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 “High-intensity interval training…is like a new pill that works twice as well…We should immediately throw out the old way of exercising.” Jan Helgerud, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (AP, London) 

“Your chair is your enemy.” Olivia Judson, Opinionator, The New York Times Online (February 23, 2010)

Go Hard and Go Home

Intervals My Way

Want to get a week’s worth of aerobic exercise in less than an hour? This article is for you. 

The problem for many people is they don’t do any exercise. While this article is not aimed at sedentary people, they will find it helpful after they’ve been exercising for a while. For people who have not been exercising, I suggest walking as the first step; see my piece on New Year’s Resolutions http://www.cbass.com/Faq(8).htm.  

For people who are active and motivated (most of our readers) we have good news. There is a smarter and less time consuming way to train; we’ve discussed it before, but this is mainstream. It’s not the only way to train, but I believe it’s the best way, especially for busy people. It does require effort. I know that scares some people. Effort sounds uncomfortable; plus, they might get hurt. For healthy--and motivated--people who use common sense, that should not be a problem. It's safe and the effort is quite manageable (see below); you may even enjoy it. Those with health concerns should, of course, consult their doctor.

We have a new and very large study that addresses two questions about vigorous exercise. First, is vigorous exercise more beneficial than moderate activity? The answer is almost surely “yes.” Secondly, is it harmful? “No.” (Again, see your doctor if you have health problems.)

We’ll touch on the new study as a launch pad for our discussion of high-intensity intervals—what experts are saying, and some of my own ideas.

Vigorous Exercise

Presented by Drs. Andrea Chomistek and Eric Rimm (Harvard Medical School) at the American Heart Association conference in San Francisco on March 5, 2010, the study involved 43,647 individuals whose level of physical activity was first assessed in 1986 and every two years thereafter until 2004.

Dr. Chomistek put the issue simply: “If two people are expending a thousand calories per week, does it matter if they do that by running or by walking? More specifically, they wanted to determine whether vigorous activity is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. A secondary question was whether vigorous exercise could damage the heart. 

They found that the total volume of physical activity at all levels of intensity is associated with the largest reduction in risk, and that there doesn’t appear to be any harm in doing more vigorous exercise. “We found that there might be some benefit to doing it with vigorous activity such as running, but…it’s okay to do that by walking,” Chomistek explained. There was a modestly lower risk of cardiovascular disease among those who performed vigorous activity, such as bicycling or running, compared with those who walked briskly.

There has been some concern that vigorous exercise might damage the heart. “We found that wasn’t really true,” Chomistek said. “You can really do as much as you want. It’s still effective.” More vigorous exercise might cause injuries if you overdo, but there appears to be no adverse effect on the cardiovascular system.

Summarizing, Chomistek said, “For people who are already active, we can tell them to keep increasing their activity, because you’re going to get greater benefit.” (My emphasis)

For full details on the study, see HeartWire http://www.theheart.org/article/1052235.do

To derive the same benefits, it seems safe to say, duration must increase as intensity decreases. Go hard and you don't have to go as long. Go long or go hard. There is no free lunch.

If vigorous is better, why not do it the smart and efficient way, with intervals? (If you prefer to walk and have the time, that’s okay too.) Let’s talk about the advantages of interval training.

Twice as Effective

A recent (2/25/2010) Associated Press (AP) article, dateline London, trumpeted the benefits of interval training: “Interval Training Exercises Could Give People Results in Less Time.” A shortened version appeared in our local paper. The piece was everywhere—online and in newspapers all over the U. S., probably Europe as well. I thought to myself, Wow, interval training has gone mainstream! Many people sent me copies. It’s an exciting story.

The AP quotes several exercise physiologists and an enthusiastic Londoner, who’s had terrific results with the newly popular training technique.

The article tells us that interval training was once the exclusive province of Olympic athletes, but is now being recommended for many more people, including older people and those with health problems; see Intervals For (almost) Everyone: http://www.cbass.com/IntervalsEveryone.htm .

Interval training is short bursts (15 seconds to several minutes) of high-intensity exercise, with recovery periods in between. Workouts usually last less than 30 minutes. Frequency is generally about twice a week; staying active around between workouts is recommended (see below). Most of the testing has been done with running and biking, but it can be applied to rowing, swimming, or any exercise where intensity can be controlled. 

“High-intensity interval training is twice as effective as normal exercise,” said Jan Helgerud, an exercise expert at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “This is like finding a new pill that works twice as well…We should immediately throw out the old way of exercising.” (The old way is long slow--steady state--exercise; pedaling a stationary bike while reading the newspaper is an example. 

Helgerud recommends that people try four work periods lasting four minutes each, with three minutes of easy movement between. (I’ll suggest some other options below.) Unless you’re an elite athlete, it doesn’t need to be an all-out effort. 

“You should be a little out of breath, but you shouldn’t have the obvious feeling of exhaustion,” Helgerud said.

The article reports that interval training can double endurance, compared to the more common exercise routine (like jogging), improving oxygen use and strength. For details, see Sprints Build Endurance: http://www.cbass.com/Sprintendurance.htm

What about calories? Does interval training burn enough calories for weight control and health? Yes, indeed it does.

Traditional endurance training works slow-twitch muscle fibers, while intense intervals work both slow- and fast-twitch fibers. Interval training works twice as well, because it conditions the whole range of fibers, slow and fast. (Most people have a roughly equal balance of fast and slow fibers.) It only takes a few minutes, but the effects last for hours.

“A lot of the (benefits) from exercise are due to a stress response,” said Stephen Bailey, a sports science expert at the University of Exeter. “If you disturb your muscles, there’s an imbalance created and your body will start signaling pathways that result in adjustments.” 

“You’re exercising at such a high intensity that you’re going to create a massive disturbance in your muscles,” Bailey explained.

Your metabolism is revved up for several hours afterward, which the body will bring down by burning fat and carbohydrates.

Adamson Nicholls, the Londoner referred to earlier, is a 36-year-old martial arts guy. Using interval training, he got into top shape in about six weeks. It boosted his endurance so he could outlast sparing partners. He estimates the same level of fitness would have taken about three month with regular training. “It’s a shortcut to explosive fitness,” Nicholls said. Go Adamson! (I told you it was exciting.)

My Way

To give you an idea of the many variations, I'm going to tell you how I do intervals. You may want to adopt all or part of my approach, or perhaps do it some other way. There are many ways that work. The best way is the one that works for you. Do what you enjoy and are willing to keep doing. 

I do intervals as part of a balanced training program, once or twice a week. (I alternate from week to week; for example, rowing one week and Lifecycle the next.) Interval training is a perfect complement to weight training.

I’ve done intervals on the treadmill, the Lifecycle, the Airdyne, and the Concept 2 Rower. The common feature is that all of these cardio trainers have good performance monitors. That’s important, because it allows me to observe pace and record progress. I always try to improve; that’s what keeps me motivated.  

The Airdyne and C2 Rower work especially well, because you generate the resistance; the harder and faster you push and pull, the greater the resistance. This makes transition from work to rest almost seamless. The C2 rower has the added advantage of allowing you to program work and rest periods; the monitor tracks average pace on each stroke, and counts and recalls each rep.

On the Lifecycle, I use the manual setting to change the resistance back and forth from work to rest; I always keep moving during rest intervals--to aid recovery.

My work periods run the gamut from 15 seconds to four minutes. I prefer relatively hard work periods, and moderately long recovery periods.

I don’t do the Tabata protocol (20 seconds work and 10 seconds rest) very often. It’s brutal; 10 seconds don’t allow much recovery. That, of course, is the idea. That’s why it works so well. (I told you there is no free lunch.) Tabata intervals produce wonderful results, but they're not something I want to do very often. (For more details on the Tabata protocol, see my 1997 article Forget the Fat-Burn Zone: http://www.cbass.com/FATBURN.HTM )  

On the other end of the spectrum, the four minute intervals recommended by Professor Helgerud don’t appeal to me. I’m not an endurance guy. I believe it’s important to stick with what you do well and enjoy. If you like long work periods, that’s what you should do. (I occasionally do four-minute intervals on the Airdyne; I like the arms and legs action on long reps.) 

I usually start with longer work periods, and gradually transition to shorter and harder reps over time. I change when I’m all out, when progress stalls.  

The rationale is the same as periodization with weights, where I start with 20 reps and gradually increase the weight and cut the reps. When I top out in one rep range, I change reps and start up again. When I finish with 8 reps, I go back to 20 reps and start over again. The idea is to avoid failure and keep moving forward in one way or another. (You’ll find a complete explanation of periodization in my books Ripped 3 and Lean For Life.) 

I’ll use the C2 Rower as an example. I warm-up and then start with 1000 meters (around 4 minutes), one rep. That’s not really doing intervals, of course. I work up to a near maximum effort over 3 or 4 weeks. To my way of thinking, doing another 1000-meter rep would be like Roger Bannister running another mile after doing the first 4-minute mile. Who needs it?

After maxing-out at 1000 meters, I move on to 500 meters (about 2 minutes), and then 250 meters (about one minute). I max-out on 500-meter reps, over 3 or 4 weeks, and then move on to 250-meter reps. Rest intervals are usually 150% of the work period; two minutes work and three minutes rest, for example. (As always, I keep moving during rest periods.)

I usually do three 500-meter reps and five 250-meter reps. The workouts take 15 minutes, after warm-up. (Do it hard and you probably won't want to go longer.) I focus on average pace, which means the first reps are easier and that final rep is hard to very hard. (Very hard at the end of the phase.)

I start new work periods at a fairly comfortable pace. That allows me to speed up from week to week. Again, when it gets really hard, I change the work period and begin again. That makes it fun, because I keep changing and improving. I always plan for success, trying never to fail.

That’s my way, but it’s obviously not the only way. I do what makes me happy. I recommend that you do the same.

Move Between Workouts

Spending too much time on your rear end between workouts is a bad idea; it can kill you. This is true for everyone, especially people (like me) who train hard two or three times a week. I rest more days than I train.

I’ve written before about the evils of Too Much Sitting http://www.cbass.com/Sitting.htm, but my friend Laszlo sent me an especially interesting piece on the subject in The New York Times Online (2/23/10). “Your chair is your enemy,” writes Olivia Judson. “It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting…you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers, and an early death.”

Judson talks about the “physiology of inactivity.” She explains that too much sitting prevents your body from working properly. “Actively contracting muscles produces a whole suite of substances that have a beneficial effect on …the body,” she writes.

She cites a study where men who normally walk a lot (10,000 steps a day), were asked to cut back to about 1,350 steps for two weeks—with surprising results. All of them became “worse at metabolizing sugars and fats” and were well on “the road to diabetes.” In only two weeks! That’s a wake-up call if ever I heard one.

I don’t own a pedometer, but my wife Carol does. I asked if she logs over 10,000 steps a day. She was insulted that I would ask. (I’m joking.) It was mid-afternoon and she was already over 9,000; she logs around 11,000 steps on an average day. 

I probably can’t match that, but I walk and stay active. I'm also a fidgeter. I don’t like sitting still. Unlike the people around me, I fidget in movies—and at funerals. When I’m working on the computer or at my desk, I get up and walk and stretch regularly; it makes my body and brain work better. It makes me more productive. I just feel better.

That’s a good thing, according to Olivia Judson: “Compared to sitting, standing in one place is hard work,” she writes. “To stand, you have to tense your leg muscles, and engage the muscles of your back and shoulders; while standing, you often shift from leg to leg.” All of that burns calories and keeps your physiology purring.

A gym-owner friend told me years ago: Never sit when you can stand or stand when you can walk. Olivia Judson would no doubt applaud that advice. I agree. (Within reason, of course.) 

So to my fellow interval guys and gals, I say fidget, stand, walk, and move—a lot. You’ll be glad you did.

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