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Should you rethink High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?

  |   Gimmicks, Guest Posts, Training   |   13 Comments

[Photo credit: Crossfit Kandahar]

Today, we’re fortunate enough to have Anthony Mychal from anthonymychal.com guest post here at Reveal The Steel.

Anthony MychalAnthony’s a fantastic writer (see creds at the bottom), well versed in functional/practical training and makes my own ramblings appear on par with that of a pre-schooler.

Also, his mantra ties-in wonderfully with the ‘no bullsh*t’ and ‘gimmick’ free sentiment I continually try to purvey throughout the site. Thankfully, the topic he covers today is also in-line with the methodology I preach in my own up-coming book. I consider that a WIN all-round.

Take it away Anthony…

The public perception of HIIT is kind of like the public perception of bacon: it’s always good.

So—
Fat loss?
Do HIIT.
Conditioning?
Do HIIT.
Explosiveness?
Do HIIT.
But the hype of HIIT is just that: “hype.” HIIT is more scrapple than bacon. And before you condemn me, at least give me a chance to tell you about the real bacon. The good stuff. The stuff that really is awesome anytime, anyplace.

Why you’re served HIIT

America’s fitness industry was born through aerobics. Some guy named Kenneth Cooper did some lab tests and before anyone could blink, “aerobics” was the answer to every fitness question. Longevity? Do aerobics. Health? Do aerobics. Sports? Do aerobics.

And then not too long ago, in the wonderful underground fitness community, people banded together and spilled their guts: they hated the boredom and time commitment that came with jogging and aerobics.

High intensity interval training then became the favorite. It saved time and was said to be more effective than aerobic training. The original questions now carried a different answer. Longevity? Do HIIT. Health? HIIT. Sports? HIIT.

But the transition, as a whole, was shady.

The studies that claimed HIIT’s superiority? Iffy. The thought that jogging is the only form of aerobic training? Wrong. And don’t even get me started on what this has done to our athletes.

The sad truth is that HIIT, despite carrying credence, is swirling with gimmicks.

Losing weight is rooted in energy balance. Old thermodynamics. Calories in vs. calories out. The unfancy, unmarketable, unglorified part of getting jacked.

HIIT…a gimmick?

Zealots claim HIIT as being everything from more “natural” to being better at burning calories. But take the former. Aerobic running is crucial to the survival of a lot of primitive tribes via persistence hunting. Persistence hunting is basically wounding an animal and chasing it until it collapses because—get this—animals can’t sweat. Humans, however, can.

Now, if humans weren’t “born” for aerobic activity, why would we be able to sweat? And why would the aerobic system be the most efficient energy pathway?

Sure, it’s nothing more than a loose connection and a loose thought, but it throws “natural” out of the window.

Does HIIT burn more calories?

Losing weight is rooted in energy balance. Old thermodynamics. Calories in vs. calories out. The unfancy, unmarketable, unglorified part of getting jacked. But there are two problems with HIIT and thermodynamics in the fat battle.

#1 Sub-par training frequency

Let’s throw out some hypotheticals. Say ten minutes of HIIT burns 300 calories (EPOC included), and 45 minutes of brisk walking burns 200 calories. I’d say this is a fair assumption.

HIIT is the clear winner here. But there’s a problem: HIIT is an intense form of training, and can’t be done frequently. Basically, if you’re doing more than three HIIT sessions per week, you aren’t doing HIIT. Dan John’s idea of HIIT includes Tabata intervals, a barbell, and front squats. Now that’s HIIT. And that can’t be done every day.

So HIIT guys and gals train three days per week, at a hit of 300 calories per session. That’s 900 calories per week.
But the walking crew goes daily at a hit of 200 calories. That’s 1400 calories.

Who’s winning?

#2 HIIT becomes less effective over time

After a few weeks, the initial adaptations associated HIIT (and other forms of lactic training) level off. This is like lifting weights and hitting a wall on your program. Imagine training for five weeks and making zero progress. No more weight on the bar. No more reps. Just training for the sake of training. Well, that can be happening with your HIIT.

After the first few weeks, the lactate-specific adaptations take place and the body doesn’t get as thrown out of whack. It’s like jumping in ice water. At first contact, you’re eyeballs spin on axis. But it gets easier to do with time. Of course, you can also add to the duration but then you’re kind of defeating the time perk of the method.

Let’s talk about bacon

It may seem like I hate HIIT, but I know it has uses. For instance, short and intense training sessions can boost growth hormone secretion and contribute to other goodies.

What I’m fighting against, however, is using HIIT in total replacement of aerobic training, and all of the claimed shenanigans dismissing aerobic training.

Because, in truth, aerobic training is the bacon. It’s good anytime and with any meal. And before you freak out, aerobic training doesn’t have to be distance running. In fact, I don’t want you to mindlessly run for distances.

In order for something to be “aerobic,” the only real requirement is maintaining a respectable heart rate range. You can do fancy calculations (60-80% of 220-age) to find your individual aerobic range, or you can just shoot for 130-150 BPM.

In this vain, lifting weights can very well take an aerobic tone by monitoring your heart rate and not slopping around in between sets. Superset non-competing exercises (presses and pulls, for example), or do some kind of inter-set filler exercise if you want to stay fresh on one specific exercise. Here’s a sample squat workout:

Set of squats
Let the heart rate return to 130 BPM
Jump rope for 30 seconds
Let the heart rate return to 130 BPM
Set of squats
Repeat

Another alternative? Tempo runs, which are essentially “low intensity intervals.” Go to a track and run at 70% max speed until your heart rate reaches the upper end of the aerobic zone. Then walk or do some low intensity exercise (push-ups, mobility work, ab work) until it recovers to the lower end of the aerobic zone. Repeat. Twenty minutes is all you need. It’s hardly the gerbil treadmill jaunting.

So it’s not that I hate HIIT. But it’s hyped for the wrong reasons. The pendulum swung to it just as blindly as it swung to aerobic work.

Should you rethink High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?
[Photo credit: The National Guard]

Why you need aerobic training

The aerobic system is the base for any other form of energy system training. A better aerobic system even means better effort during HIIT. On top of that, it’s of a low enough intensity to be done frequently, meaning your eyeballs won’t dangle from their sockets, hanging from their optic nerve.

HIIT is an intense training method that’s best cycled. This maximizes its effectiveness and prevents staleness. When talking about maximal effort, having a negative work-to-rest interval (that means have a rest period less than the work period) is no joke.

Filling the holes

So it’s not that I hate HIIT. But it’s hyped for the wrong reasons. The pendulum swung to it just as blindly as it swung to aerobic work. And I know that there are a lot of “holes” here that might have you ripping your hair out. For instance, there’s no mention of EPOC—something the HIIT crowd holds dear.

But I can assure you EPOC and all of the other goodies are discussed in The Myth of HIIT, which is an in depth dive into the relationship between HIIT and aerobic training. And before you think this is a cheesy sales pitch, it’s not. The book is f.r.e.e. No attached strings. No e-mail bartering. Just a link for you to click. That’s all. Absolutely free.
Click here to get The Myth of HIIT absolutely free.

Aren’t you glad you’re one of Clint’s awesome readers?

Be sure to litter the comments section below with questions, comments, and concerns. I’d love to hear your opinion.

AUTHOR - Anthony Mychal

Anthony Mychal exists at the crossroad between fitness and athleticism. As a professional, he’s a writer appearing on the likes of T-Nation, LIVESTRONG.com, STACK, and Greatist. As a dude, he’s a self-proclaimed performance junkie that practices martial arts tricking. He splatters his ideas about building a body that matters on a weekly basis at his blog.

  • Bowing to your greatness. Thanks for helping dispel all those crazy myths that steady state is evil.

    :-)
    Jackie

  • Anthony,

    Great analysis of HIIT. Personally I find a combination of both works for me. I find that both provide me with different results and mixing it up helps me avoid boredom.

    Niko

    • Niko, I think for “general fitness purposes,” cycling through HIIT work is best. Aerobic training is kind like the cake. HIIT is the icing, if you’re into that sort of thing.

      You don’t need icing to have a cake, and some people don’t enjoy icing all that much. But for those that do, it makes it all the better.

  • paul d

    Great post Anthony,

    What I liked about this post was that it was very balanced. For me, my experiences with trialling HIIT lead to the sub-par frequency issues you outlined on the blog post. For some reason (maybe you have some ideas here on differences in the mechanism behind adaptation to intense lifting versus HIIT), I have adapted to maximal effort lifting early in the morning just fine, but the lactic acid buildup and joint pain even after a good warmup I experienced when doing HIIT, lead to feelings of burnout and subsequent complete cardio avoidance (the sub-par frequency you mentioned which amounted to 0). For me, training early in the morning, steady state LISS for an hour a couple of times a week to get my calories down by around 300 (I am calorie cycling with a deficit on non-weight training days) is a much easier proposition at age 42 than HIIT between lifting sessions. It also feels refreshing and rejuvenating for part of the day afterwards, which makes it rewarding and consequently leads to easier repetition week in week out for me. The “boredom” commonly experienced in LISS I also use as a trigger to undertake mindful meditative walking which is a win win from a health perspective because (grin) there may be some downstream favourable impacts of meditation on chronic cortisol (note I am not referring to acute here) elevations which at my age suck the bat.

    Clint, the last 2 posts on the blog have been excellent and very relatable. As someone you called a douchebag and troll for calling out what I considered a piss poor rant on your blog (and ye pathetic internet gangsta call outs by keyboard warriors like me mean shit) it is great to see some really informative posts and interviews. Paul D

    • Glad you enjoyed it. More good stuff to come…

    • Paul, I think your problems stem from HIIT being an intense for of training that doesn’t allow for any modulation. You think about lower intensity stuff, you can control it. Lifting weights, you control the bar weight the rest and whatnot.

      But HIIT, you’re kind of like a drone. Charlie Francis once said, “Your highs are too low and your lows are too high” HIIT is kind of purgatory between the two.

      • paul

        Anthony, excellent point, had not thought of it that way. It really is about maintaining the “right intensity” levels through self-regulation. Ye, if stuffed, I sit for longer between sets etc and if not warm, I take longer in my warm-up before work sets. With HIIT, it was always piss bolt no matter what was happening in the interval designated for rest (I always ignored how I felt in the recovery and just waited the allotted time). Too mechanical in my approach. No future plans for HIIT. Thanks again. Paul D

  • Clint,

    Great guest post! I do emply HIIT regularly, but Anthony made some good points here. HIIT is certainly no silver bullet of cardio and I believe the best results will come from combining many forms of aerobic and anaerobic activity.

    Congrats on the new book, by the way!

    Alykhan

  • Great Post on HIIT! I believe that HIIT and plyometrics is the foundation to not only a lean and chiseled body but an explosive and strong one capable of excelling at any sport or activity.

    Not mentioned much in here is proper stretching and warm up both before and after! This is so key in preventing injury and soreness that is so often associated with this type of exercises.

  • Great insights on HIIT. I’ve done solely weight lifting for 2 years now, no cardio at all. But I want to pick it up again and I think I can run with this!

  • A friend of mine, who plays on my Hockey team, recently started a very intense HIIT regiment and he has seen good initial results, but he was already in excellent shape before starting.

  • HIIT, weights, running, and cardio….my weekly mash up. Glad to see I’ve got some validation. Good stuff.