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How to Make HIIT a Hit for Everyone

High-intensity interval training has been riding a wave of popularity, and it seems everyone wants to give it a try. However, intense interval training is nothing new. Group fitness instructors have been teaching HIIT for a long time. Fartlek training, for example, was big in the 1970s. The 1980s brought us high-impact classes, and the 1990s introduced indoor cycling (think repeat hill training). HIIT is a fantastic workout and an effective way to train energy systems; build muscle; lose weight; enhance strength, power and agility; and prevent adaptation. People continue to love it because it works.

The challenge is that HIIT classes can be unduly taxing on the body if not taught or performed properly. Instructors want to stay current with industry trends to keep classes at capacity; however, there’s also a moral and professional obligation to educate and protect. “The biggest struggle of a true HIIT class in a group exercise setting is to make sure everyone is safe and [using good] form,” says ACE-certified fitness professional Susan Eichensehr, MSCEP, owner and head coach at Rock Steady Boxing in Chicago. “You have no idea who is going to walk into your studio that day. You may have a mix of fitness enthusiasts, active older adults, beginners, members with joint limitations, etc. You [may not] have anyone’s health history, and it’s diffcult to give individualized attention to those who need it.”

So how can you teach dynamite HIIT classes safely and effectively to grandparents, weekend warriors and rookies alike? Read on to learn more.

Get to Know Participants

Familiarizing yourself with a room full of people is easier said than done, right? True, it can be difficult to obtain information about your participants. Most likely, you won’t know everyone who walks into your class, but that shouldn’t stop you from making a concerted effort. Take a look around during setup. Do you see a bunch of new faces? A lot of active older adults? Is someone pregnant? Get a feel for who is in class that day, and ask questions if needed.

“We can’t read minds,” stresses Eichensehr, “so be upfront and ask people if there is anything you should know about their health histories. Approaching members individually is best, but if that’s not an option, make a general announcement. Then take the information and work it into your plan. Your participants will appreciate your care and concern as well as the [moments of] personalized attention that you give.”

However, even if you make a conscious effort to gain personal information prior to class, some people will trickle in during the warm-up or slip into the back row 10 minutes after class has started. Therefore, make sure you continue your message throughout class. A statement as simple as “Remember to stay hydrated, use modifications when necessary and listen to your body” will encourage self-awareness.

Be Honest and Upfront

To piggyback on the tip above, don’t be afraid to give your honest, professional opinion regarding newfound information. Say a member comes to you before class and asks if the workout is appropriate for his or her personal challenge. After posing a few questions to the member, you may need to say, “From what you’re describing, this may not be the best class for you at this time. However, Jackie teaches a similar class with less impact that may be perfect.”

It’s vital to recommend what you feel is best for that individual, even if it’s not your class. You also leave the door open for that member to return when he or she feels ready. Be upfront about the intensity level as well. “Announce that the class is intense and is supposed to be hard,” says Eichensehr. “Such a statement is not meant to scare, but to set realistic expectations. You have a responsibility to be honest. Then, let the members decide if they’re up to the challenge.”

Modify, Modify, Modify!

It’s important to offer modifications in any class, but you may need to take options to the extreme during HIIT. Be prepared to offer several phases for all plyometric, advanced or complex movements. This helps guarantee that everyone has a viable option. For example, if your next bout of cardio is jumping jacks, a traditional jack may not be the best choice for everyone. Therefore, your phases could be as follows:

Phase 1: low-impact jack (basically a side-to-side tap with jack arms)
Phase 2: traditional jack
Phase 3: circle jacks
If desired, progress the class through the phases until each participant finds a comfortable level.

Let’s look at a squat jump. Start your class with squats (phase 1); next, progress to pulsing squats with the arm swing (phase 2); and last, proceed to the actual squat jump (phase 3). Let participants know that you’re taking them through progressions and ask everyone to choose a level that is personally appropriate. Likewise, suggest multiple variations of other traditionally difficult exercises, such as forearm plank.

It may feel overwhelming to create numerous modifications for every intense or advanced exercise; however, your time and effort will be rewarded when you start gaining and retaining a diverse clientele.

Separate Into Groups

A HIIT class needs an instructor’s utmost attention. However, it’s difficult to keep a close eye on a big group. Therefore, consider dividing the class into smaller groups. “Separating a large class into smaller groups [makes it] more manageable,” says Eichensehr. “For example, divide a large class of 30 into two groups of 15. Task one group with a plyometric HIIT movement and the other with a simpler, less intense exercise, such as a push-up. Then you can direct most of your attention to the 15 folks in the HIIT group, to ensure safety. After the interval, the groups switch exercises. Have members partner up and pass a baton or toss a medicine ball in between, to make the workout more appealing.”

Stay Flexible

Have you ever walked into a class that you agreed to sub and been totally surprised by the crowd? Maybe you had planned a highly creative and powerful Latin dance workout, only to realize that everyone was a beginner. What did you do? You went to plan B, right? When teaching a true HIIT class (like Tabata), be flexible and move on to plan B if needed. Workouts can be more challenging than usual for many reasons—maybe you’re introducing new movements, or the highly anticipated village fair was the night before. Whatever the reason, be aware of your participants’ actions. Are they losing form? Are regulars who usually go all out starting to modify? Are people leaving to get water more than usual? If you observe that the class as a whole is struggling, make a few changes. Add in more active-recovery time, switch a sprint to a jog, or take a water break. If a particular participant is having a difficult time, say, “Make sure you feel like you can [carry on] a conversation right now. If not, slow it down a bit and remember our modifications.” If that isn’t effective, walk over, remove your mic and ask if the person is okay. Some members don’t like to be singled out; however, it’s your responsibility to maintain a safe environment.

Break the Mold

When consumers think about HIIT, the image that arises in their minds is of a hardcore, intense, sweaty, plyometric workout—but HIIT doesn’t have to be that way. In reality, “most people can and should be doing HIIT,” according to Eichensehr. “Seniors, moms, even my Rock Steady Boxing Parkinson’s group can all benefit from HIIT. HIIT can mean very different things to different people. A high-knee march or even arm circles while sitting in a chair may be considered HIIT. If we don’t push our limits, we will steadily decline. Encourage members to work within their own limits of ‘uncomfortably comfortable.’” If you promote a less insane picture of HIIT, it will help welcome a diverse clientele, including those who may find the stereotypical image intimidating.

Twenty years from now HIIT as we know it may have a new, trendy name. Regardless, it’s essential that instructors learn how to manage it appropriately. “Always remember to be on your guard and that over-the-top is not effective,” says Eichensehr. “When taught correctly, HIIT classes can be an amazing and successful tool for many.”

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