High-Intensity Training: Everything You Need to Know
High-Intensity Training: Everything You Need to Know
What is High-Intensity Training?
High-Intensity Training is doing one set of an intense strength training exercise to achieve a goal of momentary muscle failure- think max intensity. Each exercise is slow and controlled and the entire workout is brief, intense, and focused. You generally can't do more than 20-30 minutes during a HIT session.
HIT is an exercise approach that has existed for over 50 years and has helped people reach a wide range of goals.
In this article, we dive into what HIT is, how HIT works, the benefits it provides, and how it differs from other methods of exercise.
If you are new to The Perfect Workout or are looking to get a better understanding of the fundamental science behind our methodology, this article is for you.
How High-Intensity Training Began
Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus’ training machines, created HIT in the early 1970s (Baye, n.d.).
Jones noted that people often focus on the most exercise that our bodies can tolerate, but we should instead look at the minimal amount of exercise that we need for great results.
He concluded that we should “train harder” but for shorter and less frequent workouts (Baye, n.d.).
Our muscles benefit most by performing an “all-out” effort while also resting sufficiently between those intense workouts. Training intensely and frequently could lead to overtraining (Baye, n.d.).
Those concepts birthed HIT: training with a focus on quality over quantity.
Is Slow-Motion Strength Training High-Intensity?
At The Perfect Workout, we use brief, infrequent workouts to help you achieve incredible results.
To be effective and time-efficient, our workout method is “Slow-Motion Strength Training” (SMST), a style of High-Intensity Training (HIT).
Don’t let the name fool you. Just because our method of strength training is slow, doesn’t mean it’s not intense.
In fact, using slow lifting speeds, as opposed to lifting faster with excess force and momentum, we ask our muscles to do more work. Making the workouts very intense, highly effective, yet ultra safe.
What Are the Benefits of HIT?
HIT is a unique approach but is not specialized for achieving one specific benefit.
In fact, this workout method leads to a range of fitness and health benefits.
Studies using a High-Intensity Training approach led to the following results:
- muscle growth
- added strength
- enhanced confidence
- an increase in metabolism
- fat loss
- a reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol
- regulated blood sugar levels
- more endurance, stamina, and energy
- improved cardiovascular fitness and health
- stronger bones
(Cornelissen & Fagard, 2005; Davy et al., 2017; Pratley, Nicklas, & Rubin, 1994; Preuss, 2020; Waller, Miller, & Hannon, 2011; Westcott, Apovian, & Puhala, 2013).
Also, people are likely to become more active after starting HIT, which could be due to having more energy or better overall well-being after starting training (Preuss, 2020).
There’s one other noteworthy benefit of this workout method, and it’s unlike the benefits previously mentioned…
HIT provides all of these benefits in a fraction of the time of other workout programs.
The previously cited studies featured 2-3 HIT workouts per week averaging around 20 minutes per workout. (Preuss, 2020; Waller et al., 2011).
While many exercise programs recommend 1 hour a day, 4-5 days a week, high-intensity training requires significantly less real estate on the calendar.
A standard weekly time investment for a HIT program is about 40-60 minutes.
In total, HIT saves you about 2-4 hours per week when compared to many other exercise programs. Not to mention the hours of time spent recovering from injuries avoided by using this ultra-safe method, or thousands of dollars not spent on healthcare and medications by using HIT as preventative care.
How Does HIT Work?
HIT gets you great results while avoiding overtraining. This is due to training harder but less often, or a “quality over quantity” approach. This manifests in both the workout frequency and execution.
With high-intensity training, only one set is performed per exercise. Each repetition is executed with a high focus on form, moving the weight through a full-range of motion with a slow and controlled tempo (Baye, n.d.).
Each exercise is performed to “Muscle Success,” when the muscle reaches a point where it can no longer move the weight on the lifting phase of the repetition – aka. muscle failure.
Training to Muscle Success ensures that the maximum amount of muscle fibers are trained and stimulated. In other words, your muscles get the most benefit out of a single set.
Muscles continue to become stronger over time through progressive overload. This involves a perpetual increase in the demand placed on muscles during training. HIT achieves this through frequent weight increases, even if the weight increase is a small amount (e.g. 2 lbs.).
To keep the exercise effective and challenging enough to stimulate muscle growth, weights should be increased when the current weight being used no longer achieves muscle success within 1-2 minutes.
HIT workouts typically train all major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. The recommended frequency for HIT training is 2-3 days per week on non-consecutive days.
High-Intensity Training Exercises
A typical high-intensity slow-motion strength training workout generally consists of 7-8 exercises per session. This may vary slightly depending on a number of factors: once or twice a week, injuries/limitations, and individual goals.
In theory, you can hit all major muscle groups with just 4 exercises:
- Leg Press: Glutes, Quadriceps, Calves
- Chest Press: Pectorals, Shoulders, Triceps
- Lat Pulldown: Lats, Biceps, Abdominals
- Leg Curl: Hamstrings
Depending on the individual, other HIT exercises can be incorporated to target specific muscle areas, including:
- Leg Extension: Quadriceps
- Bicep Curl: Biceps, Forearms
- Tricep Extension: Triceps
- Hip Abduction: Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minor, TFL
- Hip Adduction: Inner Thighs
- Compound Row: Trapezoids, Rhomboids, Biceps (often interchangeable for Lat Pulldown)
- Abdominal Machine: Abdominals
If you look at the first list, you’ll notice the entire body can be targeted with just four exercises, making it relatively simple to get a full-body workout.
More exercises can be added if needed to fully fatigue the smaller muscles that may have not achieved muscle success on bigger-muscle machines.
For example, the biceps are the secondary muscles used on the Lat Pulldown. The Preacher Curl can be added to workouts to fully target them.
This does not mean it is necessary to do all 11 exercises in every workout.
In fact, having the ability to easily complete 11 slow-motion strength training exercises is a good indication that the intensity level is not high enough.
Think of your workouts as a short sprint, not a mile-long race. The reason there isn’t a mile dash in track & field is because nobody can sprint that far, or work that hard for that long. So, milers must pace their efforts rather than sprint the entire mile.
Since intense effort is what stimulates the best results from the muscles (and the body), demanding slow-motion strength training workouts have to be relatively brief.
If you feel like you can perform slow-motion strength training exercises for more than 20 minutes at a time, you can probably improve your results by increasing the intensity and learning how to work harder.
HIT vs. HIIT?
High-Intensity Training started in the early 1970s, although another training with a similar name has achieved popularity around public gyms in the 2000s. HIT is often confused with HIIT, or high-intensity interval training.
The names sound alike, but the styles of training are very different. High-intensity training is a strength training approach that helps people gain strength, muscle, and improve their overall health.
High-intensity interval training is an approach to aerobic exercise that is also used to improve cardiovascular health and overall fitness, although it’s not an effective way to build strength and muscle.
HIIT is an aerobic workout that alternates intervals of all-out aerobic effort (e.g. running sprints) with low-intensity aerobic intervals (e.g. walking). The high-intensity intervals last around 30-60 seconds each, with 1-5 minutes of lower-intensity activity in between (Shirav & Barclay, 2021).
If you are going to do “cardio,” minute-for-minute, a HIIT workout is more effective than traditional approaches to aerobic exercise. (Shirav & Barclay, 2012). If you want the most efficient option, you can also improve your cardiovascular health through high-intensity training (without intervals) in just 20 minutes, twice a week.
Both involve a high degree of effort. Both are generally brief workouts. Both increase your heart rate significantly. However, one (HIT) is a style of strength training that improves muscular fitness, aerobic fitness, and health. The other (HIIT) is primarily aerobic training that improves aerobic fitness and health.
High-Intensity Strength Training is NOT Just Lifting Weights
Here’s an important question – “How is HIT any different than what most people do in the gym?”
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and general bodybuilding fitness approaches tend to be the standard for average gym-goers when it comes to strength training.
Their recommended method of training is we would refer to as “traditional weightlifting.”
Both the ACSM and bodybuilding leaders recommend and emphasize more work and less intense effort than HIT. For example, other workouts might call for twenty bicep curls with a light weight, performed twice, as opposed to HIT, which calls for less than half as many reps with weight two or three times as heavy, performed once.
ACSM advocates for more sets (2-3 sets of 20-30 reps per exercise), not pushing to “Muscle Success,” and a much faster repetition speed (Singh et al., 2019). Similar to HIT, they recommend a frequency of 2-3 days per week.
You might see the word “bodybuilding” and immediately think ‘that is NOT me.’ But many weight lifting principles you might be familiar with stem from bodybuilding methodology. Keep reading to find out more…
Bodybuilding programs typically stress the quantity of work more than what’s featured in HIT-style training (Dickson, 2021). Bodybuilders train about 4-6 days per week, at least three sets per exercise, and workouts that focus on a limited number of muscle groups in each workout.
Overall, bodybuilding uses an approach that emphasizes quantity of work to build muscle strength and size. Bodybuilders usually don’t perform each exercise to “Muscle Success.”
Considering these workouts often take 45-90 minutes, it’s not uncommon for bodybuilders to spend around 4-8 hours per week in the gym.
Bodybuilding’s emphasis on a higher volume of weekly exercise is the recommended approach for those who want to maximize their muscle size (Dickson, 2021).
While some professional bodybuilders have used HIT-style training (i.e. Mike Mentzer, Casey Viator, Dorian Yates), the vast majority of professionals have used more traditional bodybuilding programs.
For those who are seeking general exercise benefits, a HIT-style approach makes more sense. The majority of strength training’s health and fitness benefits are achieved with 2-3 shorter workouts per week (Singh et al., 2019; Waller et al., 2002; Winett & Carpinelli, 2001). And for those pursuing bodybuilding, HIT still has a place in your workout toolbox.
Who Should Perform HIT?
HIT can be used to reach virtually any goal a person desires from exercise. Read that again!
While it’s not specialized for professional athletes or fitness competitors, it has been proven to help people of the general population with a large range of goals.
For instance, a ballerina can’t perfect her ballet technique by doing only HIT and an ultra-marathoner can’t get good at marathons without running. Both of them can protect their joints, gain strength, and improve their health with HIT and might include that in their training regimen. But most of the general population aren’t ballerinas and ultra-marathoners.
HIT’s unique approach to exercise, though, makes it especially useful for certain groups of people:
HIT’s emphasis on quality over quantity is well-suited for people who are starting an exercise program (or are resuming after a long break). The emphasis on slow, controlled repetitions increases training safety, making it much less likely that a beginner would become injured while learning proper lifting techniques.
Also, anecdotally speaking, soreness seems to be caused by a large increase in the amount of training. We’ve noticed that debilitating levels of soreness occur when a person jumped from doing little or no exercise to three or more sets per exercise.
HIT’s approach of less being more, performing one set per exercise, is unlikely to cause anything more than a mild level of soreness after the first 1-3 sessions.
People with Injuries and/or Seeking Pain Relief
Exercise has the opportunity to help or hurt people with injuries. When properly executed, strength training reduces pain, improves strength around the joint, and enhances the overall function of the injured joint (Lange, Van Wanseele, & Singh, 2008).
Using a low amount of exercise (one set) on the injured joint, with a high emphasis on form, allows the joint to become stronger without putting an unnecessary amount of strain on the area.
Strength training just twice per week, with 15-20-minute workouts, is shown to help reduce joint pain in a number of areas (Winett & Carpinelli, 2001).
Doesn’t this include everyone?! Yes, we believe so. But time is one of the most common reasons people don’t start or stick to an exercise routine.
Contrary to many popular exercise approaches, HIT requires a very feasible weekly time investment. The Perfect Workout’s approach, for example, generally requires a consistent commitment of 20 minutes, twice per week.
While many of us have a wealth of responsibilities, 40 minutes per week for exercise is very doable.
Overall, high-intensity training features a safe, effective time-efficient approach for improving your physical and mental health, physique, and functional abilities. Let’s recap:
- HIT philosophy – “train harder” but for shorter and less frequent workouts. Perform an “all-out” effort at each workout while also resting sufficiently between those intense sessions.
- The benefits of HIT are enormous, including muscle growth, added strength, enhanced confidence, an increase in metabolism, fat loss, a reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol, regulated blood sugar levels, and time efficiency.
- HIT workouts typically train all major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. The recommended frequency for HIT training is 2-3 days per week on non-consecutive days.
- HIT is not HIIT. Both are high-intensity and relatively short workouts. HIT is a strength training approach that helps people gain strength, muscle, and improve their overall health; whereas HIIT is an aerobic workout that alternates intervals of all-out aerobic effort with low-intensity aerobic intervals.
- Anyone can do HIT but it is especially useful for beginners who are learning proper technique, people with injuries and limitations that require workout customizations, and those with busy schedules.
If you are new to The Perfect Workout, try a workout with us and book a FREE Introductory Session.
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- Cornelissen, V. A., & Fagard, R. H. (2005). Effect of resistance training on resting blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Hypertension, 23(2), 251-259.
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- Dickson, J. (2021). The best bodybuilding programs for all experience levels. BarBend. Retrieved from https://barbend.com/bodybuilding-programs/
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- Singh, F.M., Hackett, D., Schoenfeld, B., Vincent, H.K., & Westcott, W. (2019). Resistance training for health. Retrieved from https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/resistance-training-for-health.pdf?sfvrsn=d2441c0_2
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