Stop Doing That Silly Interval Class

Everyone knows that high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is awesome. But are they doing it right?

HIIT is a bit of a buzzword in the health and fitness industry. If you were to mention HIIT at some point in a casual conversation with friends and acquaintances, you’d probably get a combination of raised eyebrows, gaping looks, and expressions of shock. Compliments and comments might follow, such as:

  1. “You’re doing WHAT?”
  2. “Wow, I hear that workout is super hard, good for you!”
  3. Or “no wonder you’re in such good shape!”

It’s true that HIIT has a bit of a reputation. The magazines and large-chain gyms would have you believe that HIIT is the panacea for all your fitness needs. HIIT can torch calories, burn fat, help you lose weight, and build ripped muscles. High intensity is synonymous with super effective.

The only drawback though, is that you have to work extremely hard for it. Some measure of pain and discomfort is involved, as well as a lot of muscle burn and sweat.

Marketers and advertisers have caught on. Put the phrase “high-intensity” in front of anything and it instantly sounds 100x more effective when it comes to fitness. Gee, why take pilates or yoga, when I can take high-intensity pilates or high-intensity yoga instead? These days, anything that even looks remotely difficult and gets people sweating can be labeled as “high-intensity” training.

And when it comes to this, there is perhaps nothing more badass or that evokes more fear and awe, than “high-intensity” interval sprints. Visions of people gasping for air with sweat dripping down their foreheads come to mind. You can hear the whir of the treadmill beneath your feet, as you wait for the countdown before you have to hop on again for your 8th round of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. In your head, you think about how you can’t wait for this to be over.

It’s no wonder that HIIT is so popular. When people think about working out or training, they think about HIIT. Apparently, it’s the only way to truly get after it in the gym and become a total badass.

The HIIT movement has spawned a wide array of fitness classes that are all based around the concept of interval training: work for a certain time period and rest for another. Repeat ad nausem. Burpee this, burpee that. Rower this, rower that. In my time as a fitness coach, I’ve seen many classes with names that allude to some form of HIIT, using buzz words such as high-intensity, 20:10, and Tabata.

In fact, the origins of this HIIT movement can be traced to a famous scientific study done in 1996 by Tabata and colleagues. This study compared the effects of a moderate-intensity endurance exercise regimen vs. a high-intensity interval training regimen over the course of 6 weeks. The study found that the high-intensity protocol improved both aerobic and anaerobic power, while the moderate intensity only improved aerobic power. Furthermore, while the moderate-intensity group exercised for 60 minutes a day, the high-intensity group only worked out for 3-4 minutes!

If you could spend significantly less time in the gym for better results, why would you say no?

The results of this study are why intervals of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off–which were used by the high-intensity group–are famously known as Tabata intervals.

However, just because you can put a label on something that looks hard doesn’t mean that the same benefits can be derived from it. A closer look at the study, and particularly at the parameters used for the training regimens, demonstrate why.

The moderate-intensity endurance group cycled at 70% VO2 max for 60 mins. For many of us, this is a very manageable intensity. On the other hand, the high-intensity interval training group only cycled for up to 4 minutes in intervals of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. What people fail to realize though, is that these intervals were done at an intensity of 170% VO2 max.

Wrap your head around that number for a bit. It’s incredibly high, and the intervals are exhaustive. After interval training with these parameters, you should be able to do little else, if anything at all! So why are classes that borrow the mystique of Tabata and HIIT upwards of 4 minutes long, and often last anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour?

It’s simple. Those silly interval classes don’t actually qualify as high-intensity interval training. I don’t doubt that the classes look hard or that they feel great once they’re over. But they are certainly nowhere close to the kind of interval training studied by Tabata.

The next time you go to a high-intensity, interval training, or “Tabata” class, just take their purported benefits with a grain of salt. It’s great to get active, but let’s be realistic about what you’re actually doing and the results you’ll derive from the class.

by Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau

Jeremy Lau Halevy Life Staff CoachJeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.

As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.