6 Reasons HIIT is a Miss (Oct. 5, 2013)

For my October 5 article about the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout craze, Six Reasons HIIT is a Miss, either click here or keep on readin’!

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‘HIIT’ (or high intensity interval training) has most certainly hit the exercise scene hard. Whether you’re watching an infomercial for CrossFit or are reading your brother-in-law brag on Facebook about his ‘killer’ HIIT workout last night, High Intensity Interval Training is the new cool thing in fitness. 

If you aren’t familiar with HIIT, I’ll give you a basic rundown. The concept is fairly simple; workouts are comprised of shorts bouts of extreme intensity, followed by brief periods of rest. So, you go as hard and fast as you can for 20 seconds, rest for 10, and then do it all over again, for a grand total of anywhere from five to 15 minutes. Proponents claim this method burns an extraordinary amount of fat and calories in an incredibly short period of time, and creates a lean and toned look simple unachievable with more traditional forms of exercise.

And no wonder it’s popular. Who wouldn’t rather workout for seven minutes than run five miles?

But as the old adage goes, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Here are the six fatal flaws I see with the HIIT epidemic.

It isn’t sustainable.

I don’t care how ‘into it’ you are right now. You are not going to form a long-term commitment to an exercise routine that rewards you with a gold star for vomiting (yes, that is actually something that CrossFit classes do). You are not going to stick with an exercise program that makes you cry as many times as it doesn’t. And five years from now, you most certainly are not going to be jumping out of bed at 5AM to perform a workout routine that makes you dizzy, faint, nauseous, and impossibly sore.

If you don’t at least partially enjoy it, you aren’t going to do it. Period.

With the exception of the tiny, fraction-of-a-percentage of people that truly enjoy working out (and that the rest of us collectively hate), we all know that exercising isn’t the most enjoyable part of our days. Do we feel great after? Of course. Do we enjoy the physical, mental, and emotional benefits that come with exercise? No question. But do most of us actually enjoy the physical process?

Not really. So why make it harder for ourselves? Why make it worse?! Why force ourselves into a workout routine that makes us feel like we’re about to expire? Do you want to feel like you’re about to pass out, puke, and keel over five times a week? I don’t.

A lot of it isn’t actually HIIT.

If you’re thrilled with the hour long HIIT workout you just had, that’s great. Except it wasn’t a HIIT workout. It was just a workout with some peaks and valleys. That doesn’t mean it was any less good for you—it just means it wasn’t HIIT.

Because of the explosion in popularity of HIIT, many exercises are confused about what actually qualifies something as a HIIT workout. The biggest mistake I see? People think that a workout with intervals is automatically a HIIT workout.

An interval workout is not automatically a HIIT workout. Simply varying your speed (or intensity) on the treadmill, the bike, or in the pool does not a HIIT routine make. It is not physically possible to have a 60 minute HIIT workout. Olympic athletes could not have a 60 minute HIIT workout. One of the core principles of HIIT is that you’re giving 100% effort—you cannot do that for an hour.

A true HIIT workout will be anywhere from six to 15 minutes long. Your body can’t give 100% for much longer than that, especially on a routine basis.

You’ll injure yourself.

Extended and frequent bouts of extreme exercise followed by extreme fatigue is a recipe for injury. Your body will get tired, your form will get sloppy, and at one point or another, you will injure yourself.

Many HIIT fans brag about the amount of time they save with their workouts. “Instead of an hour, I only worked out for ten minutes!” Well, focus on HIIT for long enough, and you’ll injure yourself right into the enormous time savings of being completely unable to exercise. Nothing makes a workout end faster than a sprained ankle.

It isn’t well rounded.

For a well rounded, complete, and lifelong approach to fitness, should we all incorporate some interval training into our basic routines? Absolutely. For example, one of my running workouts every week is an interval routine. I vacillate between sprits and either very slow jogging or walking, using either a watch to keep time or electric poles as distance markers. It’s challenging, I feel great afterwards, and it’s really sped up my average running times.

But it isn’t all that I do. I also go on long, slow runs or short, fast runs (or, if I’m really feeling crazy, long, fast runs). I walk. I do pilates. I lift weights. I stretch. I do a lot of body weight exercise and right now I’m working towards doing a pull-up challenge.

My point? Interval training is part of an exercise routine, not a whole routine itself. A good lifestyle approach is all about balance—something of which HIIT programs have very little.

A lot of the claims are bogus.

HIIT’s rise in popularity is bolstered by some pretty fantastic claims by proponents. I’ve heard that a HIIT workout burns vastly more calories and fat than a traditional one. I’ve heard that a HIIT workout builds far more muscle mass than a more traditional approach. And I’ve even read that if you want a really lean, toned, Hollywood-esque physique, you have no choice but to start HIIT workouts.

It’s not true.

Experts are, at best, undecided and split on the matter—there is truly no ‘smoking gun’.  More and more scientific studies are emerging, though, that detail how HIIT doesn’t burn any more calories or fat than a more traditional, slow-and-steady workout. In fact, for long term metabolic benefits, slow-and-steady is your best bet. But HIIT certainly isn’t a magical tool that’ll turn you into Hugh Jackman or Jessica Biel in seven minutes flat. HIIT will not transform your genetically-determined body type.

It isn’t necessary.

To me, this is where the rubber really hits the road (pardon the pun). As a country, we are more overweight than ever before… and the numbers keep climbing. Why oh why would we want to send the message that the only way to really get fit is with an approach that involves vomiting and icing your muscles the next day?

It’s irresponsible and, moreover, it’s wholly unnecessary. You can get fit and toned and healthy and ‘jacked’ and whatever else you want to be without feeling like you’re about to die. Combine a healthy, clean diet with a well rounded fitness routine (that you actually enjoy), and you’ll have great results.

No vomiting required.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the healthy cooking, fitness, and wellness website Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at www.DiaryofaFormerlyFatGirl.com or follow her on twitter, @DOAFFG

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