High Intensity Training: How Hard is too Hard?

Wed. February 12, 2014 12:00 AM
by Michael Elder

You've all seen the infomercials. From P90X to Insanity, there have been a plethora of fitness programs that have been blasted all over television for the last few years. Many of them have one thing in common: high intensity training (HIIT). High intensity fitness programs tend to be very fast paced and often shorter in duration. The common thought behind this mode of training is "work your ass off, and then go home early". But despite the popularity of this current fitness trend, the real question is: is it safe? And also, it is important for your workout to feel "brutal"? I will try to answer these questions throughout this article.

I believe that these high intensity training programs have become increasingly popular because they give the impression that its participants are doing something constructive. These workouts are characterized with words such as "heart pounding", "sweat dripping", and "air gasping". If that doesn't constitute a good workout, then what does, right? I do agree- to a certain extent. The problem that I have is that some of these programs are being utilized by beginners. High intensity training, while very beneficial to experienced exercisers, is not necessarily best suited for people who have never trained before. These people do not have a baseline of strength to work from. Their tendons, ligaments, and muscle tissue are not yet prepared for that kind of intense training. Often times, these people tend to be overweight, thus adding more stress to their joints during high intensity training. And of course, the heart itself is under stress during exercise, especially HIIT. I believe this poses a serious health risk for exercise novices who choose to participate in these programs. If you are new to exercise, particularly resistance training, you must take care to give your body time to adapt to the training. This could take weeks, months, or even up to a year depending on your individual circumstances. You must respect and honor your body's limitations.

Experienced exercisers need to be careful as well. Personally, I believe that too much of any one thing is not healthy. This is why I am not a fan of marathon running (sorry marathoners). It's a lot of wear and tear on the joints. Doing high intensity training 365 days a year can have a similar effect. Overuse injuries such as muscular strains can occur. Over training symptoms such as lethargy, fatigue, and muscle cramping can set in and often become chronic. These are all signs that you are pushing your body too hard or that you are not getting adequate recovery. Make no mistake- I do high intensity training quite often. However, I am also supplementing it with lower intensity workouts. I also take care to constantly change my workout routines so that my body does not start to plateau. I believe that having this kind of variety in training always leads to success. Industry guidelines suggest that exercise participants should limit their HIIT workouts to two to three sessions per week.

Many of these programs such as Tabata, involve a group class format. Group exercise is wonderful, but it also has some risks. Classes can number more than 20 people with only one instructor. It is nearly impossible for the instructor to keep his eye on everyone at all times. For that reason, quality movement is sometimes spared, causing potential risk for injury. Care must be taken to learn proper form and technique, especially when the class format is less personalized.

Many people will often say that they want a "killer" workout. If they are not dripping with sweat or gasping for air by the end of it, they feel as though they have wasted their time. I have even seen some people who work out so hard that they end up throwing up. I have also heard some people mention that they actually want to throw up; otherwise they feel they haven't worked out hard enough. Let me be clear: throwing up is your body's way of telling you that you have pushed it too far. It is not a badge of honor and it should never be "the goal". It does happen sometimes, but when it does, it is time to end the workout; otherwise you will just continue to get sicker. I believe that we need to move away from this kind of mentality. A complete and thorough workout does not always have to end with the above mentioned characteristics. What is most important is consistently doing the right things that lead to long- lasting results: regular aerobic conditioning, full- body resistance training, adequate rest and recovery, and proper nutrition. If a workout is always a draining mental and physical test, it is not realistic for it to be a sustainable form of exercise. This often leads to the vicious cycle of getting into shape, getting burned out or injured, and then getting out of shape.

Moving forward, I think it is important to incorporate HIIT for those who are ready for it. But just like all other training, it should be cycled and not utilized 24/7. There are many benefits that it has to offer, but there are also many parameters needed to keep it safe, fun, and sane. There is no question that it has been in the spotlight lately. However, we must also keep a strong eye on its necessary counterpart: recovery. To get the optional training response, we must strike a balance between stressing the body with a challenging workout and allowing adequate recovery. It's all about balance.

So by all means, if you are a fit person or at least have a baseline of strength, try incorporating some high intensity training into your program. It will definitely jolt your system and you will see some definite benefits. Just please be careful not to over train, and always allow adequate time for rest and recovery. HIIT, just like all other training should be another tool in your arsenal of training. Have fun with it- just don't overdo it!

Thanks for reading. Be healthy!

Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last fifteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website,