A rough classification of fitness club members could go like this: on the one hand, there are people who try to get leaner, faster and more flexible, while on the other hand there are those who aim at getting bigger and stronger. Well, this is a simplistic view on the fitness scene, but nevertheless, there is an inherent truth in it.
Both groups underestimate the benefits that could be gained from a diversified workout: while some health and fitness athletes still live in constant fear of using heavy workout machines, disregarding the fact that controlled muscle gain is the single best way to force the body to burn fat, the bodybuilding faction sees cardiologic workout as a waste of time and energy. Both groups are wrong in their cost-benefit analysis, especially when it comes to calculating the time investment involved.
In this article, I want to focus on the HIIT method, which is a way to reduce time intensive cardio- workouts to a minimum. Recent studies have given evidence that it can help even highly trained professional athletes to make progress in endurance and increased energy levels, while it outperforms traditional cardio workouts in burned-calorie-per-minute rates.
The problem is simple: A continuous moderate-intensity exercise (CMI), which is the classical method for cardio fitness, goes far beyond the scope of what the average athlete is willing to invest in a weekly workout schedule. All the more, since workout plans for muscle building and other objectives are in most cases already unnecessarily inflated. Four or five extra hours each week to strengthen the cardiovascular system therefore are out of question for most gym members. But what if an extensive workout would not be necessary to reap most of the benefits endurance athletes strive for?
The attention HIIT attracted especially in the last two years in the fitness community comes mainly from two positive effects, proven by recent studies: the increased maximal aerobic capacity, even after test periods with very short workouts, and the famous afterburner effect, which keeps the energy consumption of the body high, long after the workout is finished. In combination, HIIT proves to be a highly effective method to arrive at nearly all of the objectives commonly pursued through extensive workouts.
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The afterburner effect that can be observed here is not too different from the benefit for weight loss that can be gained by muscular workouts: While a traditional cardio training demands energy from the body only during and shortly after the workout, muscular training puts the body on a higher consumption rate 24/7, it is like changing from a mid-range car into a, well, muscle-car: The distance you go each day might stay the same, but the energy used is significantly higher. In a similar way, the afterburner effect keeps burning calories after the activity because of the oxygen debt produced during the workout.
There are many ways to conduct a HIIT, all with one common denominator: Short intensive workout phases are followed by slightly longer phases of low intensity or pause. The ratio between both can be set to 1/2 or 1/1,5 for example, depending on the intensity and overall length of the workout. While most studies do not explicitly engage with the number of interval units, most of the positive effects can be achieved with workout sessions of 10-20 minutes length.
Literally all cardio machines, and also most of the rest of the fitness equipment, can be used for a HIIT. While the treadmill is a good way to start especially for those athletes who are aiming at sport specific goals like maximizing their speed for short and medium distances, the rowing machine for me is one of the best ways for a full body interval workout. A beginners program could look like this:
4 intervals a
60 seconds at 80-90% of max. heart rate
90 seconds at 50-60% of max. heart rate.
In this way, a full cardiovascular workout, with most of the benefits of a CMI exercise, can be conducted. However a warm-up of 3-5 minutes over the full range of motion should precede the workout and an introduction to the correct motion by instructors is indispensable!
When I introduce customers to HIIT, they usually have questions like these:
But doesn't the burning of fat calories only start after 30 minutes of workout?
No, no matter how often you've heard this, it is simply not true. Your body wouldn't run for 30 minutes without using fat. The truth is that the proportion of burned fat is getting significantly higher after 25-30 minutes, but: we are talking about blood fat here. Up to this point, no adipose tissue is involved, there is just no way for your body to make it available in the short run. As stated above, far more important than the energy supply during the workout is what happens in your body subsequently.
Isn't the extensive form healthier than short, high-intensive exercises?
While a checkup before starting the workout is recommended, there is little evidence that it can actually harm you. Surely, your doctor will never suggest a HIIT to you, because s/he wants to be on the safe side and it wouldn't be called HIIT if it wouldn't push you to your limits. But the way I see it, the danger of wasting time in a gym with a CMI, while literally and metaphorically going nowhere, is much more realistic.
How many people do you know reading magazines or chatting while working out on the treadmill? If it doesn't even feel like working out, why should it have a significant impact on your body structure or your capacities? This is simply not how the human body works. To arrive at lasting results, you have to force your system to make the right changes.
I learned that customers who have been doing intense muscular workouts in the past are by far more easy to convince of the efficiency of HIIT than traditional cardio athletes. One reason for this might be that athletes working with sets of 20-40 seconds have an intrinsic drive towards high intensity. Well, the good news is, you can do your muscular workout and the necessary cardio workout to keep you in shape in 60-70 minutes total. Just give it a try.
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