Fad Fitness: Taking a HIIT for the Team

Putting high intensity interval training to the test—4 minutes at a time

Not even twenty minutes in and I was flopping around on the floor like a dying fish. It was my first session with my brand new exercise DVD, and my first proper workout in a long time.

A year’s worth of hiking, biking and the very occasional jog apparently didn’t count for much since my last go at the Fad Fitness Challenge.

The burpees were not agreeing with me, and I was beginning to realize the foolishness of thinking, “How hard can 30 minutes be?” Very hard, as my muscles would soon find out.

The Fad
If you’ve read any fitness news this year, you’ve probably heard of high intensity interval training, or HIIT. It’s made the rounds under various headlines touting big returns on insanely short workouts—think of the New York Times’ viral story from May, “The Scientific 7-Minute Workout.”

We’ve even published a few stories on HIIT ourselves, so when it came time to test out the latest fitness trends we knew this would be on our list.

(See: “Fitter in 12 Minutes a Week”; “HIIT: Top Trend or Fitness Fad?”; “The Basics of HIIT.”)

So what is HIIT? In a nutshell, it’s a method designed by Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata that involves alternating short bursts of all-out exercise with even shorter periods of rest for a designated number of repetitions. A single Tabata interval is only 4 minutes—alternating 20 seconds of exercise and 10 seconds of rest, eight times over—and you can do as many rounds as your body can handle.

Several variations have been developed since Tabata’s initial study, in 1996, but the Tabata regimen remains one of the most popular, and HIIT workouts are often branded as the “Tabata method.”

We’ll save the gory science for next week, but right now all you need to know is that the method compresses complete workouts into bite-sized blocks of time—supposedly with the same results.

The Plan
To test out HIIT, we decided to go with a two-DVD set by the American Council of Exercise, called HIIT Series with Chris Freytag ($22.95 for 2-DVD set; $19.95 for download). Many gyms offer their own HIIT classes—the “UXF Burn” at New York Sports Club, for example—but we settled on a straightforward at-home option that uses the Tabata method. After all, part of HIIT’s recent popularity has to do with its convenience, and it’s hard to get more convenient than doing 30-minute sweat sessions in your living room.

My First Workout
Eager to jump into my first session, I ignored the admonition in the liner notes to visit the ACE website for a 30-day workout schedule. Had I done so, I’d have realized I was supposed to start with the whole body workout and not just pick the first workout on disc 1, the “20-Minute Upper Body HIIT.” My pecs and triceps are currently angry at me for the oversight.

The workout required a set of hand weights, a yoga mat and a water bottle close at hand.

I’d left my 3-pound weights at work, and so only had a pair of puny 1-pound weights and a couple 10-pounders. The tiny weights, it turned out, were just fine for my office-ripened upper body.

The workout consisted of a short warm-up, five Tabata intervals with 45 seconds rest in between, and a cool-down. As expected, the exercises—such as rows, shoulder presses and push-ups—mostly targeted my biceps, triceps, pectorals and lats. They also included some lower body exercises like mountain climbers to keep my heart rate up.

When doing these all back to back to back, I quickly discovered the logic of the 10-second breaks: they’re not enough time for you to catch your breath, but just long enough to keep you from completely collapsing. By the second interval I felt like begging for just a little bit longer, and by the fourth my burpees were the aforementioned floppy messes.

And yet, despite my sloppy form and (sometime) inability to keep up, by the end of it my body had that distinct, hard-to-define feeling of having gotten a solid workout. The right muscles were sore and I was hungry for dinner.

Here’s to round two.

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