Updated: Feb 21, 2019
The relationship between intense interval training and its fitness benefits has generated much discussion for some time now. Indeed, it has been the subject of various studies over the years and for many who make interval training their big thing in the gym the allure of a few minutes of intense interval exercise having the same impact of more time consuming endurance training is very powerful.
If intense short bursts of training gets results, think of the time you can save if you make it your core routine!
Also known as HITT (which is, of course, sexy in itself) high intensity interval training has become particularly attractive to those new to training who are looking for fast results. It also has its advocates in the fitness programme and supplements market and, if you think about it, HITT sort of makes sense: After all, if you train hard, rest, train hard, rest etc. surely your body will benefit from pushing its fitness boundaries?
Putting aside the discussion about how beneficial HITT can be for those who build it into their training programme (and there is a lot of evidence that it does provide benefits) recently researchers from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet discovered that the cellular mechanisms behind the positive benefits of HIIT can be undermined by the effects of antioxidants on the body.
You can find out more about the results of this study (though be warned, as some of it is a little on the technical side!) in Dean Smith’s report on its findings.
In broad principle though, the evidence from the Stockholm Karolinska Institutet study supports the theory behind HITT training, which is that short bursts of a few minutes of exhausting physical activity prepares muscles to work harder, thus boosting the production of new mitochondria (with cells generating the energy that they need to perform), which results in endurance enhancement in the same way that more time consuming endurance training does.
High-intensity exercise also triggers the breakdown of calcium channels as a result of an increased production of free radicals (which are highly receptive radicals that act as oxidants for cellular metabolism). As a result, muscle cells have anti-oxidative systems for trapping and nullifying such radicals.
The scientists also discovered in the study that antioxidants such as Vitamins C and E remove the effect on these calcium channels, which results in the weakening of the muscle response to endurance training.
The Stockholm research included male subjects who cycled for 30 seconds for maximum-exertion, followed by four minutes of rest and who then repeated this pattern six times.
Classic HITT training.
Twenty-four hours after the test, tissue samples of the thigh muscles of those who undertook this training were taken and these samples demonstrated an increased rate of free radicals, showing that just a few minutes of intense exercise is all it takes for training benefits to kick in.
So there you have it - more evidence to underpin the determination of those who make HITT their training routine of choice and certainly this level of scientific study into the field of fitness is obviously valuable and we do need to find ways of adding these kinds of findings into the experience of the average person.
In my experience most people following their own routine in the gym eventually struggle with attaining even moderate levels of intensity without the help of a guide, whether a personal trainer such as myself, or an experienced gym-goer (and even I find it difficult on occasion to reach the required level of intensity in the gym to achieve measurable progress).
Recently, for example, I found exercising had become something of a struggle. After my parents put me in a rugby team when I was six-years-old and until my early thirties (where exactly does the time go, I wonder sometimes?), I never really thought about this issue. It was always so natural to play rugby, to go to the gym, to get stronger and to then to go back to playing rugby.
It all just made sense.
Then my life began to move on. Rugby was no longer my top priority. Instead I kept training hard in the gym, though more slowly than previously over the last few years. At this point I had to ask to myself, what am I training for?
What was (what is) all the exercising for, exactly?
In addition, my job as a personal trainer also began to inform my consideration of this question.
In all honesty, I have to confess that I find training in the gym a little boring in itself (and here I am talking about my own training and not my training of clients, about which I remain as passionate as I ever have been). In my personal training today, there are no rugby fields, but lots of protein shakes. As a result, sometimes I admit to feeling like a fish out of water and like most of my companions in the gym, I have had to find a new motivation to maintain my fitness and drive, a way to make it happen on a regular basis, and a set of goals to achieve happiness within my fitness lifestyle.
As a former rugby player, my fitness level remains today as a important to my wellbeing as it always has been and understanding how to learn from the science of HITT fitness training is part of the process of maintaining momentum. I would also add that, in simple terms and at a non- professional level, HITT training basically equates to working at a level that keeps the heart rate high and which induces sweating.
The question though is how to find that sustainable motivation to produce such intensive training (when even moderate training seems to be already hard to achieve)?
From my experience and observations I would say the best approach, if these are also your concerns, is to keep your training snappy and short (i.e. in sessions of 45 minutes to 1 hour, maximum).
So, for example, in this kind of session, to set myself up I would ideally start with 10 - 15 minutes of cardio’ and would choose between running (on a 1 degree incline) or rowing, or cycling. The important thing is to target a realistic distance: 1.5, 1k or 2k for running, 1k for rowing (for the bike I advise trying to alternate between climbing and being in a seated position).
The point is to warm up your body and then to do more, as after your cardio’, undertaken so intensively, you are fully awake and ready to hit the gym floor.
If I can use a metaphor, you are in this scenario creating a wave (a warm wave) in your body and you want to then surf on that wave. So, in training this way the objective is to try to never really stop. Choose combinations of exercise routines; pectoral fly plus press ups, targeted at the same muscle group, or indeed the opposite; a chest press with a pull down, or even mix the lower body and upper body in the routine; lunges, plus shoulders presses, for example (try 3 sets of 10 - 12 and keep your break around 30 - 45 seconds between sets in this kind of routine).
Over an hour you should then be able to do 7 - 8 exercises, including the cardio’ of your choice.
When I lost my motivation before changing my routine, I found the above strategy a very effective way to make my training sessions in the gym more enjoyable and today I utilise such a combination routine with cardio’ (intense, as it has to be!) to great effect.
In addition I would add that in my experience people tend to train in general for too long during any set gym session, or on occasion to use wights that are simply too heavy for them (with the exception of those looking to grow muscle and to get bigger). Over the course of years, or sometimes months, the negative effect of this kind of training is that you can end up feeling tired most of the time and your training can start to become a burden.
And then you lose motivation, as I did.
In which case (and again, if you are not a professional sports person and your body and its suffering for your physical art is part of your job) you will end up questioning what the point of your training is.
The best way to avoid this potential trap is to increase the pace of your workout sessions; shorten your rest periods (to 30-45 seconds each time) and introduce more repetitions (10-12 or 15 and sometimes 8 over 3 sets). In so doing you will feel more awake, active and your muscles will be more receptive to the weight resistance process.
Honestly, it is a win-win prospect and a much more efficient investment of your gym time, which also fits perfectly with the lifestyle of those who works in a big city, such as London.
If you want to learn more, check out the article How did you struggle with boredom? from a very good American colleague called James Clear (who knows all about these things!).
In the meantime, work out to the maximum, enjoy your growth and increased fitness, and learn to love and not hate the gym.