HIIT – the Pros and Cons

Colleen O'Brien Nutrition & Fitness Blog

If you read any of the fitness magazines I’m sure you’ll have heard of HIIT. Another popular name for this type of exercise training is Tabata. It’s one of the hottest trends in the fitness industry. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training.

You might wonder what makes HIIT different from other workouts. HIIT is a type of interval training that alternates short periods of intense anaerobic activity followed by an active recovery phase. The practitioner performs short bouts of max-intensity exercise followed by a low-intensity activity. This is repeated for multiple cycles. There’s no universal training duration for HIIT but it usually lasts for 30 minutes or less due to it’s high level of intensity which causes exhaustion.

A bit of background on HIIT – it’s been around since the 1970’s when athletic trainer Peter Coe created it for training his son Sebastian Coe who was an Olympic champion. Coe took the training principle from university professor and coach Woldemar Gerschler and Swedish physiologist Per-Olof Astrand.

He had his son run fast 200 meter sprints followed by 30 second recovery runs – this was repeated multiple times. Coe combined strength, speed and endurance training all in one technique. This seemed to have a beneficial impact on his son’s performance – Coe was a 2-time Olympic gold medal winner and a 2-time Olympic silver medal winner.

Another version of HIIT is Tabata which came out of a 1996 study by Professor Izumi Tabata using Olympic speed-skaters. The participants did 20 seconds of high-intensity exercise on a braked cycle ergometer, followed by 10 seconds of rest which they then repeated for 4 minutes going through 8 cycles – this training was done four times per week. At the end of the study the Tabata group had gained anaerobic capacity benefits and equaled the physical gains a control group had with 5 days of steady state training.

Tabata is now a regular class in most high-end health clubs adhering to the same principles used for Olympic speed-skaters except that it uses all types of exercise modalities from jumping lunges to pushups to burpees to kettle bells swings. Tabata consists of six to eight cycles of an exercise with a 20 second all-out intensity component followed by a 10 second active recovery period. This is repeated 6 to 8 times.

The Tabata classes at my gym are created a bit differently with the high intensity periods usually being 30 seconds followed by 15 second recovery period. This is repeat 3 times and then the exercise is changed. The active part of the class lasts for 30 minutes with a 15-minute stretch period.

I like this take on Tabata because you get an all over body workout that hits all of the muscle groups by the end of the workout.

HIIT has both positive and negative aspects.

The positives are:

  • Improved cardio/VO2 max fitness
  • Improved anaerobic fitness
  • Significantly lowers insulin resistance
  • Modestly decreased fasting blood sugar levels
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased abdominal fat and body weight
  • Better cholesterol profiles
  • It is less time consuming than other workouts (better bang for the buck)

The negatives are:

  • The workout is hard so some people don’t like it
  • It can lead to injuries if the practitioner is not ready for the intensity level used
  • Intensity needs to be modified for each practitioner’s fitness level
  • Most effective with a coach or trainer to monitor/push you
  • Is not as effective for large amounts of weight loss

Is HIIT good for everyone?

As it turns out, yes, anyone can benefit from HIIT but there are some things to remember.

If you’re just starting a workout routine make sure that you train at the  proper intensity for you. Training too hard and over-training can cause injuries.

You also want to make sure you are doing the exercises correctly. Taking a class or hiring a certified personal trainer with experience in teaching HIIT may be a good idea until you increase your fitness level and learn how to do the exercises correctly.

HIIT is also very high intensity so you may want to add in other types of workouts in between HIIT training days – activities like yoga, Pilates and swimming to make sure you’re not overtraining which can happen when you do one type of exercise repetitively and especially with a high intensity exercise regime like HIIT.

Personally, I really enjoy taking HIIT classes but I don’t do them more than 1 to 2 times a week. As a middle-aged female I have some physical concerns such as spinal stenosis, past history of ACL/meniscus tears, neck pain and carpel tunnel syndrome. HIIT works really well for me when I cross-train with other types of exercise like yoga, spinning and boxing.

So don’t be afraid to try your hand at HIIT. You might love it or even hate it but it is an exciting challenge that can shake up a boring fitness regime and it can be good for you – in moderation. Make sure to listen to your body.



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