What a vile term.
It reeks of the early nineties. A time when stretchy spandex pants, headbands, big hair, and just-below-the-calf bright white socks were all too vogue. Is Jane Fonda in the house?
At the time it was the only mainstream option. Let’s face it. You were either a meathead, or you were “normal.” Normal people worked up a mediocre sweat, fiddled with machines, and ate low-fat food. No one wanted to get too bulky.
While I’m not quite sure the term “aerobic” holds the same meaning it once did, the concept seems all but extinct in the underground fitness community.
HIIT was introduced as a no frills way to train, burn calories, lose weight, and save time. And since its conception, no matter the goal, HIIT has been the answer. But it’s time to change that. Because if you’re foregoing aerobic work, you’re foregoing gains.
A Mildly Humorous Anecdote
A few years ago, my family was relaxing after Easter dinner. My passion for health and fitness was well known, and I was fielding questions. Someone asked me how to lose weight, and my answer was a no brainer.
More questions came, and I finally said, “Ok, here, we’ll all do it together right now.” After explaining the Tabata Protocol (8 rounds of 20s bursts followed by 10s rest), everyone was skeptical. Just four minutes? It sounded too easy.
Four minutes later, I wasn’t a very popular guy. Things got worse when my sister’s legs collapsed when stepping down from the front door to the ground outside (about a one foot drop).
For the next week, my name was uttered with copious curse words as no one in my family could walk up stairs. But I was proud. I served them justice by teaching them how to work hard. After all, no pain no gain, right?
Why HIIT Hooks
“It only takes four minutes.”
That’s how I convinced my family to do Tabata, and I think this is what hooks most people away from aerobic training.
But HIIT is filled with delusions of grandeur. The perception of HIIT being better than aerobic training is just that—a perception. The only thing HIIT is better at, in the general fitness sense, is burning calories in less time.
But that doesn’t come without sacrifice.
Is HIIT Too Intense?
HIIT is an intense training method. Anyone that does HIIT more than three times per week isn’t really doing HIIT. Bona fide HIIT takes a big chunk out of the body—big enough that sustaining the effort needed on a regular basis becomes difficult.
When it comes to clients—especially one’s that aren’t fitness freaks—blindly and regularly programming HIIT isn’t a good idea unless you want your own line of voodoo dolls manufactured.
The best programs ebb and flow with life. Dan John recently talked about having “punch the clock workouts.” The most important part of these workouts? Showing up. He goes further by saying that most work involving intense effort should be saved for short “blocks.” Ironically enough, four week or so blocks work perfectly with HIIT as lactate adaptations associated with this kind of training tend to level off around that time.
Why Even Do HIIT?
If you’re dead set on HIIT, answer this question: why?
To train the energy systems? (Commonly referred to as “conditioning,” but I hate that term and I’ll save that discussion for another day.)
If that’s the case, and you’re avoiding aerobic work, you’re skipping steps. Actually, you’re doing more than skip. You’re jet packing.
It’s better to start at the fundamental level. For instance, mastering goblet squats before barbell squats helps with the squatting learning and patterning process. But throwing 400 pounds on your back without ever squatting below parallel in your life is a bad idea.
Aerobic training paves the way for HIIT. And without paving the way for HIIT, you’re “that guy” (or gal) with 400 pounds on your back.
If you answered the initial question in the name of fat loss, know that HIIT is probably better served as that super secret fourth quarter play to shed the last few pounds. Besides, the majority of abs are made in the kitchen.
Consider These Three Things
To summarize why ignoring aerobic work isn’t justified, here are three overriding thoughts.
1. Aerobic training is not distance running, it’s simply maintaining a heart rate range. The fancy formula for calculating this range is to subtract 220 from your age and then take 60-80% of that number. A crude recommendation is 130-150BPM. So you can be lifting weights, doing jumping jacks, rope jumping, having sex, swinging a kettlebell…whatever. As long as you’re keeping the heart rate within the zone.
2. Aerobic training is not evil. Contrary to popular belief, aerobic training doesn’t hinder power production. In fact, HIIT likely is more detrimental than aerobic training in that department because it’s between fast and slow.
Aerobic training is slow. Sprinting is fast. HIIT splits them. And when you split them, you’re in a purgatory of sorts. You’re perceived effort is fast and maximal, but in reality it’s considerably slower than your absolute maximum.
Also, aerobic training doesn’t increase cortisol levels to the point of looking sickly either. Again, aerobic training isn’t running a marathon.
3. Aerobic training is not useless. It can be a great recovery workout by “flushing” sore muscles with blood. It’s also a way to stimulate the body when you’re not quite “feeling it.” So if your head isn’t in the game and you need a mental relaxer, you can still train and get something accomplished without wiping yourself out.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that HIIT has some uses. But ditching aerobic work in its complete favor is a mistake. Truth is, aerobic work should be the foundation of any and all energy system work. Jumping into HIIT too soon is asking for trouble.
There are loose ends here, I know. What about the science? What about sports? EPOC? And all of the other concerns most people have. To that end, since Jon was nice enough to let me drop by, I’m going to give all of you sexy people a free eBook that I just wrote called The Myth of HIIT. I can assure you it will clean up the other concerns you have.
This issue is a slick slope, and I’d love to hear your opinion so make sure to comment/ask questions below. Also be sure to “like” thePTDC on our Facebook Page.
About the Author
Anthony Mychal exists at the crossroad between fitness and athleticism. As a professional, he’s a writer appearing on the likes of T-Nation, LIVESTRONG.com, STACK, and Greatist. As a dude, he’s a self-proclaimed performance junkie that practices martial arts tricking. He splatters his ideas about building a body that matters on a weekly basis at his blog.