Stop Trying to HIIT Everything and Just Train…
HIIT (high intensity interval training) isn’t necessarily a fad. But it seems everyone and their brother is using it these days.
- Only got 20 minutes for a workout? Crush a HIIT session.
- Haven’t touched a weight in 3 years? Time to HIIT it.
- Diabetic with blood sugar issues and poor body composition? Brace yourself, you’ve got a monster HIIT session coming your way.
But, what if we’ve got it all wrong?
Consider this – what if you walked into your doctor’s office but noticed every patient walking out with the exact same prescription? Would you still trust your doctor if they prescribed the same pill for every issue?
So then why do we trust “fitness experts” who claim that 3 rounds of a generic HIIT circuit will lead to “revolutionary fat loss”?
Make no mistake, there is an exceptionally interesting paradigm developing within the medical field – patient-centric care with an emphasis on genetic and physiological abnormalities driving individualization.
The fitness industry has started to adopt this mindset as we see DNA driven nutrition and training plans surfacing on the market. However, truth be told, we’re not at the point where we can confidently prescribe sets, reps, or grams of protein based upon SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms).
Enough surface level dialogue, let’s go deep…
HIIT: The Most Misconstrued Method
Often, HIIT is mistakenly used synonymously with the Tabata method. Folks might refer to a Tabata circuit (20/10) of bicep curls, burpees, and mountain climbers as “HIIT.” Heck, some people are even incorporating Tabata within their Olympic lifting sessions. Nothing says injury prone like a high-rep set of snatches coupled with kipping pull-ups and a 400m run.
If you’re not familiar with the term “Tabata,” it was the last name of the lead author (Izumi Tabata) who completed this study: “Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max.”
I’ll break it down for you right quick:
- Group 1 performed 60 minutes of moderate steady state cardiovascular exercise at 70% VO2 max 5x per week.
- Group 2 performed 7-8 sets of (20 seconds work/10 seconds rest) intervals at 170% VO2 max 4x per week with the 4th day differing slightly.
If you’re not too familiar with research and cycle ergometers, I’ll give you a brief back story to explain the harsh nature of this study.
When I finished up an exercise physiology class as part of my undergrad, I foolishly volunteered to demonstrate a Tabata interval as part of a lab assignment (In my defense, I didn’t know who or what Tabata was). When I climbed onto the bike and strapping my feet in, the lab assistant placed a trashcan by my left foot and whispered, “Get ready.”
After a grueling 20 seconds, I immediately started to regret my decision. After 3-4 more intervals I realized that the trash can was not for paper waste. It was strategically placed to catch my lunch which would soon be leaving my body at the conclusion of this experiment.
Long story short, Tabata isn’t possible with something like bicep curls, snatches, or pushups. You likely won’t even be able to accomplish it with battling ropes, kettlebell swings, or kipping pull-ups.
Why? Because the 170% of VO2 max used in the original study is an absolutely soul crushing level of intensity. If you have a circuit with multiple modalities, fatigue will hinder your ability to actually exhibit maximal output and get to 170% of VO2 max.
“So What? Maybe I Just Like Circuits…”
That’s fine, absolutely nothing wrong with circuits or timed blocks of density work. However, please keep in mind one very large, overarching principle which drives this conversation:
**SAID: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands**
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
What are you trying to accomplish?
If your answer was: “Burn fat and build muscle!” please keep in mind that all the research on the beneficial effects of intervals vs. steady state was conducted on cardiovascular modalities.
If your goal is to improve body composition by adding lean muscle and reducing fat, the best option will always be progressive increases in training volume over time.
However, this requires planning and an understanding of periodization in order to maximize your genetic potential. That’s another article for another time as entire books have been written on this subject.
Your body is exceptionally good at adapting to acute stressors provided they are consistent in intensity, volume, and duration. Over time, your body will seek to bring systems back into balance and acquire homeostasis (aka the status quo).
But, in the case of HIIT, we find most workouts are exceedingly high volume with little concern for fatigue management. When you mix high workloads with little to no rest and prolonged exposure, you find that systems have a hard time adapting in the long run.
The Delusion of Fatigue
So, what has brought about this sudden resurgence of popularity within the world of high intensity intervals?
For starters, I think we can thank our good friends within the Crossfit community. They have popularized the synergy of high intensity, excessive fatigue, and systemic stress.
However, we tend to run into issues when we prioritize fatigue over an increase in performance specific variables.
You see, there’s a very important concept known as the fitness-fatigue paradigm. It seeks to simplistically explain what happens after a workout from a physiologically standpoint.
Most folks (incorrectly) assume that the physical act of training is what enhances their fitness and performance. But, in actuality, training does the opposite – your system is at its weakest following a hard session.
Fatigue is the result of stress needed in order to generate adaptation. However, we run into issues when we don’t allow fatigue to dissipate. If the stressor is chronic with highly variable workloads, then the body won’t be able to adapt in a systematic and calculated fashion.
This is where HIIT advocates struggle. I have yet to see a HIIT “recovery circuit” in the true sense of the word. It’s seems that fatigue is their primary marker of progress as an inability to catch your breath is the gold standard of “effectiveness.”
If you run long enough and hard enough, you’ll eventually catch what you’re after. In the world of HIIT, that equates to slow progression and high rates of fatigue due to poorly managed workloads.
Be very careful what you chase.
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