High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is everywhere. Gyms run HIIT classes, people can download a HIIT timer on to their phone… it’s a really popular way of training due to its efficiency and effectiveness but unfortunately the more popular it’s gotten, the less it actually looks like an actual HIIT workout.
There seems to be a common thought process which is ” wow, 5 minutes of that was great… so 10 must be even better… and if I can do 10 then lets go for 20!” This is usually followed with “I don’t need 30 secs rest, I can cut that to 20, actually who needs rest, I’ll cut it to 10 seconds” To get a true and effective HIIT session, this is the opposite of what you want to do. Constantly adding more work doesn’t make the workout better… in truth it is probably destroying your chance of achieving the desired outcome and effect of the session.
What I want to do in this blog is give you a little more detail and understanding so that if and when you do a HIIT session, it really counts.
Lets start with the fundamental, the Why; Why is HIIT so effective?
As I said up top, the name of the game is efficiency. You can see great results in less time using High Intensity… if it’s done right.
Good HIIT programming does everything it can to maintain the intensity. If you lose the intensity then all you have is a shorter workout and that just wont get you where you want to be. The point of HIIT is to gain all the fat burning, muscle building, cardiovascular benefits that come from longer workouts in a shorter space of time. Essentially you need to go hard, rest and repeat.
The amount of work versus rest depends on your goal. If your goal is purely cardio/aerobic then longer bursts of effort with shorter amounts of rest are fine. However, if you want to throw some strength gains in their too then you will have to change it up as when you work out for too long, with not enough rest the intensity drops quickly.
So, now you get why it works, lets look at the How; How should you design a HIIT session?
As you can see long HIIT sessions with short rest periods will likely lead to a drop in intensity. The other issue is burnout. Trying to work at that pace and level consistently will just leave you feeling drained.
So, a good starting point for designing a HIIT is to look at the rest time. If you insist on having shorter rest times, you need to also have shorter workouts. Remember, the goal is to maximise intensity (so that you can maximise your results)
A common and effective HIIT timing is 20 secs work, 40 secs rest. Now to a lot of people reading this, this is going to seem backwards as they would have been expecting 40 secs work, 20 secs rest but I wrote it the right way round, trust me.
If you stick to a static work/rest timing for your workout then understand that in the latter rounds you will likely experience some drop off in intensity as you become fatigued.
A great way to program HIIT is to increase the rest as the rounds progress so that you can maintain the same level of output for the whole workout i.e. 20 secs work, 40 secs rest. 30 secs work, 60 secs rest. 40 secs work, 120 secs rest. The idea is that you rest just enough to recover, while being able to maintain maximum output each set and/or round.
As for how long the total session should be, well, that will vary from person to person. You should stop your HIIT session at the point where you notice your intensity dropping. Ideally you should start with a shorter session, to try and avoid the drop off, and as you improve you can increase the length of your session.
Ok, so now we have a how, we need the What: What exercises should be used in a HIIT session?
As has been said many times, the output is High Intensity so the exercises you chose must be ones that can be performed in that way.
The cardio choices are quite straightforward. You could use a stationary bike or elliptical for example and just go hard during the work periods.
Other good cardio choices are Sprinting, Rowing, Skipping, Ski Erg and the dreaded Assault Bike (other bikes are also good but I do love to hate the Assault Bike).
Strength is a little more complex as the weight needs to either be that you can lift it quickly and be explosive or that you can only do maybe 6 to 8 reps (depending on the movement and your timeframe). People often don’t think of strength work as intense but anyone that has done heavy Deadlifts or fast Power Cleans will understand.
Some of my favourite HIIT choices are Kettlebell Swing, Deadlift, Dumbbell Snatch, Slamball, Battleropes and Power Bag Burpees.
And now as we have got our What, we need the final piece of the puzzle, the When; When should I do a HIIT session.
Given the demands on the body you shouldn’t do a HIIT session more than 3 times a week and just as you should build up the length of the session you should also build up the amount of sessions you do.
Start with one session. Do it well and do it right. After a couple of weeks, add in a second session if you feel like you want to. After another couple of weeks add in a third and stop there!
Just as intensity can drop during a long session, trying to do too much too often will have the same negative effect on your sessions, and therefore your results.
Improve your cycling – Know your FTP. Yes, it does matter!
As many of you will know, I am an Indoor Cycling Instructor and over the last 3 years I have developed my skills and knowledge to become a Power Trainer.
I am lucky to have done courses with two of the best Power Training Providers in UK Indoor Cycling; ICG and Stages. What they have taught me has been invaluable and allowed me to completely overhaul my classes and really help my students see true and robust improvement.
Their success is measured by the result of their quarterly FTP test and any decent cyclist that’s been around for a while and truly cares about their performance knows their number.
So, what is it? FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power. It is a number. That number is representative of Watts, a measure of power.
What does it mean? Your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is the highest average watt output that you can sustain for an hour.
Why should I care? FTP is the gold standard in the cycling world. Once you know your FTP you have a bullet proof, quantitive way to measure your improvement. It will also allow your set your training zones accurately, meaning you make your training more targeted and meaningful.
“But I know I’m getting better” I hear you say. “I beat my friend up box hill last week and I never do that” or maybe “I beat my strava time on that time trail segment” These are all good indicators that yes, you may be getting better but other factors may have been involved and they are not scientific. FTP is. Number goes up, you have improved… Fact!
Ok, sounds good, I want to start caring… how do I do it? Welcome to the grim world of FTP Testing. We love it but we really, really hate it (for the 20 minutes we’re in it!). You can do the test inside or out, depending on the equipment you have. Purists will tell you outdoor testing is best as you can generate more power when you are outside, than you can indoors. You will need a bike (obviously) and either power meter or a smart trainer. Some indoor bikes in the gym also have testing capability.
The Test You need a good warm up protocol as the test demands a lot from you so you have to fully prep both the body and the mind to be ready. A full test warm up can be anything as long as (brace yourselves, this is how I do it) a 20 min easy ride, 6 to 10 mins of 1 min max effort intervals followed by 1 min recovery riding, another 5 min easy ride, 5 min max effort and finally a 10 minute easy ride. This may seem extreme but it works. Some people do less… I’m not sure if anyone does more!?
Once warmed up, it is straight into the test and it couldn’t be any simpler… ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes. Make sure you record the 20 minute test as a separate lap/segment on your device as we don’y want the data from your warm up confusing the results. You must stay seated for the 20 minute effort. Yes, you can push more power standing but it isn’t a sustainable position for very long periods so we need to know what you can do in the saddle. There’s no hard and fast rule for preferred cadence. The slower you go the more your legs muscle fatigue will play a part in the result. The faster you go the more stress there will be on the efficiency of your pedal stroke and cardiovascular system. The advice I was given when I attempted my first test was to ride between 80 – 95 RPM and I generally stick to this. Make sure you stay on the bike once it is over (even though everything in your being will be screaming for you to get off, make it stop – thats how you know you did it right) and cool down properly. Ideally you want to ride easy for about 15 minutes, longer if you want.
Getting your result Once you have completed your test we need to do some maths. Look up the data on your ride and find your average power for the 20 minute test. Subtract 5% from that number and jackpot you now know your FTP. * we have to subtract 5% to find your average power for the hour and this sum is always pretty accurate. If you want to do a one hour test you can but I personally don’t advise it. I have done it once and I meant it when I said never again!
Final thought… power to weight ratio. As you can see, FTP doesn’t take into consideration anything about you other than what you can do on the bike. It doesn’t know how old you are, your gender or how much you weigh. This is why I also tell my students to monitor another number which is their watts per kilogram or power to weight ratio. To find this simply divide your weight (in kilograms) by your FTP. For some this wont be important but for for anyone that really cares about their cycling performance, and I work with a lot of people that really do, it’s important because how much you weigh relative to how much power you can generate will determine how well you perform. In a nut shell, if you are shedding a bit of fat and therefore getting lighter and that FTP still keeps going up, you are definitely doing something right.