This article is intended as a guide on how to perform High Intensity Training (HIT), an incredibly safe and effective method of exercising.
What is exercise?
Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of how to perform safe, controlled exercise, let us first examine what exercise really is.
“Exercise: A specific activity that stimulates a positive physiological adaptation that serves to enhance fitness and health and does not undermine the latter in the process of enhancing the former”
– Doug McGuff MD, Body By Science
I think we can all agree that we exercise in order to improve our health and fitness. However, what’s important to understand is that for exercise to be productive, it must be of a high intensity. The reason is that when we exercise, we are trying to stimulate the body to become stronger and fitter, to build muscle, or to preserve muscle tissue while we are dieting to lose fat. Directly, exercise is a negative stimulus to the body; You are breaking down tissue and rapidly fatiguing muscle. This creates a cascade of biological signaling that forces your body to adapt and become fitter. On an evolutionary level, your muscles do not know the difference between doing a squat and running away from a bear. All they know is that they are being worked very intensely and that for some reason, their external environment is placing a massive demand on their ability. The body is an extremely thrifty survivor and will never spend resources where there isn’t a dire need for them. Therefore, in order for your body to become stronger and build muscle, it is essential that you provide this high intensity stressor.
It is clear from observing professional athletes and other fit individuals in general, that there are many ways to create this stimulus. You can get fit doing gymnastics, triathalons, crossfit, and (insert current fashionable training style), but there are very few ways you can get fit without sabotaging your long term health. Gymnasts, as impressive as they are, are riddled with injuries. Triathalon runners often suffer from conditions such as atrial fibrillation, and crossfit is notorious for churning out injuries. Remember our previous definition; we must try to stimulate a positive improvement in fitness WITHOUT undermining our health. For an activity to be truly considered exercise it must fulfill ALL of these criteria:
The Rules of Optimal Exercise
1. Improve Strength
2. Improve Endurance
3. Enhance Flexibility/Mobility
4. Increase Resilience to Injury
5. Be safe
What Exercise Is Not
If you ever get injured during exercise, you have either performed it wrongly or your trainer has made a mistake. If you are a competitive athlete, injuries are to be expected. However, this is not exercise. Exercise should not only stimulate increased fitness, it should be therapeutic; healing the body.
It is for this reason we do not include recreational activities such as running in our definition of fitness. Running can improve endurance but if performed with the traditional intent of burning calories, it will almost definitely reduce flexibility and likely lead to loss of muscle mass and strength. Sports with a high intensity and high frequency such as gymnastics will most certainly improve strength, flexibility, and perhaps endurance, but carry with them a high risk of injury, and therefore also violate the rules of proper exercise.
Following The Rules of Optimal Exercise, we should observe that all aspects of physical conditioning improve simultaneously. Notice how I wrote improved strength and endurance but enhanced flexibility. This is because it is almost always better to improve strength and endurance by having more of it, but sometimes flexibility is improved by having less of it. Having treated hundreds of patients in my therapy practice I can tell you, being hypermobile is a curse. Hypermobility is the state of being extremely flexible. The problem with this is that hypermobile individuals lack the muscular strength to control their supranormal ranges of motion. This increases the chances of injury drastically.
Also, I did not include “burn calories” or “lose fat” in the rules for exercise. Exercise, even when performed at a very high intensity, burns very few calories to be meaningful in the way of fat loss. In order to burn enough calories to notice a difference, you would have to train in a way that violates the rules above, either by performing some sort of steady state aerobic activity for a long duration such as running, or by doing a high frequency, high intensity activity such as crossfit. Since we have established that both of these do not qualify as exercise, they are not valid options for fat loss.
Losing fat is almost entirely dependent on diet, and I go more into the specifics of that in this article. The role of exercise is to preserve muscle strength and size when cutting calories to lose fat.
The Minimum Effective Dose
“It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.”
– William of Occam, Occam’s Razor
We have established that exercise is a stimulus designed to create a favorable adaptation in the body. However, since exercise itself is a negative stressor, too much will not have the desired effect. If we view exercise as medicine, we need to consider that all medicine has an MED (Minimum Effective Dose). If you take too little of a given medication, you will not receive any therapeutic effect. Too much medicine, and you will start to experience negative side effects. You don’t take 50 painkillers for a headache, you take two.
When we exercise intensely, we are rapidly fatiguing and breaking down muscle tissue. After the workout, inflammation sets in and your body goes to work repairing and strengthening your tissues in preparation for the next “bear attack” (workout). If you really think about it, it makes no sense performing another workout before you are completely recovered from the previous one. There is a place for joint mobility training, active recovery, and low intensity movement, but I will address that in another article.
The MED will vary from person to person. If two individuals performed an intensity-adjusted, identical workout, how fast they recover is dependent on their genetics and lifestyle. If you are sleeping well, eating a great diet, and have low general stress levels, you can exercise more frequently. If you are sleeping four hours per night, under a lot of stress, and eating fast food daily, it makes no sense applying an intensely stressful exercise stimulus on top of that. Also, once you have recovered, It makes sense to take a few days to enjoy your now supranormal levels of fitness before hammering another workout. Otherwise, what exactly is the benefit of working out if the result is feeling worn out all the time?
I’m NOT saying not-to-exercise. Not at all. I am an exercise professional and would profit by telling you to exercise as much as possible. However, I know that more is not better. Better is better, and you deserve to know this as well. Exercise needs to occur in the context of a healthy diet and lifestyle in order to be health-yielding. You CAN exercise when these other factors are not present, and you WILL become fit, but you may not become healthy.
Exercise selection is a massive topic and can (and has) span several books and university courses. Giving general advice is almost always wrong and therefore I discourage the use of “template” workouts taken from Muscle & Fiction magazine or your favorite fashion blog. Get a dedicated, ethical exercise professional to give you advice on this. However, here are a few general tips:
1. Base your workouts around large, multi-jointed movements (Compound exercises).
2. Where needed, supplement with simple, single-joint movements (Simple Exercises) to bring up weak areas or for rehabilitation purposes.
3. Make sure you cover the entire body with your exercise regimen. Upper body, lower body, midsection, and don’t forget neck, grip, and ankle training. I recommend full-body training each workout for beginners, and possibly body-part splits for advanced trainees.
4. In order to create intensity, pick exercises that have low skill requirements. Highly skillular movements require frequent practice and therefore do not lend themselves well to infrequent, high intensity workouts. Highly skillular movements should also not be performed in a fatiguing protocol, as this increases the risk (such as high repetition olympic lifts)
“People have lost sight of the true purpose of exercise. It’s not about the reps or weights; it’s about producing a deep level of fatigue without damaging the structure so that the body is compelled to adapt and increase its strength. It’s about discipline. With discipline comes integrity and virtue. This is the source of beauty in the well-trained human body, and why you can’t acquire it from the outside; it’s an internal, mental quality shining through.”
– Steve Maxwell, Maxwell Strength and Conditioning
Whilst being massively important, exercise selection is only one side of the equation. How you perform each exercise is equally, if not more important than what exercises you do or equipment you use. With this approach to exercise, the goal is to maximally stimulate muscle in the safest manner possible. This is known as the “inroading” process. You rapidly fatigue the muscles until they are no longer able to contract. Again, doing so strengthens the body in an indirect way, as the body reacts by adapting to become stronger in the days following exercise. Observe these lifting rules to maximize the benefit from exercise with minimal risk. Minimizing the risk enables you to you maintain strength, health, and mobility into advanced age.
1. Perform each lift with a slow, controlled speed (cadence), and accelerate out of the turnarounds slowly. Move slowly enough so the weight does not gain momentum under its own mass, but not so slow so that the movement becomes a series of starts and stops. A 3-4 second cadence is fine. If you have osteoporosis or arthritis, I recommend slowing it down to a 10:10 cadence, such as recommended by the classic Superslow Protocol.
2. Maintain constant tension on the target muscles until you reach momentary muscular failure. Training to failure does not appear necessary in order to create a stimulus, but it does ensure that you have thoroughly worked all the available muscle fibers, and only requires one set, which saves time.
3. Muscle failure should occur whilst using perfect technique for the chosen exercise. Changing the movement by squirming away, or angling your limbs differently is a reflexive attempt to avoid using the target muscles and thus cheating the exercise. This is know as “outroading” and defeats the purpose of exercise. Once you are unable to continue the exercise with good form, slowly lower the weight (or yourself). Don’t drop, heave, or slam the weights down.
4. I recommend a nose-in/mouth-out breathing pattern, and as fatigue starts to set in and your muscles start to burn, begin breathing faster, almost hyperventilating, to pay off the oxygen debt. Mouth-in/mouth-out breathing can be performed but only for the occasional extremely intense workout.
5. Move slowly during each exercise but quickly between exercises with minimal breaks to maximize the metabolic effect. The high intensity muscle contractions combined with increased heart rate increase cardiac output (stroke volume x heart rate) and thus, cardiovascular fitness, a deeper explanation of which is beyond the scope of this article.
6. Try not to grunt, scream, or hold your breath. Relax the muscles of your face and neck (unless of course, you are training your neck). Doing so requires some stoicisim, and turns the practice into a form of moving mediation, akin to the practice of bioenergetic breathing. Also, the exercise session is stressful enough without us having to create more stress in the muscles of the face and neck. Doing so accelerates the aging process as it creates facial tension and therefore wrinkles.
Note: An exception to the slow lifting rule is the kettlebell swing. Although a ballistic movement I believe it has value in providing improved hip extension capability as well as reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors. However, good coaching is required and not everyone can do them safely due to anatomical restrictions.
If you commit to training in this fashion, please realize that the focus is intrinsic, on inwardly challenging yourself. Forget about weight lifted, reps, and sets, it really doesn’t matter. If your goal is maximized health and strength while simultaneously minimizing long term damage to the body, this method is superior.
However, this method is not for everyone. If your goal is to be a power/olympic lifter, you will need a different program. If you are a competetive athlete, you may benefit from training differently. If your goal is to be a professional bodybuilder, you may need more volume (and possibly performance enhancing drugs). However, the vast majority of my clients want to look reasonably good, feel healthy, and be functionally able well into advanced age, all without spending their lives in the gym. For them, this is the approach I recommend. To reap the benefits from this approach, it requires that you are willing to perform very hard work, with the discipline to maintain perfect technique. If you are up to the challenge, it will be well worth your time.
If you live in the Geneva (Switzerland) area and would like one-on-one coaching in this method, contact me with the information on my about page. I also offer distance coaching and primarily use this method for online clients.
To learn more, check out these other great resources on high intensity exercise: