As my first web design teacher was fond of saying,
The lazy shall inherit the earth.
… by which he meant, “Anyone who finds a shortcut to authentic results out of sheer laziness has effectively set the new standard.” In the world of fitness, it seems to me that nowhere is this concept more prevalent than in High-intensity Interval Training (or HIIT).
When you think about it, the ideology behind HIIT sounds like an infomercial pitch: “Get insane results without having to spend hours at the gym! There’s no equipment to buy and you can cancel any time….” To the non-exercise crowd, HIIT seems like it’s making an already difficult thing worse: “Do the same amount of exercise in a fraction of the time, but make it as hard as it can possibly be!”
There have been many studies by medical research outfits applauding the benefits of HIIT, but here be dragons, also. Wanna know what I think? Of course you do.
26.2: bad for you
There is increasing evidence that distance running is actually horrible for you. Beyond leading to loads of wear and tear on joints, extended sessions of running-centered cardio can actually cause abnormalities in the way your cardiovascular system functions, even producing scar tissue inside your heart.
There’s a huge overlap of people who promote HIIT and evangelists of the paleo diet movement, which kind of makes sense. The prevailing philosophy, a blend of biomechanics and physiological evolution, is that the human machine wasn’t meant to do anything for long periods of time.
Much like Doc’s flying permutation of the Delorean in Back to the Future II, human beings evolved to subsist on whatever scraps we could find, whenever we could find them (we descend from foragers, remember?). We also “don’t need roads,” so to speak.
The argument is that human musculature is meant for sprinting, the famed fight-or-flight response. We weren’t meant to run for twenty-six miles at a time, we were meant to quickly get out of the way if something nasty was coming after us (or give chase if something tasty was getting away from us). And from the way our bodies break down if we run too much, it looks to me like the argument is right.
One of the amazing enhancements we’ve developed over the eras that makes diet and fitness so damned difficult for modern, first-world man is that we adapt very quickly to any kind of exercise. This was a huge advantage for our ancestors because their bodies added any strain to a sort of body-cache, making it easier to perform the same task the next time. In the 21st century, we exhibit this behavior as plateauing: eventually any diet or exercise will level off if you don’t vary what you’re doing.
HIIT is a great way to reboot both brain and body, as you can (and should) pack in a number of varying exercises in a very short period of time. It works because there’s just no getting used to it. The short bursts of intense exercise are too short for the body to adapt to, which makes HIIT great (and terrible).
Situational exercise > blind repetition
While you can technically create a HIIT workout from any exercise, the most effective ones involve large muscle groups (legs, core, etc.) and practical exercises. What do I mean?
The reps are so short and intense you want to use as many muscles as you can per exercise. Getting out in a field and relying on your own body for stability and stamina is going to work more muscles more symmetrically and naturally than if you were to do the same thing with machines in the gym.
Also, you don’t want to do things like curls or rows in a HIIT situation because you run the risk of burning out your joints (and you can’t really get that level of intensity with so few reps).
Is it a HIIT?
Well, yeah. I still think HIIT is kind of sadistic and I’m not sure I’ll ever actually enjoy it but I think it’s really beneficial. One of the hardest things for me about doing regular interval training is that I tend to mark my progress based on how I feel after the workout. I can do more now than when I started but I still feel completely drained after a HIIT session, which makes me feel a bit like I’m not advancing. But that’s on me.
I think it’s a great way to get your cardio and use all of those balance muscles all in one. There’s nothing easy about it, in fact it’s downright eerie when Trainer Nick tells me how short a time I did a set in; it’s such hard work.
Be safe, though. Take care of yourself.