High Intensity Interval Strength Training: Too good to be true?

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has increased tremendously in popularity in the past decade, for good reasons. It is as good as, or better than, other types of exercise in many ways and takes less time to complete. I’ve written in the past about the benefits of HIIT, which are many, so I won’t spend a lot of time here trying to make the case for it. I will briefly touch on it’s benefits with links to some relevant research and then get to the reason for writing this piece.

In summary, multiple studies have shown HIIT to be as good as, or in most cases superior to, “slow and steady” traditional cardiovascular training in these areas:

Combining HIIT with strength training has been shown to have similar results with the added benefits that you maintain muscle mass (as opposed to just sprinting or cycling) while drastically cutting down on your workout time. You are getting the benefits of cardiovascular exercise and strength training all in one. Sounds too good to be true, I know. But for once, it’s not. It works like this: instead of doing HIIT on a bike or by doing sprints, you do your strength training exercises at a HIIT tempo. Think doing squats for one full minute followed by 20 seconds of rest, etc…

One program that has embraced this type of training has exploded in popularity in the last few years (hint: it begins with a C and ends with a T and there are some “S’s” in the middle). I’m often asked what I think about this type of training. For the most part, I think it is fantastic with one caveat. My biggest concern with most of these programs is that they encourage participants to do extremely difficult, technical moves to fatigue in a competitive environment. Many of these exercises, especially some of the Olympic weight lifting moves, require a lot of instruction and practice to master. Experts spend years developing their technique with many of these moves. For the average person to go into a class and do these moves as many times as they can, with heavy weight, in a competitive environment, is a recipe for disaster.

As a clinician who spends most of his time thinking about joint biomechanics, I have hesitated to encourage this type of strength training in the BackForever program because of the risk of doing exercises poorly, resulting in acute or chronic injury. However, I do this type of training with my clients (whom I can keep an eye on) all the time, and have for years, with great benefits to their health and well-being. With that said, I will be introducing High Intensity Interval Training and High Intensity Interval Strength Training into the BACKFOREVER program this summer. I have put together a few routines which contain exercises with the lowest level of likelihood of error, and therefore injury. Most of you will really enjoy this and will see significant benefits after doing it for a few months. The key is to focus on your movement.

When you begin to move, you must practice the movement patterns you have learned in the program: hip hinging, rotating from the hips, squatting properly, split squatting properly, pushing, pulling, etc. If you must sacrifice any of these foundations of posture and movement to get in that extra rep or go up a few pounds in weight, you do it at great risk. Listen to your body. Make your gains safely. Failure to adhere to this philosophy can lead to a long list of ailments that nobody wants to hear their doctor say: disc herniation, degenerative disc disease, arthritis, rotator cuff tears, tendonitis, ACL tear, meniscus tear, and more. Remember: most spinal problems are the result of thousands of cycles of movement, not just one bad move. Just because you “got away with it” today doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing long-term damage to your body.

For those with heart conditions, a major study of over 4800 participants showed it to be very safe, beneficial, and even recommended it as a part of any program for patients with cardiovascular disease. If you have heart disease, clear it with your doctor first. (https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/circulationaha.112.123117?keytype2=tf_ipsecsha&ijkey=d1f3ab7116c73cc8515a00138f6f86fd23370050&)

Done correctly, HIIT is a very efficient, safe, and fun way to get fit. The downside: It’s pretty uncomfortable in the beginning. Like anything else, it gets easier with time.

Look for the new HIIT tab in the BackForever program in the coming days. If you feel ready, give it a try. The benefits are real and numerous.

Dr. Jeremy James

Dr. Jeremy James founded and was director of the Aspen Club Back Institute in Aspen, Colorado, is the coauthor of the bestselling The Younger Next Year Back Book and earned his Doctor of Chiropractic from the University of Western States. Learn more about Dr. James here.