It always pays to be wary of health and weight loss programmes that scream at you that they “guarantee results in six minutes a day” or something similarly magical-sounding. But exercise science has also come a long way from the pseudo-science that preached that just “pounding the pavement” or simply accumulating countless hours in the gym was the only way to get sustainable results.
In that sense, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) might just sound like the latest fad, but it’s actually an evidence-based training approach that can radically slash the total time you have to work out, without compromising on the results.
Interested? Then read on.
What is HIIT?
Despite the catchy name, HIIT is not a fad. It’s actually an umbrella term for a specific type of training that has been used by elite sports teams and athletes for years now. HIIT is the term that is used when a person reaches 85% of their maximum heart rate for a short period, followed by a rest, then a return to that 85% maximum again.
Working out your maximum heart rate is easy too: simply grab your phone, open the calculator then subtract your age from 220. So if you’re a 40-year-old man, your theoretical maximum heart rate is 180. 85% of that is 153. That’s the rate you need to get to in order to be training in the high intensity range.
Why Bother With HIIT?
Ah yes – the big question. Why bother training to this fairly intense level? For most of us, we don’t generally approach this level of exertion during our regular workouts. A weight training session might get people to 60% – 70% of their maximum heart rate only during challenging sets, while a gentle jog around the block is unlikely to get your heart pumping to 85% either.
But those exercises don’t give you the science-backed benefits of HIIT:
- Better Results, More Quickly – Put simply, HIIT burns more calories, more quickly. Scientific studies published in 2015 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that HIIT burned almost a third more calories than other exercises. That means that you can either get 30% more bang for your buck or exercise for 30% less time for the same results. So HIIT is the best way to lose weight and get fit.
- Sustained Calorie Burning – HIIT exercises can increase your resting calorie burning rate for hours after the actual training has completed. It also shifts your body towards consuming fat for energy, rather than other energy stores.
- Better Aerobic Ability, Faster – If you are training for an endurance event like a half-marathon or triathlon, you might be tempted to spend hours on the bike or running. But a study by Chinese researchers from 2016 shows that incorporating HIIT improves oxygen consumption by almost 10% after just five weeks. That will make a big difference when it comes to the time in your event that you feel like you are at your limit.
How Do I Incorporate HIIT?
One of the best parts about HIIT is that it doesn’t require expensive equipment, fancy supplements or any other complicated programmes. All you need is a stopwatch, and if you have one, a Fitbit or other heart rate monitor to check that your heart rate is reaching that magical 85% level. Here are some examples of HIIT in different settings:
- Running – Do a gentle jog to warm up for five minutes. Now sprint as though you are Usain Bolt at the London Olympics for 30 seconds, before returning to a jogging pace for 90 seconds to recover. Do this four times. As you get fitter, increase your sprint time to 45 seconds and reduce your recovery time, or increase the frequency to five or six times.
- Biking – Either on a stationary or road bike, warm up for five minutes. Now stand up and push the pedals as fast as you possibly can for 30 seconds, as though you are attempting to win the Green (sprinters) Jersey in the Tour de France. If you are on the road, we recommend you find a straight section for this part. Return to a regular cycling pace for 90 seconds to two minutes. Repeat this process four times. As your ability increases, increase the number of times you do this, or increase your sprints while decreasing your rest times.
- Swimming – Warm up with three to four gentle laps. Focussing on maintaining good technique and staying high in the water, exert yourself at full sprint pace for the length of one lap. Return to a slower endurance building pace for two to three laps immediately following. Repeat four times.
Modifications and Equipment
The protocols above are great for beginners because they can be adapted easily. For example, if after you have completed the sprint/high intensity section, you are unable to maintain a jog or a slower pace, that’s fine. Instead, you can rest fully by coming to a stop before starting your next sprint. It’s important to remember this is supposed to feel hard. The trade-off for spending less time overall working out or running is that you have to exert yourself harder for the time you actually do spend training.
That’s why a heart rate monitor is probably a good investment if you are going to take up this form of training, so you can measure how close you are getting to 85% of your maximum heart rate. The good news is that after years of competition between the big brands, these aren’t that expensive any more. Entry level models are available in store and online for less than $50 now – not a huge investment compared to what you spent on your last pair of shoes or gym membership!
The Final Word
The benefits of HIIT are almost too good to be true for busy professionals looking to maintain or grow their fitness base with limited time to spend working out in between the demands of jobs, family life and just finding time to relax. But more intense workouts using this protocol can result in faster, more tangible results, with less time spent exercising – and those are certainly good enough reasons for almost anyone to give it a try.