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Where HIIT Workouts Go Wrong

sandbag workouts

HIIT (high intensity interval training) has a very polarizing impact on people. Some think it is the best training method every invented and others think it is the worst. The truth is that HIIT can be very effective, but how it is used for a variety of people varies greatly. The health benefits are many ranging from cognitive to fat loss, gaining lean muscle, and improved endurance, however, the importance is how we use out and who we use it for.

hiit workouts

The above may shock people but it is based on a 2014 paper in the American College Of Sports Medicine, “High-intensity interval training: A review of physiological and psychological responses”. Such research (as there is quite a bit) flies in the face of many that claim an aerobic base is necessary and HIIT isn’t good. This is especially interesting to see how VO2max can be improved greater by HIIT than more moderate forms of aerobic exercise (VO2max is typically what people think of as having good endurance and being in “good shape”).

Trust me, I have no problem doing lower intensity training for recovery, mental healthy, and increased general activity and enjoyment. However, that isn’t how many people position more aerobic forms of training and now that we understand what most people say about HIIT is myth, let’s look at some important considerations.

Should Everyone Do HIIT?

I think it is important to note that HIIT isn’t right for everyone. Obviously if you have an injury, recovering from an injury, or have health considerations that may be contraindicated, then you probably shouldn’t use HIIT. If you are generally healthy though and have been cleared by your doctor to exercise, then we can find really beneficial ways to use HIIT.

How To Introduce HIIT

If you are starting a fitness program and haven’t performed strength training either in a very long time or ever, you probably shouldn’t use HIIT as your form of strength training. You can use HIIT intervals for a stationary bike, elliptical, rower, etc. We could even use HIIT with tools like battle ropes and sleds. The fact these have far less technique and risk of injury if performed incorrectly, you can push yourself when you get very fatigued.

Beginners often need to understand proper movement before we can introduce intensity so a base of at least 3 months is probably needed. That doesn’t mean we can’t introduce HIIT workouts to people once that base is created. The most effective way is to begin with 30 seconds of work and 30 seconds of rest. This allows people the ability to build more volume of work, learn how to create the right intensity, keep their form more easily, and allows recovery (which is key for HIIT workouts to work).

Coach Robin Padget shows a great series of drills that would work for a 30:30 workout

Selecting The Right Exercises

A BIG issue with a lot of HIIT workouts on the internet is they are poorly designed for HIIT. They either are too low intensity and not full body such as biceps curls, abdominal exercises, and the like (mostly isolated exercises are terrible for HIIT workouts), or they are way too complicated making it impossible for the lifter to deliver any real intensity or volume. This means that you have to look for full body type of lifts that focus on movement patterns (even an upper body push for example can integrate the whole body) and be honest honest with your ability to perform the movements well.

Firefighter Jordan Ponder shows some better exercises that would fit into a good HIIT workout

Progressing HIIT Workouts

One of the BIGGEST issues with most HIIT workouts (besides poor exercise selection) is how we progress the training. Many far too often fall into the trap in increasing work time and decreasing rest. Listen, I’m not telling you going to 40 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest isn’t REALLY challenging, but when it comes to actually benefitting (other than just getting really tired) from your HIIT workouts you need recovery.

That is why renown strength coach, Robert Dos Remedios uses a different progressional system using decreased work and increased rest. I know that sounds OPPOSITE of what good HIIT workouts should be, but there is caveat. This means that you need to go heavier and because you are going to aim for a certain number of repetitions that you look to perform, the intensity is going to be VERY high.

30:30 (10-15 reps)

20:40 (8-10 reps)

15:45 (6-8 reps)

As you see we start with a 30:30, then we go to 20 seconds of work and 40 seconds of rest, then 15 seconds of work and 45 second of rest. This may seem insane to many, but it makes a lot of sense as when we increase work and decrease rest we actually reduce the intensity we can perform. My favorite example is this…imagine if we went to the track and asked you to run one time around as fast as you could, at least 90% of your maximal effort. Then what would happen if we did it again but I only gave you 20 seconds of rest? You would probably run slower and have to pace it more because you weren’t close enough to being recovered. The same goes for your HIIT workouts.

Adding rep protocols into the equation is HUGE because it tells us how hard we need to go as many think HIIT workouts are just about “going hard” (which is vague) and they don’t have much of a goal other than seeing if they feel tired. This way they can still strength training (maybe even more so) and get conditioning at the same time.

The best part is we can combine these methods to have HIIT workouts work the best for us as working just 15:45 or 20:40 can be too much for people especially if you are not use to it. In the example Cory Cripe gives below you can start the first exercise with 15:45 each side, then a 20:40 each side, then a 30:30 for the last 3 exercises. That way we have balance and you can really push yourself on the 15:45’s and 20:40’s. Try it and see how effective we can really make HIIT workouts.

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