In the fitness world everyone is trying to sell you something for a quick buck. The goal of the product seller is to try to solve your fitness problems with a product that solves all your problems.
They’ll sell you on shorter workouts. They’ll tell you that if standing is too hard then you can do it sitting. They’ll tell you that moderation in your diet is acceptable. Meanwhile they tell you all of this with a bodyfat percentage that isn’t even in the lean category, no visible fitness, and no client results to back it all up.
Probably the fastest way to make a shameless buck in the fitness industry is to sell short “high intensity” sessions to customers who don’t really like exercise. Selling 101 is simple – identify the problem, supply solution, make profit, get bitches. In a world where the majority of people are overweight it’s pretty clear that not many really enjoy exercise. The thought of having to work hard for an hour or more just isn’t appealing. So here comes the heroic huckster to convince you that all you really need is to train for thirty minutes a few times per week.
They’ll tell you that their plan is so good that this kind of training is used by elite sportsmen or women, or by elite fighting units or UFC fighters. That’s not a lie – high intensity training is used by all those people. The thing they’re not telling you is that all highly fit people are not doing just a little bit of training each week. You know those cover models you aspire to be on Men’s Health? Two sessions a day, five or six days per week. Elite athletes? Twice a day since they were about ten years old. Fighters and military? At least two fitness/ strength sessions per day with skill work thrown on top.
Now imagine that you tried to go all out for all of those sessions. What do you think the result is? Absolute physical burn out, exhaustion, and over training is what happens.
Here’s the truth, backed by research on how to get in shape and stay there, even as you get older. In 1936 a guy named Bruce Dill at Harvard undertook a twenty year study on response to exercise. Unlike most studies, which only run for six weeks (and anything can work for six weeks), this study is incredibly important because it shows us the importance of using intensity in training. The subjects who maintained the use of intensity in their training dropped only 1% fitness each year, or 27% total (the final study was done at the twenty-five year mark). Those who dropped off the exercise wagon showed a loss of about 43% of their fitness. Use it or lose it.
Looking at this you’d think that we should then make every effort to make every session as hard as possible to prevent the inevitable drop in performance over time. But a study done by Billat in 1999 used three different groups to test the effectiveness of interval training and discover if there was an optimal ratio.
They ran a study that split training into phases of all easy (below the point of exertion where your breathing changes – called the ventilatory threshold), 83% easy and 17% hard, and 50% easy and 50% hard. (Where hard was measured as 91% of maximum heart rate). The findings will shock you:
The average fitness increased from a Vo2max of 71.2 (already extremely high) to 72.7 after the 83/ 17 phase – an improvement of 1.5%. Many people believe Vo2max to be relatively untrainable but this study, in already experienced athletes, shows differently. However, when the training switched to 50/ 50 the tests showed a drop in Vo2max to 70.9 – a decrease of 2.5% from the previous level.
The answer is clear – too much high intensity training will send you quickly into an over trained state. This test was done using four-week blocks for each phase. Not only was three high intensity workouts per week too much for these high level athletes, it was worse for their fitness than doing none at all.
So how do you make this work?
Looking at the Billat study we have a very strong clue – roughly 80% moderate intensity and 20% high intensity. You’d think that the rules for strength and fitness training would differ but they don’t. We are still governed by the same CNS and we use the same muscles for both activities, so the rules remain the same regardless of what you choose to do in your training. (Believe me, it took me a long time to accept that). Using 80/ 20 as our guideline we can see that an hour long session should have no more than twelve minutes of high intensity work. Here are some examples for running:
Run 20 minutes easy, 3 x 3 minutes hard/ 1 minute easy, finish the run with easy running as for the warm up. (Total time ~ 1 hour).
Run 20 minutes easy, then 8 x 20s all out/ 10s easy (or rest), 6 minutes easy cool down. (Total time 30 minutes).
Break up a gym strength session into:
10 minutes of warm up and flexibility.
2 x 10 minute blocks of strength work done at 70% (i.e. use a weight you can lift 8-10 times comfortably and perform sets of 6-8 reps). Stretch for 5 minutes between each block on the muscles used.
10 minute hard interval work on rower – 2k TT, 4 x 500m all out with 2 minutes rest between each, or 10 x 30s all out: 30s rest.
Cool down and stretch for remainder of session. (Total time 1 hour).
Following this format we see 100% of our clients achieve better and better results every time they do our inhouse fitness tests. There are no injuries, there is no burn out, there is only continued, unstoppable forward progress towards greater and greater fitness regardless of their age.