HIIT has been a popular style of training for the last decade, commonly referred to as the best way to get fit quick. I was introduced to it just before it became the fitness industry’s buzzword, and was taken through a brutal workout to demonstrate the concept. Back then it was still a niche thing for elite athletes: now it’s the main event on the schedule in gyms across the world.
I love HIIT and I believe many people would benefit from introducing it into their training routines. That being said, people need to understand what it actually is and know how to implement it properly.
So what is HIIT?
It stands for High Intensity Interval training. There are many benefits to training this way, including burning a lot of calories in a short amount of time; boosting your metabolic rate after exercise; helping you to lose fat; reducing your standing heart-rate and blood pressure; and reducing your blood sugar levels.
Great, right? The problem is, lots of people are doing it wrong. The key is in the name, especially intensity and interval. When I see people doing what they believe to be “HIIT” workouts – even with dedicated “HIIT trainers” – I very rarely see any HIIT actually happening. What I see is circuit training, which has its place, but is a different, less intense style of workout.
HIIT essentially condenses a challenging workout into a short amount of time. Within this time you need to really push yourself to see the benefits. High intensity doesn’t just mean getting a bit sweaty and out of breath, it means pushing yourself to around 90-100 per cent of your maximum effort, for no more than 20 seconds at a time. You then repeat this a number of times, with a longer rest between each interval. If you’re incorporating weights into a HIIT workout, you need to think carefully about the volume being lifted, aiming for a weight that’s close to something you could only safely lift once; throwing a 3kg dumbbell around for 30 minutes does not count as intense.
Have you ever pushed yourself to this intensity? It’s extremely uncomfortable, which means people often shy away. It puts a huge amount of stress on the body, and it’s something I would only recommend for people with a bit of experience in the gym.
The “interval” part is also crucial. A common training technique is “20 seconds on, 10 seconds off”, and people mistake this as interval training. In fact, the “interval” in HIIT refers to your heart rate. It’s about working with your body’s recovery times. So when you’re in the “work phase”, your heart rate should be at 90-100 per cent of your maximum effort for a period of around 20 seconds. You should then take an interval until your heart rate comes right back down.
This is usually along the lines of 1:3 or 2:5. In practice this might be 20 seconds of burpees followed by a 50 second rest. Your heart rate should be a series of spikes throughout your workout, and if you’re just getting started, wearing a heart rate monitor is basically essential in order to keep track.
Time is always a big factor in people’s fitness journeys, which makes HIIT particularly effective. Instead of working longer, you can work smarter, taking advantage of short intervals of high intensity exercise. But don’t overdo it: you should only schedule in two or three HIIT sessions a week, with at least 48 hours between sessions to allow your energy stores to replenish and muscle tissue to repair.
You can still train the day after a HIIT session, but it should be moderate intensity using different muscle groups or movement patterns.
An easy way to get started with your own HIIT workout is using the rower and a pair of dumbbells. Row as hard as you can for 20 seconds. Rest for 50, then perform dumbbell thrusters for 20 seconds. Select a weight that’s challenging; you should struggle to finish 10 reps. Repeat this format five times – the workout should take no longer than 20 minutes. Do it properly and regularly and you’ll really start to see results.
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