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.
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is the no. 2 fitness trend in the world, according to the 2015 American College of Sports Medicine’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends. If you’re just starting out, the technical term for the casual-paced interval training you’re probably doing is fartlek. For example, sprint as fast for as long as you can, rest, run, then walk. HIIT is more advanced because you get more specific, such as one minute of sprints followed by 30 seconds of recuperation, then repeat. Also, you’re working full anaerobic and aerobic thresholds. The more advanced you are at HIIT, the longer the work periods become and shorter the rest periods become.
With all of that said, the real magic of HIIT lies in its ability to keep you burning fat even after you leave the gym. In short, your body isn’t able to bring in enough oxygen during periods of hard work. Therefore, you accumulate a “debt” of oxygen that must be repaid post-workout in order to get back to normal. The result: your metabolism is revved for hours after you leave the gym. Trainers refer to this phenomena as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. The biggest way to use it to your advantage is to make short, intense exercise bouts a regular piece of your workout regimen.
HIIT workouts can be done with body weight, dumbbells, kettlebells or medicine balls, but for compound barbell movements, longer rest periods are generally warranted for injury prevention and full recovery between sets. If you’re a HIIT beginner, try these two muscle-building, fat-burning bodyweight interval workouts.
Get the story behind high-intensity interval training (HIIT), its muscle-building and fat-burning benefits, and how you can integrate it into your workouts!
Have you ever compared the physique of a world-class distance runner with that of a world-class sprinter? The sprinter’s body resembles that of a Greek Adonis, with chiseled arms and powerful quads, while the skinny-fat distance runner makes Richard Simmons look like a Mr. Olympia contender.
These different body compositions point to the fact that not all cardio is created equal, which is why it’s important to choose a form of cardio that meets your goals. A recent study compared participants who did steady-state cardio for 30 minutes three times a week to those who did 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) three times per week.
Both groups showed similar weight loss, but the HIIT group showed a 2 percent loss in body fat while the steady-state group lost only 0.3 percent. The HIIT group also gained nearly two pounds of muscle, while the steady-state group lost almost a pound.
Excessive aerobic activity can decrease testosterone levels, increase cortisol production, weaken the immune system, handicap strength gains, and halt any hope of hypertrophy. But this doesn’t mean you can’t maximize muscle mass and strength gains while conditioning. It just means you need to be smart about your cardio.
Check out the different forms of conditioning you can use to trim down the smart way—without giving up your strength and muscle gains.
The Arrival Of Interval Training
Since the mid-1990s, scores of studies have shown the effectiveness of interval conditioning for fat loss. One Canadian study compared the fat-loss effects of interval training versus a traditional, slow cardio regimen. The traditional regimen burned twice as many calories as the interval regimen, but those who performed intervals lost more body fat.
More recently, a study in the “Journal of Obesity” showed that 12 weeks of HIIT reduced body fat and increased muscle mass. There were also substantial reductions in total abdominal trunk and visceral fat, and increases in lean body mass and aerobic power. The most surprising aspect of the results was that the subjects’ diets remained the same.
Since fat loss largely takes place in the kitchen, this is one more study touting the powerful effects of high-intensity interval training.
The Prevalence Of Tabata
Different forms of Tabata are practiced everywhere in the world, from plush, commercial gyms to sparse, hardcore, garage gyms.
Named after Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata, who has conducted extensive research on interval training, Tabata consists of performing an activity all-out for 20 seconds, resting for 10 seconds, and then repeating the on-off sequence for four minutes total.
One of Tabata’s most famous findings demonstrated that 20 seconds of all-out cycling followed by 10 seconds of low intensity cycling for four minutes was as beneficial for VO2 max (maximal aerobic capacity) as 45 minutes of long, slow cardio performed four times per week.
Since VO2 max is generally considered the best indicator of an athlete’s cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance, this study was a game changer.
It conclusively showed that positive health benefits derived from traditional aerobic training could be accomplished with high-intensity interval training.
What does this mean for you? You can stop spinning your wheels sooner if you trade in slow times on the treadmill for a fast sprint!
Interval training is not without its downfalls, of course. Just because I’m suggesting it to build a lean, mean physique doesn’t mean you should incorporate it into your routine on a daily basis. In fact, you shouldn’t.
True interval training isn’t a rushed jog—it’s balls out. The central nervous system (CNS) is primarily affected by this high-intensity work and takes a minimum of 48 hours to recover. The late Canadian sprints coach Charlie Francis described the CNS like a cup of tea—everything pours into the cup until things start to overflow.
Overtraining leads to overflow. If you’re overtraining, intervals can tax your CNS and cause muscle damage, mechanical tension, and metabolic stress. Like lifting heavy iron, interval training must be allotted sufficient recovery time.
Applied Interval Training
Training intervals once per week can improve body composition along with conditioning levels. If you’re looking to really up your conditioning, twice a week is a nice, sweet spot.
Not sure where to start? Here are some of my favorite interval workouts. I use them with clients seeking fat loss and conditioning. And, of course, I use them myself.
1. Barbell Complexes
Barbell complexes have been around for decades. They make body fat run for the hills and can take your conditioning to new levels. They’re easy to incorporate into strength-training workouts and can be done at the end for a great finisher. Barbell complexes can also be used to kick off your training, and are very easy to integrate with the corresponding workout in your split.
Barbell complexes should be included in your weekly interval workouts. Barbell complexes are not meant to be paced! Each rep is performed explosively, using whole-body movements. The objective of the complex is to get each group of exercises done as fast as possible. Never rest between exercises; only rest between complexes for 1-2 minutes.
Do as many complexes as possible in 8-10 minutes. Start with an empty bar and add weight in 5-pound increments.
Lower Body Complex
This is a good complex to try after leg day because it essentially serves as a finisher without stressing an unworked body part. All of the movements adhere to the barbell complex guidelines and are primarily lower-body movements.
This workout looks similar to leg day, but the addition of the push press and the bent-over row makes it more of a whole-body workout.
Barbell Complex Progression
Barbell complexes challenge you mentally and physically. If they’re not painful, you’re sandbagging! Overload barbell complexes weekly, but in small increments.
Try adding a one-pound plate to the bar, increasing repetitions per set, or slightly decreasing rest intervals.
2. Strongman Intervals
Ever wonder why strongmen are much leaner than powerlifters? It ain’t diet! If you have access to strongman equipment, use it! Go all-out for any of the combinations below and you’ll learn firsthand why this method is so effective.
I love the first two combinations because they literally work every muscle in your body and they get your heart rate up quickly.
The third combination—crucifixes and log lifts—has more of a localized training effect. It’ll have your shoulders screaming, and makes a great sequence to finish off a shoulder workout.
Limit sessions to no more than three days per week to avoid overtraining.
If you’re looking for something without weights, turn to burpees. Long before burpees were established as a jailhouse favorite, this exercise was a fitness test for the armed services in the World War II era.
Burpees build muscle, burn fat, and are one of the most effective conditioning modalities on the planet.
As with all of our conditioning workouts, we want to restrict burpees to less than 10 minutes in total duration.
Total Repetition Method
Looking for a great way to push yourself? Select a target number of repetitions plan to hit that number in under 10 minutes. The number of repetitions in a set and the rest interval between sets are at your own discretion. If you miss your target, get it next time!
Tabata Burpee Training
Looking to ditch the weights and have a cardio-focused, fat-blasting session? Do as many burpees as possible in 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat this process for 4 minutes.
What About Walking?
Since intense interval training should be done sparingly and for short duration, walking should never really leave your conditioning portfolio. After all, interval training for over 30 minutes at more than 75 percent intensity can be detrimental to your gains.
As a result, low-impact walking is a great activity to employ on your non-interval conditioning days. It increase heart health and helps your muscles and joints stay healthy. It even decreases stress.
You really only need to do a maximum of 30-45 minutes a day, but 15-20 minutes will do the job. Interval training paired with a few weekly walks will keep you lean and mean, and keep your ticker ticking.
- Sijie, T., Hainai, Y., Fengying, Y., & Jianxiong, W. (2012). High intensity interval exercise training in overweight young women. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness,52(3), 255-62.
- Tremblay, A., Simoneau, J., & Bouchard, C. (1994). Impact Of Exercise Intensity On Body Fatness And Skeletal Muscle Metabolism. Metabolism, 43(7), 814-818.
- Wilson, J., Marin, P., Wilson, S., Loenneke, J., & Anderson, J. (2012). Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis Examining Interference of Aerobic and Resistance Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-307.