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Has High-Intensity Exercise Gotten Out of Hand?

Many of today’s popular fitness offerings are based on a “go-hard-or-go-home” attitude. And new programs on the market suggest this extreme fitness trend may even be escalating. Some experts in the industry suggest that our current obsession with intensity hearkens all the way back to the early days of fitness. 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 . . .

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 (HIIT)?

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.

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 (Tremblay, Simoneau & Bouchard 1994; Olson 2013; Helgerud et al. 2007).

Plus, 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.

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 think it’s unattractive and unacceptable to work out at a moderate rating of perceived exertion (RPE). This lays the foundation for potential plateaus, overtraining and/or injury.

Research published in Current Sports Medicine Reports suggests that proper exercise 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 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.)

“We live in a society where beliefs and values of ├ö├ç├┐more is better’ and ├ö├ç├┐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.

To learn more about the pros and precautions of HIIT, and for a full reference list, please see “Extreme Fitness: How Intense Is Too Intense?” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2014 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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