Cardio is awesome for fat loss.
But there are many questions surrounding HIIT.
Luckily, I’ve put together this quick guide to answer them all for you.
Today, we will cover various topics which hold people back when setting up a HIIT routine for fat loss. We will answer these and more:
- What is HIIT?
- What is the best interval time split to use for fat loss?
- How long should your high intensity interval training workout be for maximum results?
- Will you burn muscle if you do HIIT and, if so, how could you prevent this from happening?
These are all questions which are going to be answered in today’s extensive post.
High Intensity Interval Training – The Complete Overview
If you are unsure about any aspect of HIIT, my friend, you are in very good hands.
Despite the fact it has become popular in the last few years, it’s not a new technique.
It’s been around for over a quarter of a century and there is a stack of research which will teach you various different aspects to enable you to tailor the perfect HIIT routine to suit your goals in the gym – whether it be weight loss, building lean muscle or even increasing sporting performance.
Is HIIT Really That Old?
Yes, it is.
The first studies on this topic date way back to 1985 and it’s first real breakthrough in terms of mainstream fitness came at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, where swimmers and sprinters spoke openly about how their coaches had been implementing it into their training routines.
It went largely unnoticed at the time, because it was overshadowed by the discovery of creatine monohydrate (again used by sprinters in the Games), which went on to become the biggest selling bodybuilding supplement of all time.
However, the fact remains that the foundations of HIIT were laid down a very long time before most people stumbled across it in the gym.
What Is HIIT?
HIIT is based upon manipulating your heart rate.
In a workout, this means you’re constantly switching between a low intensity and a high intensity for the duration of your session, as opposed to working at one continuous pace.
Is HIIT More Effective Than Regular Cardio For Fat Loss?
It took a while to be acknowledged, but HIIT is now accepted by most of the world’s top coaches to be by far the most effective way to burn fat while maintaining lean muscle tissue.
One particular study showed that participants who performed a HIIT routine were able to burn almost 9x more fat as those performing regular cardiovascular workouts, despite the fact that the HIIT group were in the gym for less time overall. (1)
In another study, it was revealed that while adding regular aerobic work to a weight training program decreased muscle growth by an astonishing 30% and strength gains by up to 15%, when they looked at short, intense, sprinting-type exercises the negative impact on strength and muscle gains were completely wiped out. (7)
Where’s The Proof?
You could be forgiven for thinking there was some kind of voodoo magic at work here.
I mean, we live in a world where if something looks to good to be true, it usually is, right?
So how can you spend less time in the gym, have a more interesting workout and lose way more fat – all at the same time?!
That question alone is why it took HIIT so long to become widely accepted.
Despite the fact that Hollywood stars like Sylvester Stallone had adopted the technique way back in the mid-1980’s, the mainstream didn’t recognize it.
At first the research behind it was sketchy and there were questions raised about whether or not the high intensity would result in huge muscle loss, scaring off most professional bodybuilders and fitness models who relied on their looks for their careers.
That all changed in 1994, when a study from Laval University in Quebec presented some amazing findings. (1)
Researchers directly compared two groups of individuals performing HIIT vs Cardio, they also took biopsies of the participants’ muscles in order to assess the specific adaptations which were happening inside the body.
Over the course of the study, the HIIT group burned a total of 13,830 calories and the cardiovascular group burned 28,740 – over twice as many.
This was understandable, given that the cardio group were training more frequently and for a longer duration.
Given the difference in calorie burn, it be considered impressive if the HIIT group were able to stay anywhere near the cardio group in terms of fat lost as a result of training.
Yet, for some reason, the HIIT group had lost 9x more fat for every calorie they burned.
They also discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that regular cardio didn’t increase the body’s production of the fat metabolizing enzyme HADH, whereas HIIT did – despite the fact that cardio mainly uses fat for fuel and HIIT mainly uses carbohydrates.
The question which arose from this study was this:
If HIIT mainly uses carbohydrates for fuel in the gym, how did this group burn 9x more fat?
The Afterburn Effect
You may have heard of this before.
The reason the HIIT group in the Laval study were able to burn off 9x more fat despite burning fewer calories and spending less time in the gym came down to EPOC – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or “The Afterburn Effect”.
After your body has blasted through it’s glycogen – carbohydrate – stores in your HIIT workout it becomes very protective of your few remaining reserves. It will not let you have them and it lays down the law: “You’re not getting any more of these until I’ve got enough in my system!”
So your carb stores go on temporary “lock down”.
While you replenish them with post-workout nutrition, such as a whey protein shake and some fruit or a handful of jellies, your body is in full survival mode and will not allow them to be used as energy.
However, it has to give you something.
I mean, you’ve just done a tough workout and your body needs fuel.
So it flips things around, protecting your precious carbohydrate reserves and instead shoveling fat reserves into the fire.
A 2011 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise confirmed that this post-workout phenomenon of using primarily fat for fuel can last up to 14 hours! (2)
That’s right, despite the fact that you didn’t use any fat while you were in the gym, you will now burn fat at an accelerated rate for up to 14 hours!
Now, hopefully a few things are beginning to fall into place as to why HIIT is so effective.
Which Interval Time Should You Use?
How long should intervals be for maximum results?
If you asked 10 different trainers this question, you would probably get 10 different answers.
But while many people are happy to base their HIIT sessions around other people’s experiences, i.e. “well it worked for me”, I encourage you to be different.
Fortunately, there are several studies which have looked into different interval times and their effects on the human body.
In my opinion the best study on this subject was performed at the University Of Ontario, Canada, by Dr. Peter Lemon and his team back in 2011.
They discovered that participants following a program consisting of six rounds of 30 second intervals and four minutes of moderate recovery (27 mins total workout) were able to burn over twice as much fat as regular cardio.
That discovery came despite the HIIT group working out for less than half the time of the cardio group. (3)
This study came to the conclusion that during high intensity interval training an adequate recovery period is absolutely vital to results.
Meaning if you are unable to recover before your next interval, it will not be at maximum intensity.
This is why the common approach of “I’ll do a burst every 30 seconds” doesn’t lead to the best possible results, because while the workout itself may feel hard, by not allowing for adequate recover between bursts we are defeating the entire point, at least from a fat loss perspective.
Two minutes simply isn’t enough for the majority of people, whereas a four minute split was very effective.
Of course, this is subjective to the individual.
If you needed 4 minutes to fully recover from a flat-out 30 second burst, then take 4 minutes. But if you felt you had fully recovered within less time, then take less time.
Then there’s the much publicized Tabata protocol.
First designed back in 1996 in Japan, Professor Tabata worked with a group of highly trained elite athletes using a simple eight minute workout that operated on a 20 second high, 10 second low split.
During this study he was able to increase their VO2 Max – the best measure of cardiovascular fitness – by a massive 28%!
To make these results even more impressive, you must bear in mind that the group in this study were already elite athletes.
Consider how hard it is for a top bodybuilder to pack on an inch to his biceps, or for a good sprinter to shave an extra tenth of a second from his personal best.
Suddenly the results of the Tabata study really hit home.
A 28% improvement in the aerobic ability of athletes who were already considered to be at the top of their game is really quite astonishing and seems to suggest that shortened recovery periods are great for highly trained aerobic individuals. (4)
Going back a couple of years before the Tabata study, researchers from Canada showed that high intensity bouts of 15-to-30 seconds interspersed with much longer recovery periods caused 9x more fat loss per calories burned. (1)
Those findings also back up Dr. Lemon’s initial study of a 30/4 split for fat loss.
Now let’s travel to Australia, where researchers used eight 3 minute high intensity bursts followed by a recovery period which was as long as it needed to be for the individual’s pulse to return to 70% of their maximum heart rate – probably around 2 minutes in most people – giving a workout total of around 40 minutes on average.
They found that when this was performed by highly trained rowers, their performance was increased as well as their muscular power and VO2 Max. (5)
So the studies above indicate to us that for those who are performing HIIT with specific goals in mind, the following protocols are optimal:
- Those with fat loss goals should go with a 30 second high intensity burst followed by 3-4 minutes of recovery depending upon the fitness levels of the individual.
- Those with goals of improving aerobic sporting performance would suit the Tabata protocol.
- Finally, the Australian study with the group of highly trained rowers indicates that those who are aiming to improve anaerobic power and speed, while also improving sporting performance, should utilize a longer high intensity burst followed by an recovery period of roughly the same length.
Should You Do HIIT Before Or After Weights?
Prepare to be surprised here.
If you asked 100 weights enthusiasts for their opinion on the best time to fit cardiovascular activity into your routine, I’d bet around 80% of them would tell you to do it after you’ve finished your lifting.
Heck, I used to believe this myself, too.
The theory is that you would tire out your muscles if you did cardio first. And for many years this theory made perfect sense – despite having no actual proof behind it.
When the subject was looked into by researchers at the University of Memphis, however, the findings were surprising to say the very least!
Let’s cut straight to the point – you should do your cardio before you lift weights!
That’s right, I said it!
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers tested the old belief that pre-workout cardio would blast your muscles and leave you too tired to hit the weights.
They had two groups do an intense 45 minute workout on a rowing machine and two other groups rest, before hitting the weights for six sets to failure on heavy barbell squats and heavy barbell bench presses.
Notably, the pre-workout cardio only affected performance in the squats.
The bench press was completely unaffected by the pre-workout cardiovascular exercise.
The researchers concluded that cardiovascular exercise only affected the performance of the muscles which were primarily used during the cardio itself. (6)
Given that most cardio work is legs based, my advice would be to simply avoid doing any cardio on leg day.
The real reason you shouldn’t do cardio after lifting is discovered when you look at what goes on inside the body during a weights workout.
Two enzymes will explain absolutely everything here and this should completely change the way you train forever.
During your cardio session, an enzyme known as AMPK is released and this helps the body to make several adjustments to endurance exercise by encouraging the body to build more mitochondria to process more energy for you to use.
After a weights session, an enzyme known as m-TOR is released.
You might have seen that word on several muscle building supplements. It’s the enzyme which “turns on” the muscle building process after a workout.
Given that we want to build lean muscle and torch body fat, ideally we want to maximize m-TOR, right?
That just makes perfect sense!
Well, what most people don’t know is that AMPK production kills off m-TOR. (8)
Therefore, it makes absolutely no sense to finish a tough resistance workout and then jump on an exercise bike and do an hour of cardio!
This research should literally change the way most bodybuilders train from now on, but the study in which it was discovered was terribly under-reported in the media at the time.
Production of m-TOR lasts for up to six hours and we really want to get the most from this prolonged muscle building period, so ideally we should be doing our cardio before we start lifting or splitting our workout into two separate sessions.
The take away lessons here are:
- Do your HIIT before your resistance training to maximize m-TOR release and minimize the effects of AMPK.
- The commonly used approach of doing cardio in the morning and weights in the evening this is also fine.
- Weights in the morning and cardio in the evening would also work, particularly if there was at least six hours between sessions, as this would leave more than enough time to maximize the heightened m-TOR release from your weights session.
Should I Do HIIT On An Empty Stomach?
Getting your pre-workout nutrition in check is another way to take results even higher.
Lots of people fuel up before the gym by eating a banana or other fruit.
And while this is perfectly fine in most cases, it isn’t optimal pre-workout nutrition for high intensity interval training.
Given that we are blasting through our carbohydrate reserves during HIIT in order to reach that golden “Afterburn Effect” when our workout ends, it doesn’t make sense to eat a bunch of carbohydrates before we train.
This would merely buffer our carb reserves and leave us with more work to do in the gym to reach our desired target.
However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t eat anything at all.
In a recent post here on the blog, I showed you how consuming protein before early morning cardio allowed you to increase the calorie burn normally associated with fasted cardio to a higher level.
This same principle can be used before performing HIIT to give you even more bang for your buck.
Research has shown us that consuming protein before any workout will enhance your results further.
Having a serving of protein before you hit the gym has been proven to protect your lean muscle tissue and also increase your metabolism far more than training on an empty stomach – helping you to burn more fat in your upcoming workout! (9)
When you are trying to blast fat, protein is your best friend!
What Supplements Should I Use For HIIT?
Most people have a rough idea that they should be using whey protein supplements but beyond that they get a little bit lost.
That’s because every supplement hypes itself up as “the one you need to succeed”and you can spend an awful lot of cash in the supplement industry if you don’t know exactly what you require.
To compliment a fat loss HIIT program there are only three or four major supplements that I would recommend.
- Whey Protein
The benefits of whey protein are well documented.
Not only will it help you to build more lean muscle tissue, it will also aid with encouraging fat loss and a wealth of other benefits which we won’t go into here. If your goals with HIIT are fat loss orientated and you are looking for a protein supplement which you can fit in before and after your workout sessions, go with one which offers you around 20 grams of protein per serving and a has a low carbohydrate content in each shake.
- HIIT Pre-workout
Instead of using a pre-workout your body adapts to within two weeks and leaves you wishing you’d never wasted your money on it, I encourage my clients to make their own preworkout by picking up some caffeine, beta-alanine and citrulline.
The links above will show you the ones I personally use.
In combining these three ingredients we create a supplement which boosts our ability to perform intense exercise, with zero carbohydrate content.
Here’s a bit of information on each one.
One of the oldest supplements in the book, Caffeine is still king when it comes to pre-workout energy boosting supplements. As well as increasing energy, it has also been shown to increase the body’s usage of fat for fuel.
Beta-alanine has been shown to boost training output and it remains one of the most useful supplements to use before a HIIT session.
Most of us know this as the ingredient in most preworkouts that gives us that tingly, skin-crawling sensation.
In 2012, UK researchers reported that beta-alanine supplementation in amateur boxers increased their average punching power in the last 10 seconds of a round by 2000%. (11)
A powerful member of the amino acid family, citrulline’s primary function is to boost energy.
And it’s no slouch.
In fact, citrulline has been shown to significantly boost performance in bouts of explosive exercise, making it very useful for those performing heavy weights sessions or, you guessed it, HIIT workouts. (12)
HIIT – In Summary
I believe one of the major problems with the fitness industry is that people often just don’t have a trainer who is prepared to take the time to sit down with them and explain things properly.
You now do have that – me.
Congratulations, you now know more about HIIT than just about anyone in your local gym and probably more than about 85% of trainers, too! Let’s summarize the points now.
The majority of people who are looking to incorporate high intensity interval training into their workout routine have fat loss goals.
If that’s you, then the following protocols will enable you to get immediately on the right track:
- Use the 30/4 interval split. As your fitness improves you will notice that your recovery time can be lowered. It is crucial that you are fully recovered before you tackle another high intensity burst, so don’t rush into lowering your recovery times before you are ready for it. Three to four minutes was adequate recovery for most people. The majority of people who could handle less than two minutes of recovery were athletes.
- Perform your HIIT as part of a resistance training program, you can optimize it further by doing your cardio before you hit the weights. Skip cardio on leg day.
- Consume protein before your HIIT workout to increase fat burning even further. Try to avoid carbohydrates in the final one or two hours building up to your HIIT workout, as this will enable you to deplete your carb stores faster in the gym and get the full benefits from high intensity interval training. If you train first thing in the morning, simply avoid carbs and have a protein rich breakfast.
- Supplement your HIIT routine with whey protein, caffeine, beta-alanine and citrulline if you wish to boost performance further.
Good luck with your new routine and you can ask me any questions in the comments section below.
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2. “A 45 Minute Vigorous Exercise Bout Increases Metabolic Rate For 14 Hours” by Knab AM, Shanely RA, Corbin KD, Jin F, Sha W, Nieman DC. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Sep;43(9):1643-8.
3. “Run Sprint Interval Training Improves Aerobic Performance But Not Max Cardio Output” by Macpherson RE, Hazell TJ, Olver TD, Paterson DH, Lemon PW. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jan;43(1):115-22.
4. “Effects Of Moderate Intensity Endurance And High Intensity Intermittent Training On Anaerobic Capacity And VO2 Max” by Tabata I, Nashimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Ogita F, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.
5. “The Effects Of High Intensity Interval Training In Well Trained Rowers” by Driller MW, Fell JW, Gregory JR, Shing CM, Williams AD. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):110-21.
6. “Acute Neuromuscular And Metabolic Responses To Concurrent Endurance And Resistance Exercise” by Schilling BK, Reed JP, Murlasits Z. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research. 2012 May 24.
7. “Concurrent Training: A Meta Analysis Examining Interference Of Aerobic And Resistance Exercise” by Wilson JM, Marin PJ, Rhea MR, Wilson SM, Loenneke JP, Anderson JC. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research. 2011 Oct 13.
8. “AMP-Activated/SNF1 Protein Kinases: Conserved Guardians Of Cellular Energy” by Hardie DG. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2007 Oct;8(10):774-85.
9. “Timing Protein Intake Increases Energy Expenditure 24 H After Resistance Training” by Hackney KJ, Bruenger AJ, emmer JT. Journal Of American College Of Sports And Exercise. 2010 May – Vol 42 – Iss 5 – pp 998-1003.
10. “Exercising Fasting Or Fed To Enhance Fat Loss? Influence Food Intake On Respiratory ratio And Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption After A Bout Of Endurance Training” by Paoli A, Marcolin G, Zonin F, Neri M, Sivieri A, Pacelli QF. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Feb;21(1):48-54.
11. “Beta-alanine improves punch force and frequency in amateur boxers during a simulated contest.” by Donovan T, et al. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Oct;22(5):331-7.
12. “Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness.” by Pérez-Guisado J, et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 May;24(5):1215-22. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cb28e0.