by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS
High intensity interval training has grown increasingly popular and morphed into a catchall solution for those looking to break through plateaus.
Have your fat loss efforts generated a bear market of aesthetic improvements of late?
Has your athletic performance suffered?
Are you trying to improve your credit so you are eligible for prime interest rates?
If any of these situations apply to you, the inclusion of HIIT is warranted.
Who cares if your resting heart rate teeters on the brink of sinus tachycardia? Who cares if you shovel interminable heaps of refined sugars and saturated fats into your gaping mouth during nightly diet cheat benders? Who cares if your strength training consists of some cookie cutter ACSM mandatory minimum of two to three nonconsecutive, uninspiring training sessions per week involving a casual stroll from one piece of selectorized equipment to the next?
Irrespective of this scenario, HIIT is definitely for you. Well that’s what the “experts” have you duped into believing.
In the loosely regulated and dysfunctional fitness industry, controversy and dogma sell like LeBron jerseys in Cleveland following his announcing of an encore with the Cavaliers this past summer.
So is HIIT legit?
Yes. There’s some credence to performing HIIT. According to the research, HIIT offers up a cadre of benefits, including streamlined glucose control, mitochrondrial biogenesis which subsequently boosts their energy producing capacity. It has also been purported that HIIT training sets the stage for preferential fat burning as it promotes fat oxidation. HIIT also packs quite the metabolic punch as it is accompanied with a pronounced EPOC effect in comparison to traditional steady state cardio protocols. As such, HIIT is also more time efficient, enabling exercisers to burn a comparable amount of calories in a far shorter period of time when compared to steady state cardio workouts.
But having to devote less time to training is one of HIIT’s most enchanting aspects, and what I personally consider to be one of its most dangerous aspects as well.
Aside from not performing HIIT as it is intended to be performed, which according to Dr. Izumi Tabata (yes, the same guy that Tabata training was named after), is conducted at balls out intensities (approaching outputs close to 170% of a person’s VO2Max) for 20 seconds with only 10 seconds of rest between bouts.
Problem is, most exercisers fall far short of truly redlining during their rendition of HIIT training.
Worse yet, in many cases, their output is not sustained. A few of the industry’s bigwigs have suggested that this sequence must be repeated for a minimum of 5-7 times.
So much of the time spent doing HIIT is done so in futility.
And when it is actually performed correctly, HIIT competes for the same protein synthetic pathway (mTOR) that strength training does and jacks up metabolic stress as true hit elevates inorganic phosphates, hydrogen ions, lactate, et cetera as well as releasing a volley of glucocorticoids, which alter hormonal and metabolic function.
True HIIT is a chainsaw, but most people think they’re using that chainsaw when in actuality they are cutting balsa wood in a mitre box.
So based on my in the trenches experience and the past decade or so I’ve spent crushing journals, I have set forth a list of requirements that one should consider abiding by before jumping on the HIIT bandwagon:
1. Establish an aerobic base – I know I sound like a running coach from the 1970s, but having a robust aerobic energy system will save your butt when it comes to recovery, during and between training sessions, as well as streamlining ATP production. Performing low intensity steady state (with heart rates hovering between 60-70% of max heart rate) over the long haul will work wonders, such as optimizing cardiovascular functioning. An aerobic base will permit you to work at progressively higher intensities, such as performing cardiac output work (between 120-150 bpm).
2. Strength coaches and those working with athletic populations, or athletes themselves should structure HIIT protocols so they are bioenergetically compatible with a desired activity performed in sport. Repeated high intensity workloads, which emit a pressure load on the myocardium, will lead to thickening of the left ventricular wall. As such, younger athletes and those who are susceptible to heart disease should strongly consider limiting their exposure to HIIT protocols. Keep in mind that when a person has larger aerobic base, higher intensities become less physiologically taxing. Higher heart rates are achieved during training and become capable of dropping more quickly during rest periods in well-conditioned individuals.
3. Use HIIT as your ace – If your diet sucks, strength training is lame, and you’re not getting in enough low intensity steady state cardio, then you have no business doing HIIT. On the other hand, if you bring your “A game” every time you pull up your chair to the dinner table, vigorously train with compound movements on a consistent basis considerably above ACSM mandates, and are diligently doing cardio throughout the week and find discover that the law of thermodynamics does not apply to you, HIIT might be worth considering.
If and when, HIIT is legitimately warranted, adopt a conservative approach when incorporating it within your training program. Replace one of your cardio sessions with a HIIT session. In addition, you may also consider reduce the duration of the cardio sessions.
Initially, perform HIIT with eccentric-less or limited movements, such as biking and gliding on the elliptical as running outdoors or on the treadmill will likely induce vast amounts of residual fatigue and soreness which will interfere with lower body training.
But before you arrive at the conclusion you need HIIT, take a look in the mirror, gauge your current effort in the gym, and consider your goals, needs, and existing health.
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