Many people seem to think that each of the top-level coaches in the industry swear only by their own systems, and anyone who disagrees with them be damned. While this may be true on some levels, there is one area of training upon which damn near everyone agrees.
Chad Waterbury has a specific program about it in his book, Berardi and Thibaudeau have both written excellent articles on the topic, and barely a spare moment goes by without hearing Cosgrove blab on and on about it. Hell, even TC re-published an article he wrote on the topic. What is this topic that seems to have everyone nodding in agreement? It’s High Intensity Interval Training, otherwise known as HIIT.
Some of you may be thinking that if all these guys have shared their knowledge on the topic, what could I possibly have to share that would be worthwhile to read? Well, stick with me with for another paragraph and I’ll let you know exactly what you can expect to get out of it.
The goal of this article is to share some where-the-rubber-meets-the-road tips on how to set up a HIIT program that suits you best, whether you’re a confused newbie or a seasoned veteran who’s tired of running sprints. So, what’s all the hype about?
A Burn of EPOC proportions
If you haven’t heard of or read all of Alwyn Cosgrove’s research articles on how superior HIIT is for fat loss, let me get you up to speed. When done correctly, HIIT will produce something called EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption).
What exactly does this mean to you? It means that when you get done with a session you should be out of breath, sweating profusely, and a little weak in the legs. And you can wipe that smirk off your face: I am notdescribing a ‘workout’ with Mindi and Cindi from the Ol’ Bump and Grind Club.
Two birds with one stone
Not only will you be incinerating all that unwanted fat, but you’ll also have the chance to build slabs of muscle on your glutes and hamstrings at the same time.
An intense, focused session of HIIT training should take about 30 minutes including your rest intervals and will have you burning fat for the rest of the day. That’s efficiency in my book.
Even with this impressive list of benefits there are still plenty of people who don’t utilize this type of training in their programs. Many of them are of the Baggypantis stringtanktopius variety.
Normally, this type of training wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, these dangerous animals have been known to promote the use and “superiority” of slow, steady-state cardio to the world of fitness competitors, urging them to perform upwards of 3 hours a day. Isn’t that like a part-time job?
Along with the urban legend of steady-state cardio as the be-all and end-all of fat-loss and physique-shaping exercises, here are a few other obstacles that might keep people from adding HIIT to their programs:
This is the most commonly prescribed drill to use for performing HIIT. Sprinting is a significant problem because you probably never learned the proper way to sprint, unless you come from an athletic background. That night you ran from the police during a frat party when you were 19? Sorry, doesn’t count.
Solution: You sprint. More specifically, you perform Hill Sprints. Because of the incline of the hill, you will immediately fall into good running form using high knee drive and elbow drive. Most people will automatically fall into this correct running pattern, which is facilitated by the necessity of climbing the hill.
Mentally Daunting to Perform
Make no bones about it. HIIT is hard. As a matter of fact, it’s so daunting that it becomes very easy to talk one’s self out of an HIIT training. Trust me. I’ve been there and done that.
Solution: Find a training partner. If you’re currently training, odds are you already have a training partner. If you don’t, I’d bet money there is someone you know who would like to be doing some HIIT but doesn’t want to do it on his/her own. Not only will a training partner ensure that you actually perform HIIT training, but you’ll likely increase the intensity of your session by challenging each other to go faster.
Can’t Go Outside and Run?
I find it a little hard to believe that there are actually people who can’t go outside to train. It is more likely that some individuals would just rather stay inside. Of course, during certain times of the year, there are places you really can’t go outside.
Solution: I have developed a couple of programs for cranking up your indoor HIIT session without being stuck performing sprint intervals on a recumbent bike or banging away on a treadmill. I discuss these programs later in this article.
Need a Change of Pace
I’m sure there are some hardened veterans out there who’ve let their programs slip for no other reason than they’re just bored with lining up, sprinting in a straight line, and repeating.
Solution: Along with the new indoor programs detailed below, you’ll also find a few new outdoor training programs guaranteed to break the monotony of straight line sprints.
Before we get to the programming portion, we do need to warm up. A warm-up is absolutely critical because of the intensity involved when performing HIIT. It’s not uncommon for individuals to experience some sort of major soft tissue injury because they improperly warmed up. This leaves a bad taste in their mouth about HIIT training. Case in point, at a recent dinner with my wife and another couple, I was the only one who hadn’t had either a major soft tissue injury while sprinting or experienced one of the other obstacles listed above.
Below is a warm-up session that I have effectively used to keep my clients and athletes injury-free during their HIIT sessions. You’ll need a course that is 10-20 yards in length. All drills are to be performed at one (1) repetition for a round trip.
- Drill 1: High Knee
- Drill 2: Butt Kicker
- Drill 3: Lateral Shuffle
- Drill 4: Carioca
- Drill 5: High Skip
- Drill 6: Gorilla Walks
HIIT Programs for Indoor/At-Home Enthusiasts
There are plenty of unconventional pieces of equipment that one can use to build a really effective and fresh HIIT training. Equipment like kettlebells, sleds, sandbags, etc. are very good tools for this type of training. That said, I am going to limit the scope of the programs in this article to only include exercises and items that the average trainee will be able to do or have available at a moment’s notice. We’ll save all the really cool things that you can do with the above not-so-conventional implements for another article
These first few programs are designed for those who want to dust off their pieces of home fitness equipment (a.k.a. the treadmill or recumbent bike) or would like to perform intervals at their commercial gym.
Note: Most of these programs will require that you grab a dumbbell or two and take a hike over to the cardio equipment. I can’t imagine most gyms being huge sticklers about this. However, if this is the case, and although it might be a pain, I’d recommend that you pause your piece of equipment, walk over to the dumbbell area, perform your high intensity training and then walk back. Actually, I’m pretty sure you will appreciate the extra time to rest as you walk back to your cardio equipment.
Yeah, I stole this idea from the genius named Dan John. This one is a beauty because of its simplicity.
- Interval: 1 moderately heavy dumbbell
- Cardio: Treadmill
Perform a work interval of two-hand dumbbell swings by grasping the dumbbell by its head and performing swings. The goal here, as it is for each of the work intervals described below, is to perform as many swings (or snatches or thrusters or whatever) as you possibly can before moving to your rest interval.
Perform your rest interval by walking on the treadmill.
Note: Your fitness level will determine the speed at which you keep the treadmill during your rest interval. If you are a beginner, walking may be most appropriate. If you are advanced, a light jog at 5.5 to 6.5 mph would be an appropriate rest.
Vertical Power Interval
This is another treadmill-dumbbell variation.
- Interval: 1 moderately heavy dumbbell
- Cardio: Treadmill
Perform a work interval of dumbbell snatches. Since this is a unilateral exercise, I recommend alternating your snatching arm for each interval.
Perform your rest interval on the treadmill by doing steep incline walking.
Note: If you’re a beginner, a 6-8% incline would be most appropriate. If you are advanced, use a 10-15% incline. I do not recommend jogging or running during this set of intervals. Walk at a pace of approximately 3.0 to 4.5 mph.
Total Body Blast Off
This combination utilizes a recumbent bike and a set of dumbbells.
- Interval: 1 pair light to medium dumbbells
- Cardio: Recumbent Bike
Perform a work interval of dumbbell thrusters. Thrusters are performed by holding the dumbbells at shoulder level and performing a squat that continues directly into an overhead press, immediately reverses direction back into a squat, and repeats.
Then perform your rest interval on the recumbent bike peddling at a rate and resistance that you perceive to be between a 5 and 7 on an RPE scale of 1-10, with 10 being most difficult.
Bare Minimum Circuit
This combination utilizes an elliptical and just your bodyweight. Logistically this may be be the easiest combination to perform in a very busy gym.
- Interval: Your body
- Cardio: Elliptical Machine
Perform a work interval of bodyweight squat thrust and jumps. Squat thrust and jumps are performed by completing a normal squat thrust, then exploding from the bottom position into a fully extended jump with arms reaching high overhead.
You’ll then absorb your landing with a partial squat and continue directly into the next repetition of the squat thrust. Then repeat.
Perform your rest interval on the elliptical at a rate and resistance that you perceive to be between a 5 and 7 on an RPE scale of 1-10, with 10 being most difficult.
Below is a basic progression chart. The two variables that are being progressively adjusted are the rest-to-work ratio and the total ratio. Both are being incrementally adjusted to ensure that you continue to develop higher levels of fitness as well as maintain appropriate levels of disturbance to ensure that you don’t plateau with your fat-loss goals.
Remember the first two letters in HIIT stand for High Intensity. This means that your work intervals need to be all-out. In other words, you need to perform as many reps as possible.
As you progress from beginner to advanced, you may need to adjust the intensity of your rest intervals. What as a beginner was an appropriate amount of rest may be too much rest as you become more advanced. In that case, simply increase the intensity of your rest interval (e.g., steeper incline on treadmill, higher level of rate and resistance on bike).
Generally speaking, at the completion of your “rest interval,” you should feel almost recovered. If you desire more objective feedback, I’d recommend utilizing a heart rate monitor. However, I find that using the intensities, repetitions, and rest protocols shown below will generally produce the almost recovered effect most of the time.
HIIT Programs for Outdoor Enthusiasts
The following program is a simple outdoor running program. This is a High, Medium, and Low intensity running program I have used with my clients that has produced overall running fitness as well as assisting with aesthetic goals. Be sure to use the same warm-up sequence as above for this program.
- Day 1 – 100 meter sprints. These should be all-out sprints leaving nothing extra in the tank. This is the high intensity running day.
- Day 2 – 400 meter sprints. Although these are termed sprints and you will be attempting to sprint, your speed will be significantly slower due to the added distance. This is the medium intensity running day.
- Day 3 – 800 meter runs. Again, these runs will be a bit slower. However, the goal here is actually to add a little distance, thus working on general endurance. This is the low intensity running day.
This program has been designed with the intent of utilizing your local track. If you don’t have a track close by, you could use a soccer field. Each session should last approximately 35-45 minutes depending on how closely you stick to the rest interval protocols.
Lastly, I’d strongly recommend you give yourself at least one day of rest in between your high intensity running day and any kind of intense resistance training session that places a lot of demand on your lower body. This way you won’t have to compromise performance.
The last HIIT training in my bag of tricks is strictly for those who are a little on the masochistic side or want to do HIIT-type training but just don’t have enough time to commit to one of the more in-depth programs. For those of you who fit that description, welcome to Tabata hell! I’m sure many of you have heard of this protocol and maybe a few of you have even tried it out. If you have, you realize that I’m not joking about the “hell” part.
Tabata Protocol Background
The Tabata protocol is a conditioning protocol developed and studied by a Japanese researcher named, of all things, Dr. Tabata. He found that performing 20 seconds of max effort or 100% work level followed by 10 seconds of medium to low level work performed for a 4 minute work cycle was an extremely productive method for increasing both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Now, before you go gangbusters with Tabata, understand that this may very well be the toughest 4 minutes you ever spend in your life. Okay, you’ve been warned.
There are a couple of drills I prefer for Tabata. They are similar in that they both hammer the legs, especially the posterior chain.
This drill is for all of you who either cannot run because of orthopedic health or simply prefer not to run. Pick a medium weight kettlebell or dumbbell and perform two-hand swings for the entire Tabata protocol.
This is about as simple as it gets. Find a space where you can measure off approximately 100 meters/yards. Again, soccer fields and tracks work very well. Once you have your spot, you’ll sprint during the 20 second work intervals and jog/walk during the 10 second rest intervals. When you reach one end of your 100 meters, just turn around and go back the other direction. It just doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Below I’ve sketched out exactly what the Tabata protocol looks like on paper, and how exactly you will need to set up your stop watch. This is probably the best damn 4 minutes of HIIT out there. Good Luck.
- Work Interval #1: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #1: 10 sec
- Work Interval #2: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #2: 10 sec
- Work Interval #3: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #3: 10 sec
- Work Interval #4: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #4: 10 sec
- Work Interval #5: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #5: 10 sec
- Work Interval #6: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #6: 10 sec
- Work Interval #7: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #7: 10 sec
- Work Interval #8: 20 sec
- Rest Interval #8: 10 sec
My whole goal in writing this article is to highlight the variety of HIIT programs available and to provide several programs that have worked successfully for my clients in both the realm of enhanced performance and aesthetic results. After all, doesn’t everyone desire to be both lean and functional?
Whether you are an athlete, bodybuilder, or someone who just wants to look good ‘nekkid,’ HIIT training should be a staple in your overall training plan. Hopefully, this article was able to shed a little more light on the importance of this aspect of training and show exactly how one should go about programming this type of training into an overall training cycle.