High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT or HIT training) is a buzzword that has been floating around the fitness industry for the last few years. You may have heard it mentioned by your trainer or a friend but wondered what was so special about it. After all, aren’t all your workouts intense? While that three mile run might have felt like a challenging workout, that doesn’t always equate to intense. Exercise Intensity refers to how much energy is consumed during exercise, and it takes more energy to move a body faster over the same distance. Think about gas mileage in your car. If you drove 90 miles at 55 MPH, you might use three gallons of gas. How much more gas would you use if you accelerated as fast as you could for one mile and then drove 40 MPH for three miles? The same concept applies to your body. By working as hard as you can for a short amount of time, and then working at a lower intensity to recover, you push your body to increase that initial maximum level and burn more energy in the process.
As we learn more about the science behind exercise, the benefits of HIIT training versus traditional cardio are becoming more apparent. While traditional cardio challenges your endurance, HIIT training challenges you in the same way both an endurance AND resistance workout would. This basically gives you a double- whammy resulting in significantly greater increases in your ability to do cardio vs something like a traditional treadmill workout, while also giving you an increase in strength. The end result? You burn more calories in the process.
Research has shown that 27 minutes of HIIT, 3x/week, is equal to 60 minutes of traditional endurance based cardio 5x/week. The next time you’re wondering if you should come in when you’re running 15 minutes late, the definitive answer is YES! You can still challenge your body to the point of improvement even within that 30 minute remainder.
One form of HIIT that you may have heard of is Tabata. Tabata consists of eight rounds of alternating 20 second work periods and 10 second rest periods, totaling four minutes for one set. You may not think four minutes is much, but due to the exercises being more difficult, that four minutes feels like 10! Start with three or four rounds, and gradually work your way up to nine or ten over the course of a few months.
You may be wondering “If HIIT is so great, why don’t I just do it all the time?”. The answer to that lies right in the name: intensity. HIIT is much more strenuous and difficult than your average cardio bout. Simply replacing your 60 minutes of cardio 5x/week with HIIT is neither safe, nor effective, for the average person. Your body needs time to recover between HIIT workouts much like it does when you perform a strength training session.
If you’re new to fitness, you should ideally start by working out 3-5x/week for 20-60 minutes at an above moderate intensity. This works to establish a base fitness level and helps prevent future injury down the road when you turn up the intensity. During this time, your trainer can work with you on enhancing your base endurance, establishing good form, improving your balance, and increasing your flexibility. All these things contribute to your ability to successfully and safely complete a HIIT session. If you have already been consistently working out for some time, consider replacing one day of your current workout with one day of HIIT. After 4-6 weeks, you might even want to consider adding in a second if you feel ready.
Once you begin, it is important to remember that even though you want to keep your intensity up, your safety always comes first. Maintaining good form to protect your body is more important than keeping your intensity up. Listen to the feedback from your body and balance it with the feedback from your trainer. If they’re reminding you to keep your hips up on your last set of pushups but you’re too gassed to keep good form, ask for a way to modify the exercise. Your workout won’t suffer and your body will thank you in the long run. Next time your workouts plateau, consider adding a HIIT session to your routine to push you through it and get back to making gains!