Safety Tips for High Intensity Interval Training

Posted: March 19, 2014 by kirisyko in Crossfit, Fitness and Training, SykOtic
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Photo by Antwone Walters. View more of Antwone’s CrossFit photos on Facebook.

About the Author:

Tom Mathis is a local fitness enthusiast and certified CrossFit Instructor.

Unless you have been in a proverbial cave, you’ve likely heard all the positive rage concerning High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) type workouts. The increasingly popular sport of CrossFit is a form of HIIT. Circuit Training, which has been around for some time, may also be considered HIIT.

In general, HIIT focuses on hammering your body’s anaerobic and aerobic metabolic pathways in one workout. Studies have demonstrated HIIT is very effective at developing broad fitness (both strength and cardiovascular benefits) and maximizing fat burning with relatively short workouts ranging in time from 4 -20 mins. Arguably, the most popular studyassociated with high-intensity training was conducted by Professor Izumi Tabata and consequently, “Tabata Interval Training” has his namesake. The fact that a person can achieve a high-level of broad fitness with very short workouts is very appealing to folks with a busy calendar. HIIT requires no equipment and can be done virtually anywhere.

HIIT is applicable to everyone at any level of fitness and age (barring medical condition(s) that limit strenuous exercise) because “Intensity” is psychologically and physiologically relative to an individual. This means two people could do the same workout and the person who was moving slower and took longer to complete the workout experienced relatively the same exercise benefit as the faster person. While HIIT is a great way to exercise, there are real risks associated to improperly conducted HIIT. In order to train safely with HIIT the mantra of Mobility, Mechanics, Consistency, and then Intensity must be adhered to absolutely:

  • Mobility is good joint range of motion (ROM), alignment, stability, and strength respective to the specific exercise elements programmed into a HIIT workout. Your joints work as an integrated system to allow for proper/safe movement patters. A weakness or issue with one joint transfers unhealthy load to another joint – this is why issues with poor ankle flexion or stability may manifest in knee or hip issues. Poor mobility is a clear indicator of a physiological dysfunction and no matter what type of training a person is doing, underlying mobility issues must be addressed up front in order to minimize the risk of injury.
  • Mechanics is the ability to accurately perform an exercise element that is part of a HIIT workout. For example, if a person can not perform one air squat with proper depth, knee alignment, and maintain feet flat on the ground through all phases of the movement they should not attempt to do air squats in an HIIT workout. This same person should also be careful doing squats with weights until the ability to demonstrate proper mechanics (i.e., form) for any exercise element is achieved. Form follows function and bad form lends to dysfunction. A good coach will prescribe appropriate exercise element, i.e., progressions, to help an individual improve element mechanics for safe HIIT.
  • Consistency is the ability to do multiple repetitions of an exercise element with proper mechanics. Lacking consistency in movement is similar to racing a car with a wheel out of true or a brake rubbing – not a good idea. Consistency is also achieved by ensuring HIIT workouts complement the level of fitness of the athlete where they are able to maintain focus and apply proper mechanics. There is no lack of accidents that have happened while exercising due to an athlete losing focus and a mishap occurring due to exercise induced fatigue, lack of hydration, sleep, or nutrition. A good friend of mine recently fractured her elbow doing plyometric box jumps in a CrossFit workout. Since she was a noob, I was really surprised she wasn’t prescribed box step-ups as an exercise progression, which are inherently safer for less conditioned athletes. Scaling, reducing weight or repetition scheme, is also a good way to adjust a HIIT workout so an individual can maintain good intensity. Sound mechanics and mental focus are key to sustaining consistent movement in a HIIT workout.
  • Intensity. Intensity is achieved by doing a prescribed HIIT workout as hard and fast as tolerable for an individual. Safe intensity is a function of an individual being able to consistently perform all prescribed exercise elements with sound mechanics and within the work capacity of the individual. A person should not dive into the deep-end of the pool when staring out with HIIT workouts. The difficulty of a HIIT workout respective to repetition schemes, load, and time domains should be carefully managed and increased for a specific athlete over time. Physical injury is an obvious risk, however, more dangerous issues, like Rhabdomyolysis is also possible. For example, a noob (90-days or less of HIIT at least 3-4 days a week), shouldn’t necessarily do HIIT workouts with total repetition schemes for a specific exercise element exceeding 100 reps or longer time domains (over 16-minutes). When in doubt – bet lower weights and/or less repetitions. HIIT constantly tests an individual’s perceived limits. It is safer to probe this boundary than blunder forward and risk injury or worse.

I have found having a background in the Military and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has intrinsically made me more comfortable with HIIT workouts. In the military the mantra of Crawl, Walk, and Run was emphasized for all individual and organizational competencies. In MMA, the mantra of 10,000 repetitions was often emphasized, i.e., you must drill a technique 10,000 times before you can apply it in real fight conditions. Understanding this reality, teaches patience in the journey and recognizing success comes after you put in the time and effort. Success with HIIT isn’t working harder and faster than others, it is a function of having sound mobility, mechanics, and consistency while moving intensely. I constantly remind folks that unless they are a professional athlete fitness is a personal journey that is not measured by one’s progress in the gym, but in the fullness of one’s life.

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  1. Caryl Anne says:

    These are great tips! I love interval training so I will have to keep these tips in mind for when I work out soon. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Caleb says:

    Just remember that it is all about mechanics. If you have bad form and poor mechanics then you could be causing more harm then good. Great post.

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