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A beginner guide to High Intensity Interval Training

A beginner guide to High Intensity Interval Training

It looks like 2014 is going to see a continuing rise in the trend for shorter, more efficient workouts. So what is high intensity interval training - HIIT for short - and could it turn your fitness regime around?

HIIT is, as the name suggests, all about doing more for your fitness in less time. It's a phenomenon that reflects our intense, busy modern lives and the tendency to try to pack more and more into our waking hours: Fitting a week's worth of exercise into just a single hour. For those of us who have grown up on the 30-minutes-five-times-a-week guidelines trotted out by the government as the minimum amount needed for an active healthy life, it sounds too good to be true. But there is sound research behind it and more and more people are turning to this highly efficient approach to exercise.

What is HIIT?

HIIT is an approach to exercise that involves training in very short, intense bursts, with short periods of rest or gentler exercise in between. It's a technique that offers a highly efficient cardio workout and rapidly increases your metabolism, which means that it's a great way of improving your stamina and losing weight.

One of the great beauties of HIIT is its flexibility. You can apply this principle to pretty much any form of exercise – running, cycling, rowing or weight training – and see results. If you're time poor, impatient for results or just a bit bored and stuck in a rut with your usual routine, it's certainly worth a go.

There's just one drawback: it's hard work. Really, really hard work. The intense bursts are, well, intense. The idea is that you push yourself to the absolute maximum. This is not an approach to exercise that allows you to comfortably sustain a conversation as you work out. It's about giving it your all.

Benefits of HIIT

HIIT has the potential to improve your athletic endurance and strength, whilst also maximising fat loss. A number of processes are at work here:

  • A more efficient workout. HIIT conditions both your aerobic and your anaerobic energy systems, because the intensity of the effort means that you are pushing yourself beyond the aerobic zone.
  • Greater calorie burn. You burn off more calories during the actual training session because it's so intense, but also afterwards because it takes longer for your body to recover between workouts.
  • A more efficient metabolism: Because the workout is anaerobic as well as aerobic, it leads to metabolic adaptations. Essentially, your body learns to burn fuel more efficiently in a number of different contexts.
  • A leaner, stronger body. The muscle loss that is traditionally associated with weight loss does not appear to happen with HIIT, so you don't have to choose between being strong and being slim.

Okay, I'm convinced. How do I get started?

First of all, a slight health warning: If you are very unfit or suffer from high blood pressure or other cardiovascular problems, HIIT may be too intense an approach for you. It's worth consulting your doctor if you are in any doubt.

But if your fitness and health are about average, there's no reason not to give HIIT a try. The easiest way of getting started is probably by looking out for HIIT training sessions at your nearest gym. Many now offer classes that guide you through workouts along HIIT principles. There's also the possibility of booking in with a personal trainer to get you started. Either of these options means that you'll be getting invaluable guidance regarding what level to start at, how hard to train, and how to determine the exercise to resting ratio that's optimal for you.

If you'd rather go it alone, there are a number of things to consider:

  • What sort of exercise do you want to be doing? Are you going to apply HIIT principles to your cardio workout, strength training, or a mixture of both?
  • How fit are you? In other words, how intense a workout can you actually take? Determining this might be a matter of trial and error, given the emphasis on pushing yourself as hard as you possibly can.
  • What exercise-to-rest ratio is ideal for you? There are many different approaches to how long you push yourself to the maximum, the length of time you rest between bursts of exercise, and how often a week you exercise. For example, one generally recommended approach when you're starting out is to do 5 minutes of warm up and then two cycles of pushing yourself to the mx for 1 minute and resting for 4, followed by a 5-minute cool down. You then gradually (week by week) build up the number of times you repeat the exercise-rest cycle and/or the length of time that you exercise at maximum effort. Eventually, you can reduce the resting times a little as well.

Remember, it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach: You don't have to switch entirely to HIIT from your usual fitness regime. It can complement your regular workout, perhaps especially on days when you're short of time. Given its speed and efficiency and the great claims being made for its effectiveness, there's really no reason not to give it a go!