Running on a beach or cycling through mountains is an amazing experience that makes any physical activity seem pretty secondary because there beautiful views everywhere you look, it makes you want to keep going that bit longer just to keep the experience going.
The same sort of cardio in the gym can be agonizing work that can’t end soon enough. This is the no.1 reason why fitness enthusiasts have been choosing to cut their cardio time in the gym in half by using what is known as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). You can gain equal or greater health and fitness benefits than you would get from double the amount of steady-state cardio.
There is a catch though, if you’re new to HIIT, it refers to alternating rounds of intense, really intense bursts of activity with lower-intensity recovery periods. If you are doing it right, every round of work is an ordeal you can’t wait to be done with.
There is a reward for this grueling undertaking though, researchers have been digging deep into HiiT in recent years and have found out that there are many ways in which it can help transform your body and improve crucial health markers.
Let us take a better look at the benefits of HiiT and see what protocol is best for you.
The traditional approach to improving cardiovascular fitness has always been to increase the volume or duration of exercise. This means running longer, longer bike rides or extended periods of time on the elliptical. Science however is showing that it is not the only way.
The most widely accepted standard of cardiovascular fitness is VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption. Think of it as your body’s engine. The larger it is, the more efficient you are at any level of exertion and the more powerful overall.
HIIT has made some positive headlines thanks to a number of studies showing that a pretty small amount of it is just as good at improving maximal oxygen consumption or VO2 max as longer duration, continuous exercise.
A higher VO2 max means your body is more efficient at delivering oxygen to your working muscles which in turn then allows you to produce more energy and perform more work. It is one of those strengths that pays off in countless ways.
I’m sure you have heard of the fat-burning zone with steady-state cardio. Some of us have even gone a step further and started our day that way, for an hour, fasted, whilst the rest of the world was asleep.
It is true that lower-intensity cardio burns a greater number of calories from fat, the total calories burned and fat breakdown is greater at higher intensities. How much greater though? Researchers from the McMaster University found that it took only 10 minutes of HIIT to burn the same amount of calories as 50 minutes of steady-state cardio.
Another great benefit of HIIT is it’s potential to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Following an exercise session, oxygen consumption stays elevated as the body tries to restore the body’s physiological and metabolic pathways back down to pre-exercise levels. Getting them back there requires more calories to be burned. EPOC is related to exercise intensity, the harder you work, the harder the body has to work to recover. HIIT can lead to greater EPOC compared to lower-intensity activity, allowing you to burn extra calories long after the workout is done.
HIIT can also serve to increase fat oxidation, which is the body’s ability to break down and utilize fat as an energy source. A study from Canadian researchers found that just six weeks of HIIT increased fat oxidation and decreased the reliance on carbohydrates during exercise.
Taken together, these studies can help to explain why more researchers have observed dramatic body-composition changes taking place in HIIT studies in a fraction of the time they take with normal steady-state cardio.
The word ‘high-intensity’ might bring to mind mental images of athletes doing shuttle runs or fitness models gasping for air on a stationary bike. But make no mistake here, HIIT isn’t just good for the super fit. It’s effective at improving health and fitness in a range of populations, including those with type-2 diabetes or heart disease.
Research that has been published in Diabetes Care found significant improvements in glycemic control, body mass and abdominal fat in type-2 diabetes following 12 weeks of HIIT. Additionally, researchers out of the University of South Wales in Sydney, Australia found improvements in resting heart rate, stroke volume, blood pressure and arterial stiffness after just 12 weeks of HIIT.
Couple this with other studies on the subject finding improvements in cholesterol levels following 10 weeks of HIIT and you’ve got a time-efficient way to improve your overall health and look better too.
HIIT can improve your cardio performance, endurance athletes know this, they’ve been doing intervals as part of their training for decades. The benefits can also be carried over to the weight room as well.
I’m sure you have also experienced that burning sensation that builds up in your muscles after a few sets of any weighted exercise. Many wrongly assume the burn is lactic acid, it is actually caused by the accumulation of hydrogen ions. This buildup of hydrogen ions can lower your body’s pH levels, leading to fatigue and the inability of your muscles to contract.
Steady-state cardio doesn’t have you reaching intensities high enough to challenge and thus improve your body’s ability to buffer or neutralize hydrogen ions. However, HIIT appears to do the trick instead. A study published in the European Journal of he Applied Physiology found that even just six sessions of HIIT spread across four weeks improved skeletal muscle buffering capacity, time to fatigue, peak power output and 40K time trails in trained cyclists.
You may not be that concerned with your 40K time-trial performance but increasing your buffering capacity has other benefits that may have more appeal. For one, it does mean you can take higher intensities and durations of exercise with no fatigue.
For gym rats, that can equate to having some gas in the chamber near the end of your workout for extra sets or for condensing the entire workout into a shorter period of time. Whatever the case may be, it does mean your body has a stronger stimulus to grow.
You might not have a problem peddling a stationary bike nowhere for 60 minutes but do you enjoy it?
HIIT on the other hand has been shown in multiple studies to be more enjoyable than steady-state cardio. A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences has found that people tended to enjoy shorter, high-intensity bouts of exercise more than longer, steady-state activity. Additionally, research out of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) reported higher levels of enjoyment doing HIIT compared to continuous exercise in overweight and obese people.
The smallest time commitment and overall enjoyment could mean you are more likely to stick to your program long enough to see some decent results.
HIIT intensity is like a double-edged sword. On the one hand you have the fact it is time-efficient but on the other it tends to be more stressful than lower-intensity cardio which makes it’s place in your workout program important.
Right after a lower-body workout is probably not a good idea, your body won’t be recovered properly from the lifting session to reach the desired intensity for long enough to see true adaptations to HIIT.
Likewise, you want your HIIT training to compliment, not compound the training stress caused by strength training. Many athletes who resistance train are afraid that cardio will interfere with their gains. Actually, the amount of interference between cardio and resistance training is more closely related to the volume of endurance training you’re doing than the intensity.
Because HIIT usually hits the same muscle fibers as strength training, it’s wise to save your HIIT for days where your lifting sessions do not include lower-body exercises. Chest and arm days would work best dependent on what type of HIIT you do.
If you really must do HIIT on lower-body days, give yourself a recovery window of around 6-8 hours after weights before you perform HIIT. This will give you a long enough time to recover and fuel your muscles, but not so long that DOMS starts to set in.
There are many way s you can do HIIT but normally speaking, work intervals should be around 20-90 seconds with a work to rest ratio of 1:1 to 1:3. The duration of the work interval is directly related to intensity, the higher the intensity, the shorter the duration. If you’ve got access to a heart-rate monitor, make sure to keep the intensity level around 85% or higher of your max heart rate during your intervals.
The workouts do not have to be super fancy with the workouts. A solid HIIT workout can be done almost anywhere, using any piece of equipment, in a number of different interval arrangements.
This is an example of an easy template to follow:
Treadmill Sprints – 45 Second HIIT duration, 75 secs rest done for 8-10 rounds.
Stationary bike – 30 Second HIIT duration, 60 Seconds of rest done for 8-10 rounds.
Prowler (sled) push – 30 Yard HIIT duration, 30-45 seconds rest done for 10-12 rounds.
Battle ropes – 20 Seconds HIIT duration, 40 seconds rest done for 5-8 rounds.
Jump rope – 60 Seconds HIIT duration, 30 seconds rest done for 10 rounds.
Just so I can be clear on this point, there is nothing wrong with doing steady-state exercise. And despite what some people say online, you don’t have to pick one style over another, there can be room for a brisk hike and a sweat soaked rower workout.
Just make sure to up the intensity of your HIIT workout each time as the benefits are just too good to miss out on. Click here for another great way to burn off excess body and belly fat.
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