Jeremy James: DC, CSCS

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is all the rage these days. My clients frequently ask me if this type of training is safe and effective. The short answer is, it can be. There are many HIIT programs going on around the country with one well-known program becoming extremely popular over the last few years. Many of these programs offer substantial benefits but have some potentially serious risks.

My biggest concern with most of these programs is that they encourage participants to do extremely difficult, technical moves to fatigue in a competitive environment. Many of these exercises, especially some of the Olympic weight lifting moves, require a lot of instruction and practice to master. Experts spend years developing their technique with many of these moves. For the average person to go into a class and do these moves as many times as they can, with heavy weight, in a competitive environment, can be a recipe for disaster.

However, there are many benefits to High Intensity Interval Training. It is a very quick and extremely efficient workout and is very beneficial for overall health, weight loss, and training purposes. The American College of Sports Medicine presented a 2011 study indicating that two weeks of HIIT could boost the body’s aerobic capacity as much as almost two months of endurance training. HIIT is highly effective for weight loss and has been shown to burn more fat and calories than other forms of exercise. Unlike weight loss exercises like cycling and running, HIIT maintains muscle mass while losing fat.

So, what is a person to do? How do you know what’s safe and what’s not? The first and most important rule is: form comes first. Never achieve a greater number of reps or a heavier weight at the expense of good form. What is good form? Here at the Aspen Club’s program, “HI2T,” Dirk Schultz and Bill Fabrocini call it “Set, Brace, Align.”

  • Set: This refers to posture. Keep it simple. Shoulders back stand tall – don’t round your low back or slouch-especially when bending over.
  • Brace: This refers to stabilization. Lightly tense your abdominal muscles and squeeze the shoulder blades back and down.
  • Align: Align your body. The ears, shoulders, and hips should form a rough line down to the ground when standing.

That’s the foundation — Set, Brace, Align. When you begin to move, you must practice the movement patterns: hip hinging, rotating from the hips, squatting properly, lunging properly, etc. If you must sacrifice any of these foundations of posture and movement to get in that extra rep or go up a few pounds in weight, you do it at great risk. Listen to your body. Make your gains safely. Failure to adhere to this philosophy can lead to a long list of ailments that nobody wants to hear their doctor say: disc herniation, degenerative disc disease, arthritis, rotator cuff tears, tendinitis, ACL tear, meniscus tear, etc. Remember: most spinal problems are the result of thousands of cycles of movement, not just one bad move. So just because you got away with it today doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing long-term damage to your body. Done correctly, HIIT is a very efficient, safe, and fun way to get fit.