Step in right direction: The elliptical cross-trainer can be used in high-intensity interval training. Picture: ISTOCK
Step in right direction: The elliptical cross-trainer can be used in high-intensity interval training. Picture: ISTOCK

Just when you think the hectic pace of 21st century living and working can’t go any faster, it does. The breathless speed makes many people look for short cuts, quick fixes and magic bullets. This applies to fitness regimes as well. Less time, more reward is the mantra of the day.

One quick fitness fix is growing fast in popularity in SA and globally. It is HIIT – high intensity interval training.

In 2016, HIIT made it to No3 on the American College of Sports Medicine’s list of fitness trends. It was right up there in the US, breathing down the back of wearable technology, such as fitness trackers, and body weight training.

Yet four short years ago, HIIT wasn’t even in the college’s top 10.

HIIT is short hand for repetitive short, sharp bursts of physical activity to maximum capacity followed by brief periods of recovery. The intense periods can range from five seconds to a few minutes.

The idea is to perform those activities at 80% to 95% of your estimated maximal heart rate. That’s the maximum number of times your heart beats in a minute without overdoing it completely.

The recovery periods can last as long as the high-intensity periods. Some trainers recommend that you perform the recovery period at 40% to 50% of your estimated maximal heart rate.

Best of all, when it comes to quick fixes, you only need to keep this up for 10 to 20 minutes to reap the benefits. Or so the theory goes.

HIIT’s benefits are supposed to be legion. You can do it anywhere, any time.

It doesn’t require any special equipment or clothing – apart from comfortable.

The experts will tell you that HIIT is a brilliant, efficient way to get your heart rate up and push your body in a short period. However, to get any benefit at all, you must do it properly. That means pushing yourself to just the right limit. That also means not overdoing it. If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s not. HITT is all about finding the right balance, as life is in general.

One of HIIT’s benefits for trainers is that it’s easy to modify routines for people of any fitness level. HIIT is also helpful for people with special health issues, such as obesity and diabetes, even heart disease. It is a flexible fitness tool. You can include HIIT training when cycling, running, walking or swimming. It also fits into elliptical cross-training.

Also known as an X-trainer, the elliptical cross-trainer is a stationary exercise machine that simulates walking, running and stair climbing without attendant excessive pressure on joints — decreasing the risk of impact injuries from many forms of aerobic exercise.

HIIT fans say that it encourages "fat-blasting". Not only do you burn more calories with HIIT, you may also enjoy an "afterburn".

Research suggests that 15 minutes of interval training gives you the same results, as you get by running continuously for an hour, if not better. Don’t confuse that with the Cico (calories-in, calories-out) hypothesis that obesity is from gluttony and sloth. It holds that all you need to do to lose weight is eat less and exercise more. Cico is unscientific nonsense, but that’s a story for another day.

HIIT looks good if you have limited time and want maximum fitness profit.

Not every exercise expert is on the HIIT train. US personal trainer Vinnie Tortorich has more than 30 years’ experience in the fitness field. His clients include Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, extreme athletes, working mothers, pregnant women and anyone with injuries or postsurgery. He also helps children with the beginnings of weight problems.

Interval training is not new, Tortorich says. He was using the same concept as long ago as 1984.

He has a degree in physical education. As assistant weight coach at Tulane University in the US, he used plyometrics for speed and explosive strength. Plyometrics is more of a buzzword, he says. It has almost nothing to do with the "shock jumps", which the Russians invented. Also known as "depth jumps", they were created to help aerobic as well as anaerobic athletes become more explosive in their respective sports.

Plyometric exercises involve muscles exerting maximum force at short intervals, with the goal of increasing power (speed-strength). However, it seems that anyone who hops onto a 30cm plyometric "riser" device these days, calls it plyometrics, Tortorich says.

HIIT as we know it today goes back to about 2010, he says. Where exactly does it fit in with cross-training? Well, that’s a loaded question, because everybody is looking for the "easy way out", Tortorich says.

In the beginning, HIIT promised it would be easy. The idea was that it could cut down on training time for those wanting to do aerobic sports such as marathons or triathlons. "I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe that now," Tortorich says.

As far as new developments in HIIT go, he doesn’t see any. The only new direction into which he sees HIIT moving isn’t a good one.

"HIIT, by definition, requires a significant recovery time," Tortorich says. "I see more people doing HIIT more often and not giving their bodies time to recover properly."

They suffer the law of "diminishing returns", he says.

If you want to incorporate HIIT into your routine, Tortorich suggests that you resist the temptation to follow that trend.

He doesn’t use HIIT in his own training. That is because it doesn’t benefit his main sports – long-distance running and cycling. His training involves weight training, of both upper and lower body.

However, he never does weight training in the HIIT manner. It’s not necessary for optimum fitness and benefits, he says. He also does core strength training. Everything else is aerobic exercise.

As Tortorich says, there’s clearly far more to effective, long-lasting speed-strength and increasing power than meets the untrained eye.

And, of course, fitness training is ultimately a journey, not a destination. Just like life.

Marika Sboros is editor and publisher of

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