Every now and then, I come across people on social media who vent their frustrations over not seeing the results they want from following a HIIT programme, whilst others are posting impressive ‘before and after’ photos to show how it has transformed their bodies. I for one can really relate to this, because based on the amount of training I put in week by week, I should have certainly transformed into a Victoria’s Secret model by now, which obviously, I am not (although I really can’t complain!) This made me think why some people aren’t seeing the gains they have expected – are we wired that differently in terms of how we respond to HIIT, or does it come down to factors that are within our control?
I will reveal my findings shortly, but first things first, let’s take a brief look at what HIIT aka High Intensity Interval Training is, and what all the hype is about!
What is High Intensity Interval Training
HIIT is a training method whereby you perform short bursts of very high intensity exercises, before resting and then repeating. It has become a really popular form of exercise, partly because it is easy to fit into your day – you can have an intense and effective workout for a shorter period of time, rather than needing to spend hours training in the gym. Another reason is that HIIT is fantastic for fat loss and building fitness remarkably quickly – these workouts have been shown to increase your calorie burning capacity significantly, in comparison to steady state exercise, such as running. The best thing is that this continues even after you have finished working out, too! This is down to the fact that your body is in a big oxygen deficit after a hard HIIT session. In order to replenish this lacking oxygen, your body needs to keep working throughout the day, which results in additional caloric expenditure (you may have heard about the term ‘EPOC’ aka Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption).
After all, I am not surprised why so many gyms have started to crop up over recent years, specialising in HIIT.
However, if it is supposed to be so efficient, why are some people not seeing results? To help you out, I have identified 5 of the most common mistakes I see people make when it comes to HIIT and which could potentially hinder their progress:-
(1) Not optimising your diet
Rule number one: eating well is always an important element, no matter what type of training you do! Phew, I know that this is a difficult one to swallow, and I have to admit that I often struggle in this area.
I could easily write a separate post just on this topic, but for now, just going to stick to the headlines: focus on getting enough lean protein, hydrating well, eating real food instead of processed ones, eating most of your carbs after your workouts, being sensible with your portion sizes and keeping your calorie intake in check.
Of course, one bad meal will not jeopardise your progress, and likewise, one good meal will not help you get nearer your fitness goals. It is all about forging long-term positive habits, and sticking to them!
It might take some time to get your eating right. Doing an honest food journal, learning to read the food labels and learning to cook, or employing some method of portion control could be a good way to start.
(2) Not working out at high enough intensity
The clue is in the name – HIIT is meant to be really intense and hard! However, this means that it may be difficult to perform HIIT properly. Unfortunately, some people (especially those who most need the benefits) are simply not able to exercise at that intensity. Imagine me instructing an overweight and poorly conditioned client to do sprints on the treadmill– not only might they struggle cardiovascularly, but they might not have the co-ordination to perform the exercise properly, potentially leading to injury. In other words, you’ve gotta be fit enough to ‘survive’ a HIIT session!
For the rest of us, who have no such physical limitations, putting ourselves into the ‘pain cave’ and pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone, is not something that comes naturally. This can lead to performing HIIT at sub-optimal intensity. One important rule of HIIT – don’t hold back on the effort, until it is your rest period!
Talking about rest periods, this brings me to my next point. The whole session should feel hard, so recovery periods which are too long between exercises can be counter-productive to achieving the desired outcomes. There are many different factors that can determine the ideal work-rest ratio, such as the total duration of the session, the type/number/order of exercises performed, the length of the high intensity bouts, the levels of your fitness and so on. My golden rule is to have as little rest as I can get away with, to catch my breath, and to get ready to perform the next exercise at my best effort. Besides, rest periods do not need to be ‘complete rest’ periods, they could be ‘active recovery’ exercises such as static holds, for example the plank, to minimise ‘idle’ time.
(3) Doing too much HIIT and not recovering enough
As the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Building on my previous point about intensity, HIIT is designed to be a hard session, therefore it places lots of stress on the body. For this reason, taking time to recover properly between sessions is crucial in order to ensure that you are prepared to give your 100% the next time as well. As some of us very well know, overtraining and under-recovering can lead to burnout both mentally and physically speaking. Just to chuck even more colloquialisms at you: sometimes, less can be more, and it is always about quality, not quantity!
You may be doing other forms of training between your HIIT sessions, for example, I do lots of running and occasional weight lifting. If you do heavy leg sessions or hill training, you should not expect yourself to perform HIIT at your full ability the next day –ouch! (Perhaps, easier, low intensity steady state workouts might work better on the days that follow.) Therefore, spreading out the HIIT sessions and strategically planning what you are going to do each day in advance will help you avoid overdoing things, and come back feeling strong for your next HIIT session.
On the flip side, the issue may be that you are not doing HIIT often enough. When it comes to working towards specific goals, consistency is king. Doing HIIT only once in a blue moon is not going to make much difference in the long run, it is generally recommended that you perform up to 3 HIIT sessions a week for about half an hour per session to be able to see results.
(4) Timing your workout wrong
There is a fair amount of research out there about the optimal time to train. For example, a study in the British Journal of Nutrition has shown that people who do more cardio based training in the morning could potentially burn 20% more fat. An intense session in the evening will of course still raise your metabolism the same way, so you will continue to burn through the calories, however, you will be mainly targeting all the food you eat in your sleep…which hopefully is not a lot! According to studies published in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, evenings are best kept for strength work and lifting, as the majority of us are stronger in the evening, with the anaerobic capacity being about 7% higher.
If you ask me, my view is that putting research aside, it all boils down to what works best for you – if you feel great in the morning, then do your HIIT training then, conversely, if you prefer evenings and feel more energetic, then hit the gym before bed time. Choose a time to train which fits your lifestyle, that way you are more likely to stick with your training plan! I personally like to train first thing in the morning, before work, so there is less chance of talking myself into skipping my session later on, as I start to feel mentally tired, sluggish, and wanting to spend my time binging on Netflix instead.
(5) Not using the right exercises
Selecting exercises and equipment for HIIT workouts can be a deal breaker or deal maker.
An effective HIIT workout should always include a fair number of big, compound moves to maximise your time and hi(i)t your whole body. I would especially focus on using the larger muscles groups in the lower body, as this will get your heart rate up considerably.
Some exercises have a better place in other type of workouts – for example, situps, planks or press ups are not explosive or intense enough for a HIIT session, unless you use these as a form of ‘active recovery’ (as I mentioned earlier) or ramp up the intensity whilst performing these moves, but not at the cost of good form and technique.
There is no need for complicated moves or excessive equipment – the main thing is that you should be able to accelerate to top speed quickly and decelerate just as fast, to avoid wasting precious time.
Hopefully this article will help you reflect on what you could be doing better or differently so that you can nail all your HIIT sessions going forwards, and get the most out of them!
Have you got any top tips for how to get more out of HIIT? Let me know in the comments!
freepik.com and predatornutrition.com