes of slow paced cardio done four times per week.

So what’s the best way to get started with High-Intensity Interval Training? Should you try to do it on your own or take a class somewhere that offers HIIT? Let’s start with a couple simple do-it-yourself workouts. The first is Tabata (yes, named for Izumi Tabata), a four minute workout that is sure to leave you exhausted. Exactly what exercises you do is entirely your choice; you just need to work as hard as possible for 20 seconds, then rest 10 seconds. Do this for eight rounds. Another HIIT workout you may already have experience with is Spin cycling. Alternating hard effort with short rest periods, as with the Tabata model, will offer the same benefits.

There are some advantages to doing HIIT in a group class setting, such as learning how to properly warm your body up. This is especially important for HIIT. Injuries are far more likely to occur during intense exercise, and by not thoroughly preparing your body, you’re asking for trouble. Classes also offer direction. Countless High-Intensity Interval Training programs exist, and there are many theories on what is best, variations cropping up continuously. Because of this, it’s easy to get lost. In a class setting, you get the benefit of your trainers’ years of experience and accrued knowledge, and by trusting their lead, it allows you to focus on what’s important— working your behind off! Moreover, classes can provide a burst of motivation, pushing you well past your preconceived limits. There’s nothing like a little friendly competition to get you going.

The most popular programs incorporating HIIT right now are without a doubt CrossFit and Orange Theory. CrossFit has become synonymous with the word ‘intense,’ amassing hordes of advocates (and critics). Each class is broken into three phases: warm up, a strength workout, and the WOD (workout of the day). The warm up is meticulous and extensive, as the work ahead is no joke. The strength workout is generally an Olympic movement performed with a barbell or dumbbells, usually preceded by some mobility exercises to keep athletes flexible and allow them to safely perform every motion. CrossFit is known for having consistently fresh workouts, so the WODs are rarely repeated. These 5-20 minute workouts are very often of the HIIT variety, or include this methodology within the workout. Co-owner of CrossFit Lakewood Ranch, Aaron Weedo, says, “When used properly, HIIT can have benefits that most athletes would long for: increased strength, stamina, and overall fitness. No one thing cures all, however. Like anything, change is always best, but high-intensity bouts thrown in throughout a program can elicit some pretty unique and sometimes staggering results.”

Orange Theory is a program specifically built around HIIT, and employs technology in order to maximize how many calories you can burn after the workout ends. Each person wears a heart rate monitor that lets them know if they are in the ‘Orange Zone’—84% of maximum—or not. Getting to 84% of your maximum heart rate takes a lot of effort, so this is why the core of Orange Theory is High-Intensity Interval Training.

This type of exercise, however, is not without potential risks. Michael Brigger, General Manager of Studio South Fitness in Sarasota, believes HIIT is by far the best manner to get yourself in shape “if you do not have any pre-existing injuries or injury concerns.” Studio South Fitness offers HIIT as part of its many programs, but urges itsmembers to approach this type of exercise with caution. Michael has seen an increase in the amount of injured coming to his gym in the last few years, during the same time HIIT has exploded in popularity. In his experience, people fare much better with HIIT if they go through a foundation building phase first. They can progress further and faster than by jumping right in.

Is High-Intensity Interval Training right for you? No one seems to dispute the fact that it is certainly one of the best ways to burn huge amounts of calories. What you must do is decide on your fitness goals beforestarting a program, whether it is yoga, running, Olympic lifting, or something like HIIT. Be honest with yourself. Are you still hampered by past injuries? Have heart concerns? Dealing with other health issues? These are important things to consider, and critical to share with any trainers you choose to work with. Almost all programs can be scaled to fit your current level of health, appropriately challenging yet not dangerous. So get out there and get fit, and if you determine that High-Intensity Interval Training is something you want to try, be prepared to sweat!