High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts have been trending these past few years.
Ever since the study High-Intensity Circuit Training Using Body Weight: Maximum Results With Minimal Investment was published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal in 2013, the fitness industry has moved up a notch.
Thanks to the authors and exercise scientists Brett Klika and Chris Jordan, who gave a sample workout consisting of 12 exercises to be performed in seven minutes, there has been an explosion of similar workouts all over the world.
Lately, more gyms and health and wellness centres worldwide have begun spicing all kinds of workouts up with HIIT – there’s HIIT yoga, HIIT Pilates, HIIT swimming, HIIT skipping, HIIT glutes and abs, etc.
For the uninitiated, HIIT is a training technique where you exercise all-out for very short periods of time, giving 100% effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by a short rest or active recovery period, before working hard again.
This type of training gets and keeps your heart rate up, and blasts away fat in less time.
An entire HIIT session usually lasts for about 10 to 30 minutes. It’s simply impossible to go beyond that if you’re really working hard.
HIIT versus regular workout
Shorter exercise periods, more gains, better fitness, beautiful body – isn’t that what we all strive for in our time-strapped life?
“From our work with elite performers, we have learned that managing energy is the key to sustaining high performance.
“However, when facing seemingly infinite demands, one’s ability to manage and expand physical energy can be severely compromised.
“This can result in persistent fatigue (physical, but also emotional and mental) and a growing level of disengagement with one’s career, family, friends and personal well-being, which can ultimately lead to performance failure.
“Regular aerobic and resistance training are two of the strategies we suggest to help individuals manage and expand their physical energy, prevent fatigue and sustain engagement in those things that really matter to them,” wrote the authors.
While HIIT involves doing a single or few exercises at high intensity broken up by breaks, high-interval circuit training (HICT) comprises lots of different exercises with small breaks or rests in between.
Both are not new concepts, and the key words are “high-intensity” and “interval”.
There is a growing body of research comparing traditional workouts with HIIT-style regimens.
The conclusions are similar: that interval-training plans are either better than, or equal to, regular exercise.
One of the pioneers of HIIT workouts is actually researcher Izumi Tabata from the Japanese National Institute of Fitness and Sports.
Tabata and his team made up several four-minute exercises to see if athletes would benefit from a 20/10 session repeated eight times, i.e. 20 seconds of all-out exercise, followed by 10 seconds of rest.
He published a seminal study in 1996, suggesting that short bursts of intense strength training could yield better results than a traditional workout.
In 2013, researchers published a review of studies in the International Journal of Cardiology, looking at nearly 500 participants who did either regular exercise or interval training.
While they found roughly equivalent benefits in terms of heart health for people who did both workouts, the interval trainers had better peak oxygen uptake – an important measure of endurance.
In Klika and Jordan’s suggestion, the goal is to exercise four parts of the body: cardiovascular endurance, lower body, upper body and core.
The strategy is to stick to the sequence, so that each muscle group has nearly two minutes to rest before being challenged again. Their sample workout comprised of:
1. Jumping jacks
2. Wall sit
4. Abdominal crunches
5. Step-up onto a chair
7. Triceps dip on a chair
9. High knees, running in place
10. Alternating lunges
11. Push-ups with rotation
12. Side plank, alternating sides
I’m a strong proponent of this workout because I’ve seen great improvements in my fitness level, although I’ve been slacking lately and doing HIIT only sparingly.
With so many workout options available, I’m spoilt for choices, and by the time I make up my mind, the sun has set and I end up going for a night walk-cum-jog instead, which means I haven’t been expending much energy!
Is HIIT for me?
For the newbie, watching a HIIT class can be intimidating.
Youngsters want the thrill of the fast and furious workouts, while the older ones have been there, done that and want something less strenuous.
Nevertheless, HIIT is an excellent workout option for people of all ages who are in good physical health.
The type of exercise doesn’t matter, as long as you alternate really intense, all-out bursts of the exercise with less intense intervals.
Many people assume HIIT means doing the hardest variation possible of an exercise, but that’s not true.
Intensity varies among each individual, depending on their fitness level, age and health status.
A HIIT programme for a 55-year-old may comprise brisk walking on an incline for the high intensity portion, which may be enough to get the heart rate up.
Doing slow hip bridges lying on a mat or a normal walk on a flat terrain should be sufficient for the rest or active recovery portion.
In contrast, a millennial may perform burpees or high-knee runs in place for the high intensity portion, followed by walking around for the brief break period.
When it comes to putting toge-ther a HIIT mix, pick a version of a movement you can perform with correct alignment.
Poor form and technique should not be compromised for high volume of work because they will eventually lead to injury. If you cannot do a full push-up, modify it by placing the knees on the floor.
What feels tough for one person is not the same for the next person.
However, at the end of the workout, if you’re still bouncing with energy, then chances are you haven’t put in the intensity required, so you’re not going to see much difference on the body analysis scale.
But the reality is that HIIT is not suitable for everyone.
If you’re not someone who can be pushed to your maximum capability, then stick to conventional exercise. You’ll still gain the benefits, but at a slower pace.
HIIT is a no-no if you have an existing injury or illness such as cancer, are pregnant, suffer from osteoporosis or high blood pressure, have a heart condition or recently undergone cardiac surgery, or are obese.
If you have no prior knowledge of basic exercises such as planks, squats or lunges, learn how to do them properly first and get your fitness level up before attempting HIIT.
Pushing too hard too fast will set you back.
Also, if you’re feeling exhausted, give HIIT a miss. Working on a body that is already fatigued is counter-productive.
It may be short and effective, but HIIT shouldn’t be your only workout – you still need to add in strength and flexibility training for overall fitness.
For most people, it’s a fitness-boosting addition to their exercise regime two, or maximum, three times a week.
And don’t do HIIT for two consecutive days. Always leave a day or two in between HIIT workouts so your muscles get enough rest and recovery time.
More importantly, enjoy what you do, and chances are, you’ll stick to it long enough to notice a difference.