How to Maximize Your Results from Interval Training

Intervals are extremely beneficial to overall health, regardless of your fitness goals. They are a great way to burn fat, improve conditioning, and improve your cardiovascular health in a relatively short amount of time.

Simply put, they are a great bang for your buck way to get fit. However, most people don’t “do” intervals properly.

Read on for more.

What are intervals?

Contrary to what you may think, there is a lot more behind an interval than “working really hard for a bit, and then resting for a bit, and then repeating.” There is some science behind intervals.

Interval training has been around for decades. However, only recently have fitness enthusiasts around the world been awakened to the value. The recent popularity of interval training has even given it a new name in the literature. Interval training is often referred to as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and it is now the darling of the fat loss and conditioning worlds. Truth is, you can also do low intensity interval training. In fact most people should not start with HIIT but LIIT. HIIT may make you vomit if you don’t work into it.

A great point. Most people are only going to end up injured if they dive in headfirst with really difficult intervals.

More on the same subject, from Mike Robertson:

HIIT, also known as interval training, is currently the hot topic when it comes to fat loss workouts — and for good reason. Intervals are in many ways superior to traditional steady-state training with regards to fat loss.

Due to the intensity of the workouts, chances are you’re going to be burning a ton of calories when you perform interval training. Couple that with the fact that your metabolism stays elevated for quite some time after you’re done training, and you have a very potent fat burning stimulus.

Am I ready for intervals?

Unfortunately, intervals aren’t for everyone, especially in the beginning. I would never have someone who’s one hundred pounds overweight performing sprints or other high-impact activities.

So far, so good. Intervals are effective, but only if implemented properly. The key to making sustainable body composition improvements (fat loss, muscle gain, whatever), is to challenge your body with something difficult. It doesn’t have to be something that a pro athlete finds difficult, but just something that challenges your body.

How should I include them in my training?

There are many ways to mix intervals into your training. You can run hills, the track, or on the treadmill. You can bike hills, use the exercise bike at the gym, or give an Airdyne bike a try (but only if you really, really hate yourself).

You can use dumbbells or kettlebells and do complexes. You can use the rowing machine (my personal favourite). It just depends what works best for you. I like rowing compared to running because it is less stressful on the hips and knees (low impact vs. high impact). And I don’t like sitting on a bike considering I sit at my computer a lot of the day.

You can also do bodyweight circuit intervals – doing pushups for 20 seconds and resting for 10 seconds, for example, is an interval.

There are primarily two ways to structure your intervals. Work/rest ratios, and using your heart rate.

Work/rest ratios mean that you find a time duration for your “work” (the hard part), and a set time duration for your “rest” (the rest, obviously). For example, you could do intervals that involve a five minute warm up, and eight rounds of 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest.

Heart rate-based intervals are more specific to you, which is always a good thing with fitness. How these work – you typically need to wear a heart rate monitor (if you don’t have one, I’d recommend picking up one – both Garmin and Polar are solid companies, and you shouldn’t need to spend more than $100 bucks). Your “work” will involve working hard until your heart rate is at a certain number (relative to your training zones and heart rate maximum), and then you “rest” until your heart rate drops back down to a certain number.

Work/Rest-Based Heart Rate-Based
Very customizable Very customizable
Less specific More specific
Easier to implement Require heart rate monitor and knowledge of heart rate zones
Functional to sports, but not as much as HR-based More functional to sports

Here are a few important keys:

1) If you include intervals a few times a week (aim for one or two, unless you are in great shape or really want to kick start fat loss), you need to take something away from your training. Intervals are very demanding, and you need to give your body proper rest. Don’t over train.

2) If you sit all day at work, don’t do your intervals sitting down (if at all possible).

3) Play with the work/rest ratios to find what works best. You can do 30 seconds on/30 seconds off intervals. You could do 30 seconds on/one minute off intervals. It just depends how fit you are and how hard you want to work. I’d say that anything longer than 30-45 seconds isn’t a true “interval,” because you aren’t really pushing your anaerobic threshold at that point.

Hockey shifts, for example, are typically 35-45 seconds long.

Make sure you are working hard.

4) Intervals are supposed to be difficult. You should be struggling for your breath by the end of them. If you aren’t, chances are your intervals are too easy, and you are wasting your time (to a degree – all movement is good, but intervals are pretty specific in terms of maximizing the benefits of them).

And be honest with yourself when starting out.

One warning. Deconditioned clients may need three weeks to a month of steady work to get ready to do intervals. This is OK. Don’t kill a beginner with interval training. Begin with a quality strength program and some steady state cardiovascular work. The only good use for steady state work in my mind is preparing an athlete or client for the intervals to come.

The beauty of intervals is how customizable they are. You need to work your butt off (relative to your fitness level), but you don’t need much/any equipment to get in shape. And intervals shouldn’t take more than 15-20 minutes (including warm up and cool down), which is a lot more manageable to fit into a busy schedule compared to going for a few long runs per week.

On the volume/intensity spectrum, intervals are low volume, high intensity. Be smart, but work hard.

Here are some studies on the benefits of intervals compared to aerobic training (steady-state cardio).

Again, give them a try. Try the treadmill if that is convenient for you. The bike or rowing machine would be a great alternative. If you have a steep hill nearby, give that a try as well. Hill runs are brutally tough but also very effective. If you have battle ropes or a prowler at your gym, all the better. Not many commercial gyms have either of these tools, but you may be a lucky person who trains at a great gym!

And there are many ways to make intervals harder. Up the speed. Up the incline. Extend the “work” period. Decrease the “rest” period. Increase the number of intervals (I would stick to a number between five and 10). If you are spending more than 15-20 minutes doing your intervals (and still feel good after), you need to up the intensity significantly.

Here are three very different interval programs to give you an idea of how to add it in:

Option 1 – Treadmill Sprints (work/rest)

  • Walk at a brisk pace for five minutes
  • Sprint at Speed 10 for 30 seconds, and hop off and rest for 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
  • Walk at a brisk pace for five minutes
  • You can do this before or after weight training (I’d suggest after), or on its own (best is early in the morning to maximize the fat loss benefits)

Option 2 – Rowe Intervals (heart rate based)

  • Row at an easy pace to bring your heart rate up to 60-70% of its max (for example, if your maximum heart rate is 200, bring your heart rate somewhere between 120-140)
  • Go all out until your heart rate gets up to 185-190.
  • As soon as you get there, slow down and row at an easy pace until it drops to 150. Once it hits 150 (you could make it 160 for more difficulty), repeat.
  • These intervals won’t be consistent with time, but the beauty is that you will get feedback over weeks/months about your improved fitness (namely, your heart rate will drop a lot quicker the fitter you get).

Option 3 – Body-weight circuit

  • Pick a number for reps, or a set time goal
  • Pick a number of exercises, trying to work the entire body

For example:

  1. 10 squats
  2. 10 pushups
  3. 10 lunges each leg
  4. 10 burpees
  5. 10 jump squats
  6. 10 inchworms
  • And repeat for “rounds” (sets) or time. Again, this one you can get creative with and really add in whatever you feel like doing – just try and get a collection of exercises that will work your entire body.

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