High-intensity training – what is it good for?

High-Intensity training is all the rage and has been marketed strongly to the general population as a way to make rapid changes in body composition and fitness. From CrossFit’s workout of the day to P90X and Insanity training to Tabata training, working yourself into the ground with insanely hard workouts is often recommended as the best way to make significant changes in fitness and body composition. I certainly agree with the efficacy of these training methods in relation to the intended outcome, but for the general population this sort of physical training does not really promote the true outcome needed from exercise, which is a lifelong approach to staying fit and active.

High-intensity and the elite athlete

I expect with my background of training elite athletes the image created is one of getting sports people performing high-intensity workouts frequently, to help them reach phenomenal fitness levels and enhance their performance in sport. Yes, there are certainly times when you have to push an athlete really hard to help them take their fitness up to another level, but for most of the time an athletes training is kept at a level where they can sustain their motivation over a long period of time, such as a season or in fact an entire career. Too much high-intensity training, whether it is strength, speed or metabolic (fitness) based, will eventually burn an athlete out.

For top athletes there is a clear building process involved in preparing to do any high-intensity training. To get the most out of any block of high-intensity work I have to ensure that my athletes can perform the skills involved really well, so there is a high learning aspect and sensible progression around the building blocks of any high-intensity programme. It’s important that athletes can perform exercises well both when fresh and also when fatigued to avoid the risk of injury. The planning of this work is paramount to it being effective. It is placed in training programmes at the right time and for the right length of time to be most effective in relation to upcoming competitions. For example, it may be a four-week block of two high-intensity fitness sessions a week (along with the rest of their training), eight weeks before a competition. The last four weeks will then focus on sport specific court and physical work with high-intensity training tapering off to allow an athlete to freshen up and challenge these new found fitness levels in their sport specific training. The physical gains from this high-intensity block of work will be maintained through a more moderate training phase.

The level of planning and preparation required to safely and effectively apply these intense fitness techniques into an athletes training plan is extremely thorough and complex. So it seems strange to me that so many people are jumping straight into these very demanding and physically challenging workouts without the physical preparation required to be able to safely perform the workouts, let alone get the much publicised benefits from these training approaches. My recommendation for the majority of people would be to have a balanced approach to their physical activity that focuses more on frequency of activity rather than intensity.

High-intensity training and body composition

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that high-intensity exercise isn’t effective, in fact the science behind this training is sound. One of the main factors that really makes high-intensity training effective is Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). This process describes the calories needed to return the body back to its resting state following a workout. During low-intensity aerobic exercise the majority of calories are burnt during the exercise session, as the intensity is so low that the body can return back to a resting state quickly and doesn’t require a great deal of extra energy to do so. During high-intensity exercise a large proportion of the calories burnt overall are done so after the exercise bout. Exercise of a high-intensity nature disturbs the bodies’ equilibrium so much that there is a huge cost in returning it back to its resting level, which requires a high number of calories to do so. Hence high-intensity exercise has the ability to significantly change body composition in a very short space of time, even more so if it is performed using strength training, as there will be a double hit of metabolic impact; the calories burnt during and after the workout, and the workouts muscle building effects increases the number of calories burnt when the body is resting.

Strength training and body composition

High-intensity training isn’t the only way to improve your body composition. The number one training method that I believe all individuals should engage in is strength training. Maintenance of muscle mass is key in keeping basal metabolic rate high, as muscle tissue is extremely active and will do a lot of the work for you by burning calories just while you are sitting still, compared to less metabolically active tissue like fat (which just sits there being lazy and not burning much energy to survive). Strength training can take many forms – lifting weights, sprinting and bodyweight circuit classes. There are options that everyone can engage with.

High-intensity risk and reward

Despite its effectiveness in producing rapid results in fitness and body composition, the issues for high-intensity exercise lie in the safety of performing it and the motivation it requires. Many hi-intensity exercise routines involve exercises that require high levels of skill, coordination and in many cases exceptional strength and power to complete safely and effectively. This for many people will often result in ineffective training sessions as well as a high potential for injury, which in many cases prevents high-intensity training from being a long-term healthy exercise solution. The motivation levels that are required to push the limits of physical output regularly mean that many people that start down the high-intensity exercise route cannot maintain it and simply fall out with exercise and quit altogether.

What I would recommend for people wanting to stay healthy and active in life is to concentrate on improving flexibility and being able to move with strength, comfortably through various ranges of movement. Engaging in moderately challenging exercise that looks after the body will build a foundation of physical readiness that can let you engage occasionally in some high-intensity exercise should you choose to, but also allows a life-long approach that has you feeling better and can incorporate a fun, fit and flexible approach to exercise.

If you would like to try a gentler approach to getting your body moving and feeling better, come and try a Moving Strong class or look at some of our other programming options to improve your physical condition.

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