Fitness: Dos and don’ts of high-intensity workouts

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If your gym is like most, it has jumped on the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) bandwagon offering workouts fashioned after the immensely popular CrossFit. Bearing names like Bootcamp, Tabata and Workout of the Day (WOD), exercisers perform multiple short, high-intensity intervals interspersed with short periods of recovery.


The work interval lasts between 20 and 60 seconds, during which the exerciser completes multiple repetitions of the same exercise, and is followed by 10-15 seconds of rest. Sometimes the work intervals alternate between three and four exercises and sometimes the same exercise is repeated over and over again for a predetermined number of rounds.


An example of an HIIT workout would be 45 seconds of squats/15 seconds rest, 45 seconds of burpees/15 seconds rest, 45 seconds of kettlebell swings/15 seconds rest, 45 seconds of pushups/15 seconds rest. The object is to perform as many repetitions as possible in 45 seconds, rest and repeat. One complete cycle through all four exercises equals one round. A full workout usually consists of several rounds, often with a longer rest between rounds. The goal is to exercise at the higher end of the intensity spectrum during those short bursts versus maintaining a more moderate intensity over a longer period of time.


The reason HIIT workouts have become so popular is they boast the same or better fitness benefits as workouts that take twice as long, making it possible to do in 10 or 15 minutes what it used to take 30-plus minutes to accomplish. The science behind the workout format is sound with more and more studies suggesting not only are short intense workouts amazingly effective, they’re also suitable for all types of exercisers, including novices and people with cardiovascular disease.


Yet despite the proliferation of HIIT-styled classes in gyms across the country and the favourable reviews the workout has been getting from exercise experts, not all is right in the world of HIIT classes.


The problem lies not in the exercise format but in the way some classes are structured. Combine poor class design with the natural competitiveness that comes from pitting yourself against the clock and it’s easy to understand why some people experience more than their fair share of aches and pains either during or after an HIIT workout.


In attempt to keep a good workout from going bad, here are a few fitness fundamentals that will make HIIT workouts safer and easier on the body without losing any of the challenge that makes them so effective.



Be faithful to your warm-up

A comprehensive warm-up is crucial not just for priming your body for the work ahead, but to make sure you’re up to performing at the intensity HIIT workouts demand. A good warm-up takes at least 10 minutes and starts with an aerobic component (jogging around the gym) that boosts blood flow and increases the viscosity of the joints followed by a series of full-body, large range of motion exercises that mimic those you will be performing later on in the workout. Keep your warm-up at a moderate pace until you transition into the more intense portion of the workout and don’t be tempted to cut it short.



Focus on more than one or two muscle groups

Some HIIT workouts spend all their time training one or maybe two muscles groups, claiming complete muscle exhaustion is the way to break through to the next level of strength or fitness.


This type of repetitive stress to a single muscle group can cause damage so acute not only can it keep you out of the gym for weeks, it can send you to the local emergency room in extreme pain.


The best workouts are those that challenge all your major muscle groups by balancing upper, lower and core body exercises to achieve overall improvements in strength, endurance, co-ordination and fitness.



Put form first

The popularity of body weight exercises in HIIT classes doesn’t mean that they’re without risk. In fact, any exercise done with poor form, regardless of whether or not you use equipment, has the potential to injure. Add the elements of fatigue, speed and repetition, and the risk of injury is ever greater.


Once you feel your form slipping, either modify the exercise to an easier version or take an unscheduled rest during the work interval until you’re ready to complete another couple of reps done with impeccable form and control.



Listen to your body

Sure, the idea of HIIT is to push yourself, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the signals your body gives when it’s pushed too hard. Discomfort because of effort is fine, but pain is a sign you either need to slow down, modify the exercise or stop.


That seems like common sense, but sometimes good judgment is abandoned when you’re in the middle of a competitive workout where trying to squeeze in a few more reps before the end of the interval is not only encouraged but expected.


You should feel energized, not completely exhausted, after a workout and nothing should hurt, ever. As for that generalized muscle soreness that occurs 24-48 hours after a tough workout, there’s no cause for concern, especially if the discomfort is muscular and equal on both sides of the body.


Remember, the goal of exercise is to feel better, not worse, so knowing when to turn it on and when to dial it down is the key to long-term success.


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