Updated: Aug 14, 2020
What it is, the benefits and how to HIIT
If you’ve never heard of it before HIIT is an acronym for High Intensity Interval Training. Really the name gives the game away. For a specific duration of time – which could range from 10 minutes up to as much as 30 – taking minimal rest – the objective is to exercise as hard as physically possible.
From the first minute to the very last the HIIT trainer clings perilously to their lactate threshold. And when the time is up if they are not rolling on their back, wreathing in agony and overcome by exhaustion they’ve not hit it hard enough.
That’s HIIT in a nutshell: short bursts of high intensity activity interspersed with low intensity active recovery or short rest periods.
Is it good to train so hard?
Of course, when working at maximal levels a greater strain is placed on the cardiovascular system. This poses a significant risk factor to the under-trained, the elderly, people who have an underlying medical condition or a weak ticker. If you fell into any of those categories it wouldn’t be wise to dabble in HIIT – certainly not without consulting your doctor first.
However, we always have the option of moderating the intensity. This then arguable nullifies the HIIT element but we would do well to remember that intensity is relative. Each person’s physical capacity is unique and what might not be intense for one person could be very intense for another.
Assuming you have none of the aforementioned health conditions, HIIT can be very good for you – very good indeed. The benefits of high intensity training are supported on an abundance of sports science research. If it is enhanced performance you are searching for studies have shown that, when cyclists and triathletes were put on HIIT programmes, their VO₂ max and power out-puts noticeably improved – in a mere three weeks (Etxeberria et al 2014).
Another study showed the performance enhancing power of HIIT. Two groups of ‘well-trained’ rowers were put on a ten week exercise programme. Half engaged in long slow distance training (LSD) and the other half supplemented with HIIT sessions. On conclusion of the ten weeks the HIIT rowers exhibited significant improvements in the 2000 metre ergo test – when compared against their LSD counterparts (Niamh et al 2017).
But what about HIIT and health?
A recent study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed HIIT to be a more effective exercise modality for ‘burning’ fat than the traditional continuous or ‘MOD’ (moderate-intensity continuous) training. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom which would have us believe that the best way to keep that belly at bay is to go on long slow runs. When in actual fact a short sharp high intense session can yield the same if not better results.
This leads us on nicely to another benefit of this increasingly popular method of training. Unlike LSD – long slow duration – a HIIT session can be done and dusted inside 15 to 20 minutes (not including the warm-up – and on that note it would be unprofessional of me if I passed up this opportunity to place additional and excessive emphasis on the importance of warming up prior to HIIT: it can be dangerous even for a trained individual to go from a resting state to one of high intensity without firstly elevating the heart rate and raising core temperature).
So for the time-strapped Westerner or the person who’s perpetually busy, HIIT offers all the health and fitness benefits of traditional styles of exercise but in a third of the time.
‘Ok, you have me convinced. But how do I get more HIIT into my life then?’ It’s really quite simple. Convert one or two of your current weekly sessions into short-duration high intensity sessions. Remember: due to the fact that HIIT places greater stress on the cardio-respiratory and muscular systems it is important that you ensure to enforce at least three days’ rest between sessions. This will provide your body with the time it needs to recover.
Other methods include
One super-duper HIIT session each week; perhaps on a Monday to kick the week off or, better still, on a Friday to finish on a high (excuse that quasi pun)
Interchanging muscular endurance orientated HIIT with cardiovascular HIIT
Integrate HIIT into regular sessions; the first 20/30 minutes could be dedicated to muscle toning or skill based activities and, for the final 20/30 minutes, you could go nuts with you know what
But what constitutes as HIIT?
Honestly? Whatever the hell you want so long as it’s peddle to the metal, raging bull, who dares wins for the duration of the session. For example, you could (and I’m plucking these ideas out the mind purely at random) . . . you could throw five exercises together – row (250m), 10 kettlebell swings, 10 burpees, 10 plyometric box jumps, 100 punches either on a boxing bag or with resistance bands – and for 20 minutes go through them like a nymphomaniac at a swinger’s club. Yes you can rest but the period of rest should not exceed the bursts of high intense activity.
And that ladies and gentleman is at its essence HIIT.
I thought it would be a spiffing idea to finish by providing you with 4 HIIT sessions that you can have a go at. But before you rush off there are two points I want you to remember. Point 1: all of the exercises can be changed or modified to suit equipment availability and/or ability. Point 2: ensure you are thoroughly warmed up prior to engaging in the sessions below. Enjoy!
1: The idea here is to start at swings and, after completing 10 reps, proceed through the other exercises as fast as possible (ensuring to maintain good form of course). Cycle through the circuit as many times as you can in the time allotted: 10/15/20/30 minutes.
10 x KB swings
10 x KB single arm press
10 x KB single arm pulls
10 x KB squats
2: For this session set a 30 minute count-down timer on the rower (you can supplement with any CV exercise; just ensure that each set takes roughly 20 seconds to complete – which is equal to 100m of rowing at 1:45/500). How it works: perform 100m then move on to the next exercise, then back to the rower, then to the next exercise, and so on until you have worked through all 8 exercises. This would constitute completion of one full cycle. Try to get through as many cycles as you can in 30 minutes.
1) 100m Row
2) 10 KB swings
3) 100m Row
4) 10 KB single arm press
5) 100m Row
6) 10 Burpees
7) 100m Row
8) 10 Press-ups
3: The sessions so far have either focused on muscular endurance or a mixture of ME and cardio. This HIIT session is purely CV.
For 10/15/20 or 30 minutes you are to interval sprint on the rower. Two points of note here. 1) The distance should be short – no more than 300 metres. Why? Without embarking on a lesson in biology, which I know little about, the energy system that powers sprints is quickly exhausted. Thus if the sprint distance is substantial we’ll inevitably slip into the aerobic system which defeats the aim of HIIT. 2) The duration of effort should be equally balanced by the duration of rest: 20 seconds maximum effort / 20 seconds rest. It is becoming of the HIIT trainer to reduce the rest toward the last 5 minutes of the session. Be careful not to reduce rest too early as you’ll run the risk of fatiguing too early which will deteriorate the quality of your sprints.
4: Pick ‘n Mix – super high intense circuit: start at 20 seconds per exercise and, on completion of 1 to 5, increase time by 5 seconds until you reach one minute.
1) KB swings
2) KB single arm press
3) Hammer smashes (into a tyre)
4) Shadow boxing with resistance bands
5) Skipping (double under for the second half)
My aim throughout this blog was to provide you with more than just an insight into the benefits of HIIT. I wanted to create a kind of blueprint that you could use to reconstruct your exercise regime so as to access the performance enhancing powers high intensity interval training has to offer. If you have reached these concluding remarks a little more knowledgeable and with an urge to shoehorn some HIIT into your life then I have succeeded. If you’ve been left scratching you head then I've failed miserably. Either way be kind enough to let me know.
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, professional personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Naroa Etxebarria, Judith M. Anson, David B. Pyne & Richard A. Ferguson (2014) High-intensity cycle interval training improves cycling and running performance in triathletes, European Journal of Sport Science, 14:6, 521-529, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2013.853841
Niamh J. Ní Chéilleachair, Andrew J. Harrison & Giles D. Warrington (2017) HIIT enhances endurance performance and aerobic characteristics more than high-volume training in trained rowers, Journal of Sports Sciences, 35:11, 1052-1058, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1209539
Ives. L (16 February 2019) Short bursts of intense exercise 'better for weight loss' https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-47242940