When I decided to get healthy, I knew I had to start exercising. I made a commitment, and started spending lunch breaks in the gym. I developed my own workout routine, doing the kinds of exercise I enjoyed, or thought would help me most. Starting from zero, I figured it hardly mattered what I did; any exercise was better than none. I found myself naturally drawn to high intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT.
Over the last 8 years my workout has evolved, but one thing that hasn’t changed is how much I enjoy high intensity interval training. I feel healthier and more energetic than I can remember feeling since my 20’s. That’s due to a combination of exercise, diet, and lifestyle changes, of course. But I believe that HIIT may have had the most impact of any healthy habit I have developed.
What is High Intensity Interval Training?
High intensity interval training is exercise that alternates between periods of all out, pedal to the metal, vigorous activity, and periods of lighter activity. A typical cycle might be one minute of high-intensity exercise, followed by two minutes of walking. You repeat these cycles, or rounds, over and over during the workout. Your heart rate rises during the high-intensity intervals, and falls again during the slow phase of each round.
To keep it simple, I’ll call the slow phase “rest”. But let’s be clear, you’re not standing still during the rest phase. You’re still exercising, but at a moderate, restful pace.
That’s it. Simple. Go crazy for a while, go slow for a while, repeat, repeat, repeat.
How I Do My HIIT
My machine of choice is the elliptical trainer. It’s a low-impact way to really work my legs and my arms, although I’ve had to modify how I use the handlebars. More on that later….
When I started, at the gym at work, they had Precor® EFX® 536i Commercial Series ellipticals. These are pretty near top-of-the-line (though Precor® has several higher models). The 536i has moving handlebars, a motorized, moving angle of incline (they call the Crossramp®), and a heart rate monitor. The 536i also has a lot of different pre-set workouts, including: Manual, Heart Rate, Interval, Weight Loss, Variety, and Performance.
In the beginning my focus was on losing weight, so I went with the Weight Loss program. It’s an interval-based program, with a fixed time: 28 minutes, consisting of seven, four minute cycles. Each cycle has two minutes of high resistance, followed by two minutes of low resistance.
I had heard about interval training. I didn’t have much info, only what I thought it meant from the name. But I’d heard it was good for weight loss, and the machine seemed to agree by offering an interval-based Weight Loss program.
At first I didn’t pay much attention to my contribution to the intervals. My goal at the time was to last the full 28 minutes! But it served as my introduction to interval training. It was definitely harder during the high resistance periods, and my heart definitely worked harder there. But it wasn’t high intensity.
It turns out, that was probably good. I was in no shape at the time to go all-out for any length of time. Word to the wise: if you’re not already in decent shape, be content to start with lower intensity intervals. The important thing is to get started! Get started, and you’ll get stronger.
Soon I felt stronger, and 28 minutes was no longer a challenge. I increased the resistance level during high resistance periods, making an even greater difference between high and low resistance periods. When it became too hard to push the pedals comfortably, I stopped increasing resistance.
My Focus on Heart Rate
Again, my strength and stamina increased (and weight dropped), to where this wasn’t really challenging any more.
That’s when I had a brilliant idea: instead of letting the machine decide the range of intensity between high and low periods, I could contribute to making the intervals really mean something.
This is when my interval training became high intensity interval training.
Instead of looking for buttons on the console to make the intervals challenging, I looked inside myself. I decided to make heart rate plasticity my focus. By heart rate plasticity, I mean the ability to increase and decrease my heart rate quickly, whenever I want to. HIIT seemed the perfect approach to this goal. With the Precor®’s Weight Loss program, I had seven chances to raise my heart rate as high as I could, and seven chances to lower it again, low as I could.
Working as hard as I could on the high interval, and walking on the low interval, a 28 minute workout eventually wasn’t sufficient. So I switched to the built-in Interval program, where I could set the workout length.
I also started feeling some aches in my shoulders, so I decided to only use the moving handlebars during rest periods, and to spend high intensity periods with arms lose, or holding the stationary handles. With the heart rate monitor on the stationary handles, I would first see how low I had gotten my heart rate, and then I could watch it rise as I pushed harder.
New Gym, New Elliptical
When I decided to leave my job for self-employment, I had to find a new place to exercise! The price was right at Planet Fitness, they had plenty of elliptical machines, and they were midway between my home and my business. Sold.
The elliptical machines used at PF are by Life Fitness. They don’t show their model name or number, but they look most like the Life Fitness Club Series Elliptical Cross Trainer on Amazon, and that name makes sense.
There are some major differences between the Life Fitness Integrity and the Precor® I had gotten used to. First, the heart rate sensor on the Precor® is located on the stationary handles, between the moving handlebars. On the Life Fitness model, they’re on the moving handlebars, and the stationary handles have no sensors. This changed my whole perspective on heart rate plasticity! No longer would I watch my heart rate rise from the end of rest through high intensity. Instead, at the start of rest I grab the moving handlebars and watch my heart rate fall.
I know, I should pay attention to my maximum heart rate, for safety. But I don’t. I don’t worry about it at all. I push as hard as I can during the high intensity portion, and my goal is always to get my heart rate as low as possible during rest. And now that I’m watching during rest, this focus becomes easier. For me, the key has become always getting it below 130 bpm before the end of rest. Even when I really tear it up during the high phase, I can usually meet this goal, and often get into the low 120s or high 110s.
The other big difference between the Precor® and Life Fitness is the duty cycle of each round. Precor®’s interval option is programmable, while the Life Fitness interval is fixed, one minute high, one minute rest. I would prefer one minute on, two minutes rest, and I’d probably work out for longer. But one adapts to the situation at hand, and I’m very happy with the Life Fitness interval program.
The two ellipticals also differ in their stride. This is harder to describe, but I think the Life Fitness has higher, closer to circular path for the feet, while the Precor® has a flatter (more elliptical) path. I can’t say I prefer one over the other, but I can say that I feel different muscles getting worked more, or less, depending on the brand of elliptical. I like them both, but I’ve traveled a bit, and some crazy off-brand ellipticals have horrible, uncomfortable strides. So I consider myself lucky where I am.
Who Can Benefit From High Intensity Interval Training?
I don’t know if I believe in the principles behind the book Eat Right 4 Your Type: The Individualized Blood Type Diet® Solution, but it recommends high intensity interval training (HIIT) for people with my blood type. In this case, the book couldn’t be more right. I have found that HIIT is my favorite way to work out, and it’s done wonders for my health. Funny thing, the book also nailed it for my wife’s preferred exercise mode. She would hate HIIT, but we’ll never know, since she’ll never try it! She prefers slow and steady (e.g. walking on a treadmill), as predicted for her blood type. Coincidence? Who knows?
Blood type aside, you may benefit from HIIT if:
- You don’t have a lot of time to exercise. Interval training in general, and HIIT, are very efficient forms of cardio exercise. You need less time to get the same cardiovascular benefits.
- You need to lose weight. Studies show that HIIT is one of the fastest ways to lose weight. It burns more calories than steady-state cardio per session.
- You have a physical job or lifestyle. HIIT improves your ability to recover from exertion. Muscle aches may be less intense, and fade faster. As a massage therapist, this is a big one for me!
I’m mainly sharing my personal experience with HIIT here, but writing this article encouraged me to do a little more research on HIIT. And I’m finding material that’s not 100% positive. There are some things you should know if you’re going to start HIIT on a regular basis. Things I wish I had known, sooner….
What Are the Dangers of High Intensity Interval Training?
A wise person might start their HIIT adventure by working with a trainer, who can get you started with good habits and proper technique. Of course, I’ve never been accused of being wise….
I think the biggest risk of HIIT is hurting yourself by jumping in too fast. Remember my aching shoulders? Yeah. To this day I still use the handlebars only during the rest phase, because I think I overworked my shoulders early on.
If you’re not used to regular exercise, start with lighter interval training, or steady-state cardio, until you build up some strength and stamina. For me, there was no question; I wasn’t doing anything high intensity when I got started. But I kept pushing until I found my maximum. It took time. Let it take time.
Overdoing it is easy with HIIT. I love it. I love the way it makes me feel, especially when I just end a high intensity phase and take that first deep cleansing breath in the rest phase.
But I’m learning, as I read more, it may be a bad idea to do HIIT every day. Your body needs to recover after a high intensity workout, so it makes sense to alternate HIIT days with more moderate cardio days. Ok, I’ll think about it….
And wow, I just learned that during high intensity exercise, your left ventricle may not have time to fill to capacity before contracting. If all you do is HIIT (careful how you say that), you could be missing out on doing exercise that actually increases your heart’s capacity by stretching the left ventricle to its fullest. Hmm….
I found a lot out there that says, HIIT is great, but…. Here’s just one example, an article from the UK’s The Telegraph, that gives a pretty balanced view, and worth reading if you’re just about to start with HIITS.
That does it. I’m going to find another steady rockin’ setting on that elliptical trainer for the day after HIIT. I just talked myself into it, writing this article.
What Do You Think?
What’s your favorite kind of exercise? What’s your experience with HIIT? I look forward to reading your comments!