woman sprinting

Don’t Get “HIIT” by the Fitness Marketing Machine

Every year, fitness professionals (such as myself) are inundated with new gizmos, gadgets and programs that promise to deliver better results for clients and in less time.  In some cases these new innovations prove quite useful.  Most, however, fall short of their promises and only serve to distract both the layperson and the professional from what really works.  At best, many of these “innovations” are based on pseudoscience and collectively reinforced by the ever-popular group thinking concept .

Clients must be aware that the “fitness marketing machine” works tirelessly each and every year to comb through the science and news stories in the hopes of generating a new product or service to compete for your (and my) dollars. Thus a fad is born!

So this year, courtesy of the ACSM, we have yet another list of the 20 top fitness trends expected to be vying for your attention in 2014.  Many of these trends have been on this list since day one. Strength training, exercise for weight loss and personal training are all examples of trends that started it all and are here to stay.  On the other hand, we’ve seen some trends disappear altogether. Anyone remember Zumba?

So what’s expected to be next year’s hottest new fitness trend? Well it’s not really new at all, just polished and repackaged.  I’m referring to high intensity interval training also know as HIIT.  It’s worth mentioning that HIIT wasn’t even in the top 20 last year, so its sudden inclusion is quite a surprise.

There is a HUGE difference between regular interval training and HIIT.  The main differences are performance duration and intensity.  Regular intervals are generally moderate in intensity  and usually take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.  HIIT, on the other hand, is typically performed in much less time and for a maximum of 15 minutes.  This is offset by the fact that the intensity is usually very high to maximal in nature.

Anatomy of a HIIT session

Although running is the most common way to perform a HIIT session, there are many other ways as well.  Let’s break down a typical HIIT running workout so you get an idea of why it’s so unique from other forms of training:

  1. Begin with a minimum 5 minute warm up
  2. As the first interval sets in, run like you’re running for your life. This isn’t jogging. In fact a typical interval should last a maximum of 20 seconds. Most people won’t get to 10 seconds before technique and exhaustion kick in.
  3. Perform until you can’t maintain the high intensity. From there walk or jog lightly for a minute (or more) until you recover enough to perform another interval.
  4. This sequence is repeated for up to 15 minutes.
  5. Follow-up with a light walk for at least 5 minutes to cool down.
  6. After a HIIT session you may feel dizzy, light-headed and nauseous.
  7. Because of its intense nature, this protocol should not be performed more than 3x/week with 48-72 hours of recovery between sessions.

HIIT training isn’t limited to running.  There are limitless options, including full weight training and body weight exercise that can elicit the same effect.

Benefits of HIIT

Although the work is hard, there are many benefits to performing HIIT.  It has been heavily researched to date and many of the claims have been supported with sound science:

  • improves athletic performance in sports that demand high levels of effort.
  • provides the health and performance benefits of longer duration exercise, but in a fraction of the time.[/highlight]
  • may impact body composition better than lower intensity methods.

Drawbacks of HIIT

While all of this sounds great, there are many potential drawbacks to consider as well.  This is particularly true if special consideration isn’t paid to performance and recovery.  Here are a few things to consider when choosing HIIT :

  • It may result in decreased metabolic performance if performed too hard, too often or for too long.
  • It could  possibly increase appetite and desire for “reward” foods for some people.
  • There is no long-term data into its benefits.
  • The possibility of decreased activity outside of HIIT sessions due to exhaustion and soreness

In addition,  HIIT is absolutely not appropriate for those who are inactive, are new to exercise, are overweight or at risk for health problems.  So here we are with a problem.  The biggest fitness trend of the coming year is out of the question for most of the population, who are far better off with a lower intensity, progressive approach to their exercise program.

Tired AlthleteEven competitive athletes who perform HIIT generally use it in less than 10% of their total training volume every year.  Most competitive athletes perform 90% of their training at a lower intensity.  Athletes don’t want to get hurt and, although they understand the benefits, they respect the need for adequate recovery.

HIIT probably isn’t the best method of exercise if you are dieting.  When you are in a caloric deficit, your performance is already compromised, so why take chances with injury and hormonal disturbances in an activity that requires you to be at your absolute best?

As Professor Walt Thompson, lead author of the ACSM report said: “We’ve never seen something introduced to the market and catch on so fast.”  Of course the fitness marketing machine is doing its part with “HIIT classes” popping up everywhere these days.

But is it really the best form of exercise, as many would have you believe?  That remains to be proven.  A better question is whether it’s the best exercise for you. How uncomfortable are you willing to get?  Are you OK with the risk to benefit ratio?  I know you’re busy and the quick fix exercise is enticing but make an informed decision before jumping on the bandwagon. For most people, a more moderate approach to exercise is certainly more advisable and beneficial.

Also be careful of fitness classes that capitalize on the HIIT name but bear virtually no resemblance to actual HIIT.  Remember HIIT is really hard!  If you’re not suffering by the end, you’re not doing it right and getting the benefits of this specialized training method.

In the end, I just hope that what is a very powerful method for getting fit fast doesn’t become diluted or abused by those who don’t truly understand its principles.  I also hope that fitness professionals who offer HIIT sessions to their clients enlighten them with a health disclaimer before selling the benefits and taking their money.

If you enjoyed this article, please quickly do me a favor and share with others and comment below.

Craig Simms

Craig Simms

Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 21 years and has amassed over 25,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
Craig Simms

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