High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is popular and time efficient but are there better ways to get athletic fit with intervals?
I’m not going to spend half this article knocking HIIT. After all, it is a scientifically proven approach to increasing aerobic and anaerobic fitness. It’s a great approach for those short on time and looking to elevate their metabolism quickly.
However, it’s not a panacea, catch-all method for getting fit. It is ‘a way’ that has it’s advantages and disadvantages. The best method? That depends — what’s your goal?
The biggest weakness of HIIT is that it progressively weakens your efforts. Each interval becomes a bit more laborious as fatigue ramps up. This has its place, but it would be foolish to think this is all you need.
So what’s the secret?
Tweak your intervals. Design interval protocols for targeted needs.
I know this sounds complicated but stay with me a minute. Compare these interval schemes:
Tabata (HIIT): 8 rounds — 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest.
Alactic intervals: 8 rounds — 8-15 seconds work, 2 minutes rest (or more).
At first glance, the extended rest breaks would seem to negate your gains in fitness. That only makes sense if you think conditioning requires that you keel over at the end with exhaustion.
The key distinction is this — in the second protocol you are improving the repeat performance of the interval at high tempo. Increased fatigue from pyruvate accumulation doesn’t weaken each interval as it does in the Tabata protocol.
As an energy system, the lactic anaerobic (glycolytic) system is the least efficient. It’s tough to build endurance with HIIT because it focuses on developing the weakest energy system.
When you restrict your intervals to 8-15 seconds you effectively using the alactic anaerobic system, which is activated to produce enormous levels of power and speed.
Allowing yourself to stay clear of pyruvate build up with short intervals and long rests helps develop into a quicker athlete.
Getting rid of pyruvate
In the real world, having alactic power isn’t enough. In repeat sprint sports (football, basketball, soccer, rugby, hockey…) there is clearly a need for long lasting energy production with enough in the tank for brief spurts of fast and intense work.
The muscles need oxygen at times of stress from anaerobic respiration to replenish energy reserves. Hence the need for aerobic capacity. Getting the heart rate up in interval training will bring the aerobic system into play but its effectiveness is compromised by fatigue.
What to do?
Increasing oxygen supply to working muscles can be done with regular low impact aerobics for 20 minutes plus.
It sounds boring and old hat but there it is. The fitness community is coming full circle around to the fact that aerobic activity is needed aside from HIIT and other intense anaerobic protocols.
The best suggestion I have for sportspeople is to use metabolic resistance (MRT) training to effectively work both aerobic and anaerobic capacities.
These typically take the form of a 6-8 exercise circuit whereby each area of the body is given a break as other muscles are worked.
Such a sequence might take this shape: Leg exercise -> Push up exercise -> Rotary core movement -> Pull ups -> Leg exercise…
An example of such a circuit with bodyweight only exercises:
Rapid push ups
Diagonal mountain climbers
Step ups (hip height step)
Lunge jumps (Split squat jumps or Knee drives)
T-push ups (Push up and rotate onto one hand forming a T with your arms)
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you mixing in kettlebells (kettlebell swings are great) or medicine balls, jump rope, burpees, hill sprints…
Have fun with these. Make your own circuits and keep your heart rate elevated for 15-30 minutes. Do this by exercising at a good pace and resting only as needed. Stay clear of muscular failure and repeat circuits 2-4 times.
For more conditioning routines grab a copy of my book Skip the Gym and Get Strong Anyway on Amazon.