Whether you’re just out to fit into skinny jeans or desperately need to lose a bunch of pounds for your health, exercise is a solid half of the weight-loss equation. (The other half, of course, is a balanced, nutrient-dense diet.) There are thousands of workout options for getting started, but one of the biggest crazes taking over homes and gyms is high-intensity interval training (HiiT). If you’ve never tried HiiT, be absolutely sure of what you’re getting yourself into before you ever pull on your sneakers.
HiiT is . . .
HiiT refers to a specific type of training that combines high-intensity work with the interval concept. High intensity typically means you are going all out during whatever exercise you choose. Interval means you transition from move to move as the workout progresses. Between each interval, you rest, doing no exercise, or you do an “active recovery” move that’s of much lower intensity.
You can’t just do HiiT right out of the gate.
Initially developed to improve performance in professional athletes, HiiT requires you to get your heart pumping. If your ticker isn’t used to this type of workload, you’ll see HiiT as too tough, and subsequently, you probably won’t stick with it. Worse, you can put yourself in real physical danger. You could injure yourself trying to do moves too quickly, with poor form or too heavy of a weight. You also up your risk of a heart attack or stroke. For this reason, it’s absolutely imperative that you have a good baseline level of fitness before you start a HiiT program.
A good rule, suggested by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, is to get to the point where you can exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes at 85 to 90 percent of your heart rate max before exploring HiiT. When you do start, keep the HiiT session to no more than 10 minutes, and modify moves if you must. All this said, HiiT can be beneficial for those with a history or risk of heart disease, as it improves cardiovascular function. You’ll just need to work with your doctor to make sure your HiiT program is safe for your current status and start out easy.
There are multiple approaches or protocols that work for a HiiT workout.
Currently, there are three major protocols for HiiT. The first is the Little Method, which Drs. Johnathan Little and Martin Gibala developed in 2009. The Little Method has you work at 95 percent of the highest amount of oxygen your body can use during activity (VO2 max). Your intervals include 60 seconds of high-intensity work followed by 75 seconds of low-intensity work. The complete workout is 12 rounds, or about 27 minutes.
You also can use the Turbulence Training method developed by exercise physiology researcher Craig Ballantyne. With this protocol, you incorporate weights into your routine. Each round starts with a strength-training move with a somewhat heavier weight for eight reps, followed by a one- or two-minute burst of whatever high-intensity cardio you want. The full workout is intended to work the entire body and lasts 45 minutes.
The last protocol, and probably the most popular, is the Tabata method, created by Dr. Izumi Tabata in 1996. Tabata HiiT workouts last just four minutes, but they require you to work at 170 percent of your VO2 max for 20 seconds, followed by just 10 seconds of rest, repeating for a total of eight rounds. Most people cannot handle and don’t need a true Tabata! In fact, if you’re doing one correctly, you’ll probably be pretty miserable and maybe even want to puke. The difficulty of strict Tabata has led to fitness professionals to modify the protocol so that, even though you’re working hard, you’re nowhere near 170 percent of max; your heart rate usually will fall around 85 percent of its top load. Trainers still maintain the 20/10 format, with or without weights. If you sign up for a Tabata-style class or buy a Tabata-oriented workout DVD, this is what you’re probably doing.
HiiT can slash calories andget you looking seriously toned.
When you exercise, your body has to use calories in order to consume oxygen and keep your muscles going; you do away with 5 calories for every liter of oxygen you use. When you do any type of HiiT workout, regardless of the protocol you select, the rates of oxygen consumption and calorie burn are high. HiiT is preferable to steady-state cardio for weight loss because the latter usually burns a higher percentage of the calories from fat, whereas HiiT burns more calories overall, giving you better results in a shorter amount of time.
On top of this, working at the upper end of your limits stimulates the production of chemicals such as human growth hormone (HGH), which improves insulin sensitivity as it preserves and builds muscle. Your body also continues to use up more oxygen and burn more calories as it attempts to repair after the workout is over. This is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), commonly referred to as the “afterburn” effect. EPOC is not as efficient with steady-state cardio, and steady-state cardio doesn’t offer the metabolic/hormonal benefits HiiT does.
HiiT isn’t an everyday go-to routine.
HiiT is hard — really hard. If you do it, your body will need more time to recover than if you did a lower-intensity workout. Experts therefore recommend doing HiiT no more than three times a week. A good pattern for the week is HiiT, recovery day, strength (low rep, heavier loads), recovery day, HiiT, strength (low rep, heavier loads), recovery day. Many people like to use one of the recovery days for a gentle workout, such as yoga or Pilates. The key is just to keep your workouts from being back to back so your body has time to heal before you train hard again. The only time you might be able to train every day is if you make sure you split your muscle groups, such as doing biceps and triceps one strength day; chest, back, and shoulders the second strength day; and legs on the last strength day. Even programs that include this type of splitting can produce metabolic and hormonal stress, so listen to your body. If it tells you to rest, rest!
HiiT is a workout approach that can produce phenomenal results in a short period time. To stay safe, though, get used to exercising first. Even once you’re fairly fit, do HiiT only a handful of times per week. Multiple protocols are available, and you can adjust your program to whatever works for your current health and fitness status. No matter how you do HiiT, you can expect to lose weight and gain a more muscular look.
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Heart and Stroke Foundation (2010). Is H.I.I.T. the Right Way to Get Fit?
Kelso, T. (n.d.) Why Steady State Cardio for Fat Loss Is a Bad Decision.
Mosley, M. and Bee, P. (2016). Is High Intensity Training (HIT) Safe?
Salvador, E. (2016). 7 Reasons You Need HiiT.
Schlinger, A. (2013). HiiT Workout: What It Is and Why It Works.
Vanstone, E. (2014). What Is HiiT?
Vidulich, K. (n.d.) Why Tabata Fails.