People who are “heavy” into resistance training keep asking me if and when it’s appropriate to add cardiovascular sessions into the mix – pariticuarly asking about high-intensity interval training.
“Steady-state” cardio is often viewed as the main option for losing excess body fat, gained during the “bulk” up phase of most muscle-building programs. It used to be the only way to expose your “six-pack” and lean, hard muscles.
What exactly is High-Intensity Interval Training?
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a cardiovascular workout that emphasizes short bursts of intense activity (work) intermixed with adequate recovery time.
It is used by top athletes in explosive sports (e.g. sprinting, football) to improve speed, power, and overall performance.
For healthy people within the general population, especially those who workout on a regular basis, HIIT can help accelerate fat loss (if not lower it in absolute terms).
An average HIIT session ranges from twelve to twenty minutes, with a 2:1 work to recovery time ratio. In the gym, treadmills, elliptical machines, and rowers are commonly used for interval training; they are good for general warm-ups prior to weight training, a final burst of activity prior to hitting the shower, or as a self-contained workout in its own right.
Major Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training
- Improved Oxygenation during Workouts (VO2 MAX).
- Discourage catabolism which leads to the breakdown of muscle mass when attempting to get lean.
- Encourage fast-twitch fibers as opposed to slow-twitch (endurance) fibers.
- Encourage anabolism state which when combined with slightly hyper-caloric diet, can help add lean muscle mass without excess fat.
- Eliminate Boredom and save time!
Top Three HIIT Options
1. Sprint Training
- 5-minute warm-up
- 45-90 second sprint at 80% of maximum capacity
- 1-2 minute recovery period
- Repeat 5-8 sprint-recovery sequences then cool down with flexibility exercises
2. Treadmill Running
- 4 minute warm-up with a gradual speed increase
- Six one-minute segments: 30-second “blasts” followed by 30-second recovery
- 2-minute cool-down
- Total time: 12 minutes
3. “Circuit” Training
- 2-3 machines for 15 minutes (5 minutes each); e.g. treadmill, bike, rower
Incorporating HIIT into Your Overall Training Regimen
High-intensity interval training done properly is very intense. Therefore, you should limit yourself to 2-3 sessions weekly, ideally on your resistance (i.e. weight) training off-days. If you must do both on the same day, try to arrange a day/night split, or reduce the number of HIIT repetitions.
Don’t underestimate your post-workout recovery meal to accelerate muscle tissue repair and to replenish glycogen stores.
Cannon’s Conclusion on HIIT
From a practical point of view, performing 15 minutes of HIIT before the gym crowd monopolizes all the machines cannot be underestimated. Physiologically, however, we will not claim that high-intensity is superior to steady-state cardio.
Some recent studies have argued against the Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) effect, as well as the fat and calorie burning advantages of short intense cardio.
My take right now is that EPOC benefits like post-workout fat burning are probably overblown, especially for extremely fit athletes like professional cyclists and cross-country skiers.
In absolute terms, muscle-builders may need the volume associated with steady-state cardio to lose fat. However, if you like variety and are up for a challenge, strap on your heart rate monitor, conduct a 4-6 week HIIT trial and decide for yourself whether it’s worth the effort.
P.S. The GYMBOSS interval timer and stopwatch is a great little device that helps keep your HIIT workouts on track. Accuracy and consistency are critical when tracking your progress, so why not have a look at how this pager-sized tool can make a difference and keep the cellphone in the locker. You can see my full Gymboss review here.