How to Fix 2 Big Mistakes Athletes Make With High-Intensity Interval Training

When performed incorrectly, HIIT can significantly increase your risk of injury.

It's human nature to constantly search for the bigger, better thing.

What's more effective than what I'm doing now? What will give me the biggest results in the shortest time? The fitness industry takes advantage of this constant search for something better and bombards us with advertising on what that "next big thing" may be.

It's common to see advertisements proclaim that a program will help you "lose 20 pounds faster!" or "burn more calories in half your typical workout time!"

Being able to accomplish these feats sounds great, but bold claims like these need to examined with a fine-tooth comb. At the forefront of this is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

When performed correctly, HIIT is an excellent way to get a quick workout in, burn a ton of calories, and even continue burning calories throughout the day. Its rapid rise in popularity has allowed many gym-goers to achieve their goals, as studies have shown it to be a more enjoyable type of exercise than moderate continuous training. But for some, those gains have come at a cost. When performed incorrectly, HIIT can significantly increase your risk of injury. Not only that, but incorrect executing of a HIIT routine will also lead to smaller gains and less carryover to your sport.

With that in mind, here are two common mistakes athletes make with high-intensity interval training and what you need to do to correct them.

1. Underestimating How Fatigue Impacts Your Technique

By its nature, HIIT calls for little rest and high-intensity reps. When done correctly, it's going to be performed in a state of fatigue. This state of fatigue is necessary to make the cardiovascular adaptations that will improve your performance, build muscle and burn fat, but exercising while fatigued comes at a cost. When under fatigue, motor patterns will be more difficult to execute and you'll find it harder to perform certain exercises with perfect technique. Knowing this should help you appreciate that in order to continually receive the benefits from HIIT, you do have to train in a state of fatigue—but the exercises you choose to perform in that state of fatigue is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The Fix: Pick Exercises With Little Technical Demand

Training in a state of fatigue makes executing complex motor patterns more difficult. That means that choosing full-body exercises with little technical demand but high calorie-burning potential is the best way to perform HIIT. These types of exercises have a big return on their investment, because they allow you to train hard with less chance of having the sort of technique breakdowns which lead to injury and hamper performances. Below are some examples of safe and effective exercises to use for your high-intensity interval training.

2. Using Too Little Rest Time When First Starting HIIT

Diving head first into a high-intensity interval training program will likely get you great results early on, but your chances of having that momentum stall is high. Think of starting this sort of program the same way you'd think about trying a "crash diet." Drastically cutting calories will lead to rapid weight loss, but eventually the scale stops moving. You'll begin to feel tired, have little energy, and let's face it, you're not going to be strong. Soon enough, any progress you made has evaporated.

Continually training with a high-intensity program is quite similar. Results will come quick as your body adapts to the high levels of stress which it wasn't previously accustomed to. Next thing you know, you're telling all of your friends how (insert name of training program here) is the best thing ever, and how you're going to go even harder next we as you strive for even better results.

Eventually, sooner than later for most, the fun will stop. Successes will slow down or cease, and you'll become worn out, unmotivated and possibly injured. Think of it like this: Would you start any other training program by immediately jumping into the most difficult, stressful portion? No, you would follow a gradual progression and allow your body the time it needs to safely make the adaptations you desire. While it might sound obvious, this basic training principle is often lost with HIIT.

The Fix: Start With Large Work-Rest Ratios and Reduce Them Over Time

Instead of killing yourself right off the bat, starting your HIIT training program with high work-to-rest ratios will allow your body to continually improve it's work capacity in a safe manner and ensure you're able to get the most out of the working portions of every interval. Below is a simple progression any athlete can utilize during their first two months of a HIIT program (formatted by number of sets x work-rest ratio.

Month 1

  • Week 1: 4x 15s/45s
  • Week 2: 5x 15s/45s
  • Week 3: 6x 15s/45s
  • Week 4: 7x 15s/45s

Month 2

  • Week 1: 4x 30s/60s
  • Week 2: 5x 30s/60s
  • Week 3: 6x 30s/60s
  • Week 4: 7x 30s/60s

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