The health and fitness industry can be a confusing place. With an abundance of diets and exercise programs that compete for your attention, if you’re not careful, you’ll be following a plan that might not be suitable for your goals.
One of the foundational elements of a workout routine is cardiovascular exercise: the process of working out your heart, lungs, and blood vessels to help maintain a healthy body.
But there isn’t just a one-size-fits-all cardio program that will cater to every individual: there are many different types of cardiovascular workouts to choose from. So which one is best for you?
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, whilst having been around for a long time, has only become popular in the fitness industry in recent years.
No longer are marathon bike rides or epic runs the only option for trainees to stay fit, as HIIT has shaken up the fitness industry by providing an intense workout in a shorter period.
The question is: does HIIT provide a more beneficial workout than regular steady-state cardio?
Today we will explore HIIT, and break down the advantages and disadvantages of this cardiovascular modality. From there you’ll be able to make an objective decision on whether HIIT is right for your goals.
What Is HIIT?
The most basic form of HIIT is the work-rest method, where trainees complete a short, intense burst of exercise, lasting anywhere from 20-60 seconds, followed by a rest period. This will be repeated over a predetermined number of rounds.
A typical HIIT workout will look like this:
Interval 1 – 30 seconds, rest – 60 seconds
Interval 2 – 30 seconds, rest – 60 seconds
Interval 3 – 30 seconds, rest – 60 seconds
Interval 4 – 30 seconds, rest – 60 seconds
Repeat 6 more times.
There are other variations within the HIIT model, whereby you can increase the rest period and decrease the interval time as the session wears on, for example:
Interval 1 – 60 seconds, rest – 30 seconds
Interval 2 – 50 seconds, rest – 40 seconds
Interval 3 – 40 seconds, rest – 50 seconds
Interval 4 – 30 seconds, rest – 60 seconds etc.
What defines HIIT is the intensity you train at. To reach this level of intensity you need to go ‘all-out’ for it to be considered HIIT, otherwise, you’re only doing interval training. Something a lot of beginner trainers make the mistake of doing.
You can complete HIIT in several different ways, but the most popular are running, cycling and rowing.
Does this mean HIIT is superior to other forms of cardiovascular training? Not necessarily.
A 2015 study conducted by Greer et al. tested the EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, more commonly known as the ‘after-burn effect’, between steady-state cardio, resistance training, and high-intensity interval training.
The results showed HIIT to have a greater calorie expenditure than steady-state cardio.
However, the steady-state participants were stopped when they burned the same amount of calories as they had when completed a resistance training session, which means that the steady-state cardio group was stopped before they even started to break a sweat, which isn’t real-world applicable.
If you sprint all out, you’re done after twenty minutes, whereas joggers can continue for longer durations, off-setting extra calories burned in a shorter period.
So now that we know HIIT isn’t necessarily superior to steady-state cardio, here are our criteria of people that we feel would benefit from regular high-intensity interval training.
Who Could Benefit From HIIT
This modality is a super option for intermediate to advanced athletes looking to take their cardiovascular regime to the next level.
If you play a sport that involves short bursts of exercise, such as Soccer, Baseball, Rowing, or Hockey, this would be an excellent addition for helping to improve your overall fitness.
It’s generally considered a more fun approach to exercise, as you ‘feel’ like you’re working out when completing this modality. Which many fitness celebrities have taken advantage of because it sells better than asking a client to go for a run for 40 minutes.
Workout enjoyment may help drive up adherence to an exercise program, which is the most important factor to consider when planning a workout.
Let’s not forget this is the most time-saving solution to exercise. If you are strapped for time this is a great option, and will typically take less than 30 minutes, including a warm-up and cool-down.
We know that time is becoming a precious resource, and many people exercising don’t want to be taking up a lot of hours in their day with long-duration exercise.
There also might be some muscle-sparing benefits with HIIT workouts, ideal for trainees looking to maximize both fat loss and muscle gain at the same time. Although it’s still not as effective as resistance training to spare muscle loss.
Who Should Avoid HIIT?
Whilst we feel high-intensity interval training is a great option for fitter individuals, it’s not for everybody. If you’re just starting, you’ll want to avoid HIIT altogether because it’s probably going to be too intense.
Remember that you need to be going all-out, and for some, this is just not feasible early on in their fitness journey.
It’s also not suitable for very overweight or obese individuals, who already have enough weight to carry without the added stress on their joints unless using a machine.
Let’s also not forget that it is a very stressful training style. Anybody that completes multiple HIIT sessions per week had better make sure that their recovery is on-point, otherwise they’re going to be feeling under-recovered and tired throughout the week.
Add onto this a calorie deficit for anyone that is dieting, which is another stress to consider, too much HIIT is going to be too stressful.
So whilst it might be ideal for the twenty-something with a part-time job and no responsibilities, it’s likely to be overkill for the mid-forties parent with two kids and a full-time job to juggle.
HIIT is a way to train, not the only way. Don’t forget this when considering the best exercise style for your goals.