Extreme Fitness: How Intense Is Too Intense?

by Amanda Vogel, MA on Jan 22, 2014

Industry experts wonder if high-intensity exercise has gotten out of hand.

Imagine a client has just finished a workout or fitness class with you. In evaluating the workout—which you designed to be quite challenging—the client admits, somewhat disappointedly, that although she worked up a good sweat, your session wasn’t a “killer.” She has experienced harder workouts from other trainers, classes or programs.

What’s your reaction? Do you still feel satisfied that you gave the client an appropriate workout? You weren’t going for “killer” anyway. Or do you feel a twinge of regret or competitiveness? Next time, you’ll up the ante.

While plenty of today’s programs, like Zumba® or yoga, stick to a more moderate pace, there’s also a mounting pressure in certain corners of the industry to inspire intensity, and lots of it. After all, some of the highest-grossing fitness programs—CrossFit®, P90X®—have a reputation for being not just tough, but really tough. Many of today’s popular offerings are based on a “go-hard-or-go-home” attitude. And new programs on the market—with names like The Asylum® Workout (from Insanity®)—suggest this extreme fitness trend might even be escalating.

In some circles, clients judge fitness professionals by the intensity of their classes or sessions. It’s a compliment to say an instructor, trainer or presenter teaches really hard workouts; it’s never framed as a negative thing. A “brutal” workout equals a good workout. Has it always been this way?

Looking back 5 or 10 years, the push toward boot camps inspired trainers to adopt a more hard-nosed approach to intensity, and “civilian” clients began eagerly signing up to get their “butts kicked.” Before that, the average gym-goer’s workout might have included an hour on the treadmill or a step class, going at a moderate, somewhat comfortable pace. Now, with trends like Tabata and CrossFit, you can wrap up your workout in less time with the same or better results (Babiash et al. 2013; Gibala et al. 2012; Olson 2013). That’s appealing. But you’ve got to hit it hard.

Some experts in the industry suggest that our current obsession with intensity hearkens all the way back to the early days of fitness. It’s almost as though we’ve come full circle. We might not be chanting “no pain, no gain” anymore, but maybe we’re teaching its tenets some degree. Early fans of the fitness industry relished high-impact aerobics, sometimes barefoot, or pushed to the max in the weight room. This sounds a little like what we’re doing now . . .

Some fitness experts wonder if the industry has “jumped the shark” with high-intensity training. Have we pushed this attractive and viable fitness modality too hard and too far, making it less safe and less effective? Read on for the experts’ outlook.

Are We Getting It Right With High-Intensity Interval Training?

Whether you’ve completed a pleasant, long-slow-distance (LSD) jog or a heart-pounding round of HIIT, seeing the physical results of your fitness efforts takes time. But an LSD workout won’t leave you feeling “wrecked” in the way HIIT might.

“That age-old ‘go for the burn’ mentality leads to the perception that if the workout causes discomfort and you feel muscular pain the next day, then it was a challenging workout,” says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise.

Industry expert Anthony Carey, MA, says high-intensity workouts are in demand because they give clients the impression they’re doing something constructive. “Heart pounding, sweat dripping, gasping for air are all observable outcomes,” says Carey, CEO and founder of Function First in San Diego.

Managing a perceived level of intensity feels like a badge of honor, adds Karyn Kattermann, healthy living manager for group exercise at the YMCA of Western North Carolina in Asheville. “It ties into self-esteem and being proud that you can do a workout that maybe others cannot do,” she says. “It is about controlling one’s body and how far it can be pushed.”

As an industry, we’ve whole-heartedly embraced high-intensity interval training for clients (and ourselves) because most of us agree—and the research confirms—that HIIT, when done properly, yields numerous benefits. For example, studies show that HIIT can promote fat loss (Tremblay, Simoneau & Bouchard 1994), ramp up postexercise to metabolism (Olson 2013) and improve VO2max (Helgerud et al. 2007).

In addition to its physical benefits, HIIT seems to strike the right emotional chord. “My perception is that many people who exercise on a regular basis like hard workouts,” says Mike Bracko, EdD, an exercise physiologist and fitness educator in Calgary, Alberta. “Some aspect of going to a class and getting their butt kicked is satisfying to them. And so be it.” HIIT is hot for a reason. In fact, this format debuted and took top spot as this year’s number-one trend in a report called “Now Trending: Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2014” from the American College of Sports Medicine.

Is It Time for a Reality Check?

However, the fanfare surrounding HIIT should inspire us to take a step back and evaluate how well we’re keeping pace with this trend. For example, as Carey sees it, our eagerness to meet public demand for HIIT is sometimes “at the expense of quality of movement, appropriate progressions and optimal recovery.” And there’s always the potential to go overboard: Some exercisers now seem to view working out at a moderate rating of perceived exertion as unattractive and unacceptable. This lays the foundation for potential plateaus, over-training and/or injury.

Research published in Current Sports Medicine Reports suggests that proper progression can sometimes fly out the window in extreme-conditioning programs because scaling back may be perceived as a sign of weakness (Bergeron et al. 2011). (For more information on this study and its findings, see “Extreme Conditioning Programs: High-Risk or Vulnerable Risk Takers?” by Justin D. Baca and Len Kravitz, PhD, in the September issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.)

“We live in a society where beliefs and values of ‘more is better’ and ‘hard work makes for success’ are interpreted into every action,” says Hayley Hollander, personal trainer, director of training and education for PTA Global, and cofounder of Advanced Training Performance in Las Vegas. “These values bleed into the thought process that exercise, which is touted to be necessary and good, must be performed in an intense (hard-work) manner in order for it to be successful,” she says.

For best results and to lessen the risk of injury, industry guidelines suggest that clients should limit their HIIT workouts to three sessions per week (Zuhl & Kravitz 2012). Some clients might perform best with just one or two HIIT sessions per week (ACE 2013). On the other days, less-intense exercise still has its place.

We know from research over the last decade that you can get effective results without having to take yourself to the brink,” says Bryant. “You just need to understand where you fall on the health-and-fitness continuum. If you’re already fit, your body can adapt to more extreme workouts, but you need adequate recovery. You can’t continue to push yourself to the edge without giving the body a chance to recover.”

Mike Fantigrassi, MS, director of professional services at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, notes that “HIIT and Tabata have their place, but, as with any type of exercise, always using the same protocols will eventually lead to adaptation and diminished benefits. The problem is when these are used all the time and there is no variation in exercise intensity.” NASM recently partnered with BeachBody®’s P90X Certification to help educate enthusiasts and trainers who wish to teach live P90X workouts.

The Trouble With Tabata

Tabata—named after the Japanese researcher who first studied this protocol—has become industry shorthand for hard intervals. With its interval ratio of 20 seconds of all-out exercise followed by 10 seconds of recovery, done eight times per set, Tabata is considered one of the toughest forms of high-intensity interval training.

ACE commissioned a recent study (Emberts et al. 2013) to gauge the effectiveness of a Tabata protocol for general fitness. Sixteen men and women, aged 20–47, performed a 20-minute Tabata-inspired full-body workout that included box jumps, split squats, burpees and jumping jacks. With an average RPE of 15.4 (“hard”), subjects reported that the Tabata workout was “pretty darn tough.”

Postworkout blood lactate levels averaged 12.1 millimoles per liter, indicating that subjects exercised above lactate thresholds. These findings led the researchers to conclude that Tabata was an effective workout for getting and staying in shape; however, it could be dangerous for non exercisers to work out at the high intensity required for these results. “Before people even attempt Tabata, they probably need to have a pretty decent baseline of fitness,” researcher John Porcari, PhD, said in the published ACE study.

Research suggests that a Tabata-inspired protocol can be quite effective for helping busy, already-in-shape clients maintain and improve fitness (Emberts et al. 2013; Olson 2013). The next step is to assess whether a client is both ready and willing to perform such a demanding program. For example, trying to mimic the intense Tabata protocol with body weight or external load can become dangerous for the musculoskeletal system, says Bryce Taylor, DPT, creator of the Halo® Trainer and a physical therapist at Downtown Physical Therapy in Indianapolis. “Optimally,” he says, “I would prefer some kind of preparticipation screen that the instructor could offer before embarking on high-intensity interval training with such a wide range of physical abilities.”

Fantigrassi says many fitness professionals overestimate clients’ enthusiasm for exercise. “They think they need to give [clients] the same program/intensity that works for them personally,” he says. “A client has to earn the right to use high-intensity exercise, by building a solid foundation of fitness and good movement patterns. [As fitness professionals, we do this with clients] by using lower intensities and teaching good movement. We need to educate our clients on proper progression of exercise and how using varying intensities leads to better results, instead of each workout being viewed as a separate entity.”

Adds Hollander, “In application of HIIT or Tabata, intensity is individualized to a person’s level of fitness and to the different stressors that have been placed on their system (including sleep, nutrition, time of day, work, kids, life, emotions, motivation, medication, etc.). The top rung of the intensity ladder cannot be standardized to all participants, nor can the bottom rung of the intensity ladder. Everyone has a different capacity, and in order to implement these programs effectively, [the intensity] needs to be monitored through biofeedback, with goals and strategies as to when to stop, start and rest within the set.”

Recovery Revisited

The big picture of extreme fitness calls for adequate recovery each week to promote ongoing safety and effectiveness. On a micro level, fitness professionals who teach HIIT must use careful planning and skilled coaching to ensure clients recover properly from the training. Unfortunately, the demand for intensity can cause us to overlook the “rest” part of the interval equation.

Bracko has observed instructors and presenters who did not provide appropriate recovery intervals. “I’ve been in classes and sessions that are supposed to be HIIT, but there’s almost no rest interval. And if they have used a rest interval, it’s at 75% intensity—i.e., not rest. Therefore, there may be a misunderstanding about the importance of the rest interval. As it relates to calorie burn and VO2 gains, the rest interval may be as important as the work interval. This is because the body has to work ‘overtime’ to recover from the high-intensity work interval,” he says.

This oversight might be due, in part, to a lack of knowledge about the proper way to teach HIIT, or its purpose. “It is easy to get all participants to elevate their heart rates in a heart-rate interval,” says Hollander, “but everyone will recover differently. If the program has planned work-to-rest ratios, and some partici- pants do not recover in the allotted time for rest before the next work set is due to start, then metabolically it is not a true interval.” Instead, you’re looking at steady-state training at a high capacity.

Kattermann has noticed discrepancies in how instructors teach HIIT based on what she calls a confusion between “challenging” and “hard”:

“Challenging asks you to dig a little deeper and push a little further, perhaps to a place you weren’t sure you could go, but ultimately [you] achieve success in a safe, responsible way,” she says. “A creative, challenging workout requires skill, knowledge and planning. With hard for the sake of hard, participants can work beyond where they actually should. They may not be able to achieve success and can risk injury. A hard workout, in some cases, is just a cheap way of wearing people out, and it requires little talent or skill.”

Bottom line: Knowledge-based HIIT goes beyond walking into the gym prepared to pummel clients with whatever hardcore exercises make them sweat buckets and suck wind.

Training Like An Elite Athlete

As an extension of the HIIT craze, some programming emboldens clients to perform “elite” exercises or to train like a pro athlete. For example, the Tabata method was first used with Japanese Olympic speed skaters. And CrossFit’s tagline—“Forging Elite Fitness”—sets the precedent for top intensity.

A study from ACE confirms that doing CrossFit can elevate people to a more elite level of fitness. In the study, 16 men and women aged 20–47 performed two official workouts of the day (WOD): Fran and Donkey Kong. The men burned about 20.5 kcal per minute and the women about 12.3 kcal per minute, with average heart rates maintained at 90% of maximum. Subjects exercised “well above” their anaerobic thresholds and normal lactate thresholds. The research report anecdotally described the intensity of CrossFit as “off the charts” (Babiash et al. 2013).

CrossFit isn’t the only program touting elite fitness. For example, The Asylum Workout, a DVD-based program, says on its website that it can take you from “average to elite” by bringing “pro athlete training right into your living room.”

Have we gone too far with this approach? As with any form of exercise, it may depend on what people are doing and who’s doing it. “It’s very likely that somebody starting CrossFit does not have the prerequisite mobility, endurance, strength, power and coordination to safely perform the WOD,” says Taylor. “However, there are many lifting athletes who are adequately prepared and CrossFit workouts are completely appropriate [for them]. The same goes for yoga—I wouldn’t recommend that anybody attend yoga classes until they have the prerequisite mobility, flexibility, balance and coordination.”

Bryant notes that the opportunity to train like a pro holds a lot of appeal for average people. “That’s the draw,” he says. “People have wanted to emulate elite athletes for years.” The key is managing safety by helping clients understand their real capabilities and how to stay within that range. In other words, a one-size-fits-all model won’t work. “I believe anyone can train based on fundamental principles,” says Carey, author of The Pain-Free Program: A Proven Method to Relieve Back, Neck, Shoulder, and Joint Pain. “The challenge is applying variables to those principles across the board to people of all levels and abilities. I can have a 65-year-old train like an athlete, but not based on the programming I would give a 25-year-old athlete.”

Realistically, the average client’s goals may be quite different from that of an elite athlete anyway. “Athletes train for performance, which typically requires pushing their bodies to the limit, and this can create overuse injuries or dysfunction,” says Fantigrassi. “Athletes’ jobs are to perform at the highest levels, so I do feel it is unrealistic for an average person to train the same way as an elite athlete who has the time to recover properly from intense workouts and has built a base of fitness.”

Setting The Right Pace

Despite the benefits of extreme training, some fitness pros might still question its appropriateness for general fitness. However, Bracko points out that we’ve been through similar discussions before. “We wondered if workouts like step classes would cause injuries, such as repetitive-strain injuries. Generally speaking, they turned out to be safe workouts. I’d suggest that mainstream HIIT workouts at fitness facilities are also safe. It’s a matter of proper program design to make it as safe as possible,” he says.

The fitness industry just needs to avoid inadvertently outpacing the bulk of fitness consumers, especially new-comers to exercise. Although we will always have clients who crave “killer” workouts, fitness pros are ultimately in control of setting a proper pace. “I don’t believe that anyone intentionally delivers a program incorrectly,” says Kattermann. “However, I think that we lose our way, and sometimes we cave to the pressure of what a largely misled, uninformed public believes is correct.”

For example, “Even as a veteran instructor of almost 30 years,” Kattermann says, “I feel a sting when the students say my class isn’t hard enough. I wonder what I could have done differently to provide what they feel they needed. I know the workout was legit and hard enough, but people have become conditioned to the notion of the wreck-your-body, crazy-hard workout. They have no idea that what I was giving them was actually legit.” Instructors and trainers must feel confident in their abilities to teach challenging workouts that adhere to the principles of progression, variety and proper recovery.

Says Fantigrassi, “Our clients need to understand that the benefits of exercise go beyond just burning calories. What is more important is consistently doing the right things that lead to long-lasting results. If a workout is always a draining mental and physical test, it’s not realistic for it to be a sustainable form of exercise; this leads to the cycle of getting into shape, getting burned out/injured, and then getting out of shape.”

Moving forward, we can continue to educate clients—and ourselves—about the benefits of high-intensity interval training but also highlight the parameters needed to keep various forms of HIIT fun, safe and sane. Bryant says he has already observed a shift in the right direction. “I see that there are enough key influencers in the industry promoting the message of adhering to progression and starting at a proper level,” he says. “We are starting to see the pendulum swinging back to that happy medium.”

No doubt, “high intensity” in the HIIT equation has captured the spot-light. However, we must also keep an eye on its necessary counterpart: recovery. “All things in moderation,” says Bryant. “I would introduce high-intensity forms of exercise once or twice a week—out of a series of workouts—not as a daily offering to clients. To get the optional training response, you must strike a balance between stressing your body with a challenging workout and allowing adequate recovery. It’s a delicate balancing act.” But it’s a goal worth the effort.

References

ACE (American Council on Exercise). 2013. Fit facts: High-intensity interval training. www.acefitness.org/ fitfacts/pdfs/fitfacts/itemid_3317.pdf; accessed Nov. 7, 2013.

Babiash, P., et al. 2013. CrossFit: New research puts pop- ular workout to the test. ACE ProSource, November. www.acefitness.org/prosourcearticle/3542/; accessed Oct. 30, 2013.

Bergeron, M.F., et al. 2011. Consortium for Health and Military Performance and American College of Sports Medicine consensus paper on extreme conditioning programs in military personnel. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 10 (6), 383–89.

Emberts, T., et al. 2013. Exercise intensity and energy expenditure of a Tabata workout. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 12 (3), 612–13.

Gibala, M.J. et al. 2012. Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease. Journal of Physiology, 590 (5), 1077–84.

Helgerud, J., et al. 2007. Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (4), 665–71.

Olson, M. 2013. Tabata interval exercise: Energy expenditure and post-exercise responses. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 45, S420.

Tabata, I., et al. 1996. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28 (10), 1327–30.

Tremblay, A., Simoneau, J.A., & Bouchard, C. 1994. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism. Metabolism, 43 (7), 814-18.

Zuhl, M., & Kravitz, L., 2012. HIIT vs. continuous endurance training: Battle of the aerobic titans. IDEA Fitness Journal, 9 (2), 35-40.

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About the Author

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a presenter, group exercise instructor and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. She writes for leading magazines, including IDEA, Women's Health, Prevention, and Oxygen, and has co-authored books on both yoga and postnatal fitness (Baby Boot Camp: The New Mom's 9-Minute Fitness Solution). With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 17 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia. She manages social media accounts for major fitness companies, brands and public figures, including BOSU and Amy Dixon Fitness.