The HIIT Craze Means Workouts Are Shrinking, But Does It Work, Actually?

#hiit #gains #sweat #shredded #hiitsquad – if your Insta feed is anything like ours then these will be a familiar sight. Everyone seems to have at least one HIIT workout in their lives, which surprises RISING given how few people we spot in the gym gurning like their legs are being injected with molten rocks, which is exactly how our last HIIT workout felt.

Either people are being a bit post-truth, or they’re not really hitting the heights in their HIIT sessions – so what’s going on? The scientist behind the HIIT boom, Dr Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario has a new book out called The One Minute Workout, so this is a good time to investigate the world of high intensity...

HIIT Is Nothing New

Interval training is nothing radically new. Over 100 years ago we knew that the Finnish Olympic Gold Medallist middle-distance runner Hannes Kolehmainen used basic interval training by running harder for short intervals to develop long-distance form. Later Emil Zatopek trained for the 1952 Olympic Games with a daily workout of 20x200m sprints, 40x400m sprints and another 20x200m sprints – 15 miles of intervals. He won Gold in both the 5,000m and 10,000m and entered the marathon without ever even having run a 26 mile event before. He didn’t know how to pace such a long race so just stayed with the world record holder – who he proceeded to overtake, and then beat. His triple Gold medal win has never been repeated.

OK, so Zatopek’s intervals were designed to deliver athletic performance for specific events, and HIIT as an everyday lifestyle fix wasn’t really around back then, right? Actually, wrong. A workout called 5BX was prescribed to time-poor Canadian military pilots in the 1950s, to keep them fit without a gym, and it does use high intensity intervals. It’s still used today – even Britain’s Prince William was into it – although RISING wouldn’t recommend anything involving sit-ups (terrifically tedious, bad for you).

‘The harder and faster you go, the less time your exercise requires’

So, What’s The Fuss?

What is new is the popularity of HIIT, marketed as a time-saving lifestyle hack for everything from raising fitness levels, to burning body fat, to boosting explosive power. Workout protocols supplied by everyone from The Body Coach to Crossfit draw on HIIT to deliver key elements, which means you’ve probably done a HIIT sesh at some point without even realising it.

This popularity has lead researchers such as Gibala to refine protocols further and study their effects. You can see the effect that Gibala’s exercise philosophy has had through a maxim in his recent book: ‘The harder and faster you go, the less time your exercise requires.’

How Science Blew The Doubters Out Of The Water

The first research to come out of Gibala’s lab in 2005 showed that after just six HIIT sessions of max-effort 30-second stationary bike intervals, his subjects had doubled their cycling endurance times. The second experiment compared two groups of exercisers over six weeks. One group did long-duration cycling workouts of 40-60 minutes at 65% of their maximum aerobic capacity, five times a week. The other did maximum-effort 30-second sprints, resting for 4.5 minutes in between each and repeating 4-6 times, for three workouts a week. The results were amazing – both groups increased aerobic fitness and ability to burn fat during exercise by the same amount. That’s 10 minutes versus 4.5 hours, for the same #gains.

For his next trick Gibala and his team studied a One Minute Workout repeated three times a week for six weeks. They proved that a two-minute warm up followed by a 20-second sprint, repeated three times (and followed by a three-minute warm-down) increased cardio fitness by 12%, and reduced resting blood pressure by 7%. But as Gibala himself makes clear, these workouts are not for beginners; you need to work up to them with intervals of longer duration and lower intensity – jogging three minutes on, three minutes off, for example – once you’ve got the all clear from your doc to start, that is.

‘Even getting punched in the face for an hour only burns about 800 calories’

HIIT Alone Won’t Get You Ripped

The truth is painful: it’s ridiculously more difficult to burn calories through exercise, than to not eat them in the first place. Even lacing on boxing gloves to slog it out in a ring, some of the hardest, most unrelenting exercise RISING has ever done (because someone was trying to punch our face in), only burns about 800 calories in an hour. You’re not going to last that long, and even if you did you could replace those cals in a few minutes with a large box of doner kebab and fries. OK, so there is some evidence that you can raise your BMR (basal metabolic rate) with HIIT, but that will only burn about an additional 70-100 calories a day – less than half of a Snickers bar in other words.

So, the correct way to view HIIT is as a valuable, time-saving tool in your kit for boosting cardio fitness, and helping to achieve your conditioning goals, rather than a magic bullet. But for it to be truly effective, you’re going to need to do it right…

You Didn’t Maintain Intensity For EVERY Interval? Oops #Fail

For HIIT to be effective you need to maintain the short rest periods, complete all the sets and most importantly hit the intensity levels in EVERY set. If you’re following a pre-set HIIT or Tabata workout, without PT supervision, you may be setting yourself up for a fail. Not only is it challenging to push yourself into high-intensity efforts, it’s even harder to judge the exercise load correctly for all sets to come, raising the risk of injury.

‘Because of the accumulation of oxygen debt, and excess post exercise oxygen consumption in the short rest periods, what feels piss-easy in the first two sets might be the living end come set four or five,’ Rich ‘Tricky’ Hudson, strength and conditioning coach at New Heights Fitness, told RISING.

How Can HIIT Deliver On Its Promise?

Hudson recommends having a system in place to maximise your chances. ‘If using weights, start at 30-40% of your 1-rep Max. If you can get through, say, eight sets, and it’s easy then up the weight or decrease the rest time – if you can’t then do the opposite.’

In case you end up fading anyway, have a regression prepared: ‘Try having a selection of lighter weights handy, or a suspension trainer to change the intensity with a small tweak in angle, or an easier version of the exercise. So, your split jump could become a squat jump, which could become a lunge or a squat.’

There’s also no point hammering through a HIIT session only to earn a progress-squashing injury by the end of it. ‘Recovery is not a suggestion,’ says Hudson. ‘Give 24 hours between HIIT training sessions, more if they are more power based, and plan time off between training cycles. Plyometrics should not be done on consecutive days, because the increased load on the body can lead to overuse injuries and burnout.’ HIIT is a proven time-saver so do it right, follow these guidelines, and you’ll never again have an excuse for skipping workouts because you’re ‘too busy’.

WHAT NEXT? If you have already been training for a few months, are in good health, and want to break through a performance plateau, then try the ‘Basic Training’ intervals from Martin Gibala’s book. Warm up for 10-15 minutes, then go hard at a 70% intensity (where you are getting out of breath and can’t easily talk) for three minutes. Then drop the pace gradually and rest for three minutes. Repeat this pattern for five intervals. If you’re a hardcore gym goer then try Gibala’s ‘Go To Workout’ from his book. Do a 3-5 minute warm up, then simply intersperse 30-second bursts of max-effort bodyweight exercises, such as press-ups, done fast enough to gas you, with medium-intensity recovery periods of cardio, like running, for 30 seconds. Stop after ten minutes, and you’re done.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.