“after just one brutal gym class I quickly realised that HIIT is by no means a soft option. Expect to sweat buckets”
It can be difficult to negotiate your way through an ever increasing stream of fitness trends. Hot Yoga anyone? Should you choose Juicing or Paleo? How about a spot of booty shaking Zumba? Just how can you tell a real fitness breakthrough from a short lived fad?
HIIT is one of those terms that most people would not have heard a few years ago but is now an increasing presence in fitness blogs, magazines and in the mainstream media. So what exactly does HIIT mean? HIIT is High Intensity Interval Training and involves carrying out short bursts of highly intensity exercise interspersed with short rest or active rest breaks. Think 20 seconds of burpees vs 10 seconds rest repeated over four minutes. Amongst HIIT’s many claimed benefits are reduced body fat, increased metabolism and even continued calorie burning long after your workout is over – all achieved in much shorter workout sessions than traditional regimes.
So is HIIT simply another fitness buzzword or a real sea change in how we should approach personal fitness? I have examined all that HIIT has to offer from its history, the latest research and my own experiences to determine whether HIIT can really live up to the hype.
The history of HIIT is a long and interesting one. It has been utilised in elite athlete training since as early as the 1900s. In the 1970s HIIT was used by young Sebastian Coe as part of his training regime. He would intersperse 200m rests with 30 second rest breaks.
The seminal study and often cited as the scientific basis for HIIT was carried out by Professor Izumi Tabata in Japan during 1996. In fact you may hear HIIT style routines referred to as Tabata or the Tabata Regime. Professor Tabata found that training Olympic speed skaters four times a week using intervals of short but intense training, interspersed with rest periods, caused their anaerobic capacity to increase. Overall their performance in high intensity tasks was much better.
More recent research carried out in Norway in 2007 supported the benefits of HIIT training. Researchers found that participants following a HIIT style training regime increased their rate of oxygen consumption much more significantly than groups doing either lower intensity endurance exercise or those training at a constantly high intensity. High oxygen consumption is linked to greater physical fitness and to increased calorie burn after exercise is complete.
I approached HIIT with healthy dose of scepticism. After all, how could a session that lasted just 30 minutes and included periods of doing very little provide me with a great workout? But after just one brutal gym class I quickly realised that HIIT is by no means a soft option. Expect to sweat buckets over a relatively short period of time and to pray that rest breaks would go on for just a few more seconds.
I am always impressed at the efficiency with which HIIT routines manage to wear me out, in as little as 25 minutes. Another unexpected benefit of HIIT was that it kept my brain as engaged as my body. By changing up my exercise every few minutes I didn’t get bored through repetition or have time to daydream and get lazy with technique.
HIIT can be done anywhere, even a tiny apartment, without equipment and in a very small window of time. It is easy to change up routines with different high intensity moves and there are plenty of great free routines that can be accessed online. I incorporate one or two HIIT routines into my workout regime each week and feel that it has added shape and strength to my body that I never quite achieved through hours and hours of jogging. I also find I am running up and down the stairs at work with a little more ease than I used to.
But for all the benefits of a HIIT regime it is not for everyone. If you have any underlying health problems – especially a heart condition – or you are a complete newbie to the exercise scene, then HIIT can simply be too intense and at worst plain dangerous. Friends with troublesome knees also found it could be problematic as high intensity sections can often include lots of jumping movements.
HIIT is most effective for those with a solid base level of fitness and you should pick a level of intensity that suits your personal level of ability. Intense should mean intense for you and not for an elite athlete! Like all changes to your routine you should take the time to check with your doctor that HIIT is the right fit for you. I also find that I can suffer from fatigue if I just practice HIIT and only HIIT, and it’s definitely best (like all things in life) to encourage variety in your fitness programme.
HIIT is also not the best choice if your main aim is to build muscle mass although it is highly effective at decreasing body fat without also decreasing muscle and can be combined with strength training to great effect. In fact some of the most fun HIIT routines I have completed have been those that combine a portion of HIIT with a portion of strength. This can also help you achieve a more rounded workout.
HIIT has become a regular fixture in my exercise routine and I suspect will stay there if only because it is a brilliant way of getting some hard-core training into my time poor schedule. For me it absolutely lives up to the hype and I would encourage everyone to give it a blast at some point, subject to sign off from a health professional.
HIIT has stuck around for 100 years so far, even if it is a little more famous these days. It has received wide support from researchers and fitness enthusiasts in equal measure and I suspect this is a trend that is here to stay.