Interval Training has been around for many many years now. No matter what your goals whether they are to lose fat, improve your heart and lung capacity, complete a marathon, increase your lean tissue or improve your insulin sensitivity, interval training is far superior than long steady cardio training.
In fact this type of ‘short burst’ training is so effective at improving your health I’m surprised that more people aren’t doing it!
What is Interval Training?
The concept of this type of training is simple, just intersperse short periods of hard exercise with periods of rest.
So a very simple example might be:
- Run hard for 30 seconds
- Rest for 2 minutes
- Repeat 4 – 8 times
Often this type of training is called HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training, the reason for this title is because the periods of work or exercise needs to be demanding. How demanding you may ask? Well usually hard enough for you to reach your anaerobic zone or the zone where you no longer use oxygen to fuel your energy system. Just for reference:
Aerobic means with oxygen and Anaerobic means without oxygen
I’ll get into exactly how hard to work and ways to monitor your intervals later.
8 Benefits of Interval Training over Long Steady Cardio
When I talk about Long Steady Cardio I’m referring to what most of you will understand as regular cardio exercise, this is the stuff that lasts for 20 minutes or more and the intensity doesn’t really change. You will probably understand it as what most people do at the gym e.g. running on a treadmill, sitting on an exercise bike, using the elliptical, going up and down on the stepper etc.
OK, so here are some of the advantages of keeping things short and intense rather than long and steady:
Benefit # 1 – It’s Quicker
Interval training is fast. Based on the example I have given above your actual time exercising hard will only last 2-4 minutes. The rest of the time you will spend warming up, resting in between intervals and then cooling down. Most steady cardio will last 20 – 40 minutes and you get less results for your time investment.
Benefit # 2 – More Fat Burning
You actually burn more fat in the long term than with steady cardio. Once you stop your steady cardio then the fat burning stops but when you stop your Intervals you continue to burn fat for up to 24 – 48 hours depending on what research you read.
Following your hard interval workout you get what is called an EPOC effect or Excessive Post Oxygen Consumption. What EPOC basically means is that hard workouts disrupt your body’s natural homeostasis and this takes a lot of calories to repair and restore lost energy levels. So you shouldn’t just look at the impact of the exercise during the workout but the consequences of that workout afterwards.
Research by Level University in Quebec discovered that:
“Intervals Burn Up To 9 Times More Fat”
Benefit # 3 – Less Cortisol Production
Exercising for long periods produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol in turn raises your blood sugar levels which stimulates the production of insulin which is not ideal for improving insulin sensitivity which is a huge problem today. The release of cortisol also suppresses your immune system and leaves you more vulnerable to attack from all sorts of infections.
Cortisol is also Catabolic by nature so it breaks down muscle tissue. This is the reason why bodybuilders do not run long distances, their muscle mass is far too important to be jeopardised by muscle eating cortisol.
It is also important to note that muscle tissue is highly metabolic. So in other words, it requires a lot of energy for muscle to function so the more you have the more calories your will burn at rest.
Benefit # 4 – Improve Heart and Lung Capacity
In order to improve the capacity of anything you need to push it or expand it. With interval training your increase your heart and lung capacity very quickly because the workouts by their very natural push your capacity. With long steady cardio you do not challenge your capacity to the same degree. In fact, after the initial shock of the first few weeks of long cardio training your capacity levels even out and very little improvement is made.
More importantly short bursts of exercise build up a reserve capacity for your heart and lungs. What this means is that you have a naturally safe buffer. If your heart rate is suddenly raised then that is OK you can handle it. Now compare this to steady cardio. The buffer you build is not very large because you don’t push to develop it. Now what happens when your heart rate is quickly raised? Is your heart capable of handling it?
Benefit # 5 – Increase in Growth Hormone
Intense exercise like HIIT releases your ‘Human Growth Hormone’ HGH unlike any other form of exercise. We all need HGH to repair bones, muscles, and other soft tissue quickly.
Research from the Journal of Sports Medicine discovered that:
“exercise intensity above lactate threshold and for a minimum of 10 minutes elicits the greatest secretion of HGH”
Another study by the Department of Exercise and Sport Science, University of North Carolina also discovered that there is a:
“linear relationship between the magnitude of the acute increase in growth hormone release and exercise intensity.”
Benefit # 6 – Less Overuse Injury
This is one area that is often overlooked with regards to long steady cardio. The average person will perform 1000 steps per foot every mile when jogging. That is a lot of bouncing on just one leg. Now consider the average jogger who has a weak core and / or weak glutes. Every step and contact with the ground will force a misalignment up through the body or kinetic chain. Want to know why most people get bad knees when they run? It’s not bad shoes its weak hips and core muscles that cannot stabilise foot placement and energy transference.
Interval Training involves less repetition. Sprints involve less than 100 steps. Full body circuits can be dispersed across movement patterns. Yes Intervals will be more explosive but there is less chance of wear and tear to the joints as repetition is kept to a minimum.
Benefit # 7 – Continue to Get Results
Fat is vital for survival and actually the body’s favourite source of energy. Without fat we would have never evolved to be in the place we are today. So naturally the body is very protective of its fat stores and hence why many people struggle to lose fat.
When you perform lots of long steady cardio you are telling your body that it is going to need a lot of fat for energy. As you persist with your long cardio workouts the body becomes more efficient at making fat available.
Although you do burn some fat with these long workouts if you stop then most people pile on the pounds quicker than they took them off. This process is totally natural and the body’s way of simple looking after its own survival. Remember fat was scarce through our evolution and physiologically the same principles still apply today.
Benefit # 8 – Increases Mitochondria
Interval Training stokes up your fat burning furnaces. Pushing yourself with more intense exercise increases human growth hormone and subsequently the number of Mitochondria, the small fat burning furnaces held within your muscle tissue. The more Mitochondria you have the greater the fat burning potential. Although slow cardio will have a small effect on your mitochondria it has no where near the same impact.
Examples of Interval Training
OK, so now you have an understanding of the benefits of this intense training lets take a look at how it’s done.
As mentioned earlier all you basically need to do is choose an activity that increases your heart rate and gets you into that Anaerobic (without oxygen) Zone.
The more muscles you use during an exercise the more energy is required so you will want to focus on big full body exercises like:
- Sprinting or Running Quickly
- Airdyne Bike Sprints
- Rower Sprints
- Swimming Sprints (although be careful in deep water)
- Hitting / Kicking A Punch Bag
- Kettlebell Swings
- Complex Barbell Circuits
- Bodyweight Circuits
- Dumbbell Circuits
- Jump Rope or Skipping
This list could go on and on. Basically anything that gets you seriously out of breath quickly can be a method for interval training, so use your imagination
How Intense To Work
We are all at different fitness levels so one person’s intense can be another persons stroll. It is important that you decide your own level of intensity.
My Client Example
I trained a client a few years ago that was morbidly obese. We used intervals in her training very effectively.
How did I do it? We basically used a hill on Hampstead Heath and just walked up it in short bursts. I divided the hill up into intervals marked by benches or trees and then we took it one goal at a time. So we walked to the first bench and rested. Walked to the next tree and rested etc.
Was this interval training for me? No. But for the client it was serious training.
Using a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
A really simple way to determine how intense you are working is by grading your intensity on a scale of 1 – 10.
- 10 = Full Speed / Can only maintain for a few seconds
- 9 = Working Very Hard
- 7 = Working Hard
- 5 = Could Hold a Conversation
- 3 = Walking Pace / Warm Up
- 1 = Relaxed
So with this type of intense training you want to be looking to achieve an intensity of somewhere between 8-10.
Basically if you can chat to your friend while exercising then you are not working hard enough.
It’s fun to see how many people you can spot at the gym that are exercising and chatting. What does this tell you?
Using a Heart Rate Monitor for more Accurate Readings
My favourite method for interval training is to use a heart rate monitor. For most of my new clients I buy a heart rate monitor and then teach them how to use it.
By monitoring the heart rate you can get a much more accurate account of how hard you are exercising. This method does have an advantage over the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) method because it keeps you honest and doesn’t allow for human error. Often guessing how hard you are working when you are new to this type of training can be very difficult.
I don’t want to spend too long going into Heart Rate Training because I’m going to write a comprehensive article on this training method soon but here are the basics for now:
- Establish your Max Heart Rate
- Work at an Intensity of 85% – 95% of Max
- Rest until Hear Rate Drops to 65% or less of Max
- Repeat Interval 3 – 8 times
There are some very sophisticated heart rate monitors these days but all you really need is the ability to monitor your current heart rate in real time.
Performing Interval Training Workouts
So by now you should have chosen your interval training method (eg. Jogging up a hill), and you also know how to monitor the intensity (eg. Perceived Exertion or Heart Rate Monitor). Next you need to know how long to work for and how long to rest for.
How Long Should Each Interval Last?
The length of the interval will vary depending on your current fitness level and the activity you choose.
So the ultimate goal is to reach your Anaerobic Zone which is found at 85% – 95% of your max heart rate or approx. 8-10 on your RPE scale. Some exercises will get you to this level very quickly like a full blown sprint (especially up hill) and some exercise will take a little longer like Kettlebell Swings. Ultimately the more effort and the more muscles required the less time it will take to reach the Anaerobic Zone.
Here is a guide to some Interval Training Exercises and where to start:
Beginners (60 secs per interval)
- Begin slowly and work harder and harder throughout the minute
- Try Brisk Walking
- Brisk Cycling
- Brisk Boxing Pad Work
Intermediate (30 – 45 secs)
- Again build up to maximum exertion at the end of the interval
- Try Brisk Jogging
- Jumping Rope / Skipping
- Dumbbell Squat and Press
- Kettlebell Swings
- Rower Sprints
Advanced (20 – 30 secs)
- Maximum exertion from the start
- Try Hill Sprints
- Jumping Exercises: Squats, Lunges
- Sled Pushing or Pulling
- Battling Ropes
A Quick Note About Energy Systems
The harder you work within each interval the less amount of time you will be able to last.
For example when I train clients and we have performed hill sprints I know that by around 20 seconds there is very little explosive energy left and the effort begins to slow as they switch to different energy system.
The reason for this is the primary energy system over the first 20 seconds is ATP or Adenosine Triphosphate and this is responsible for explosive power, like sprinting. Once all ATP has been used up then it switches over to the Glycolytic System until approx. 2 minutes and then finally the Oxidative System from 2 minutes onwards.
100M Sprinters Will Never Leave the ATP Explosive Energy System
It is important to note that no one system works independently they all work together for the production of energy just some are more productive during certain times of exertion.
How Long to Rest After Each Interval?
The length of your rest period will have a direct correlation with your overall fitness level. The fitter you are the quicker your Heart Rate will return back to a resting level again.
So Beginners will take longer and more Advanced athletes with take less time.
If you are using a heart rate monitor then this is easy to monitor. Simply perform your interval and then wait until your heart rate drops to around 65% or less of your max heart rate before repeating another interval.
If you are not using a heart rate monitor then you will have to wait until you feel you are at a RPE of about 3-5 before repeating your interval.
2 minutes is generally a good guide for sprints. You will have to adjust your rest periods especially as your fitness improves.
You will also notice that as you perform more intervals your length of rest will increase this is why having the same rest period each round is not a great idea. For better results your rest periods should taper up like this:
- Interval 1 / Rest 60 secs
- Interval 2 / Rest 75 secs
- Interval3 / Rest 90 secs
- Interval 4 / Rest 105 secs
If you use a heart rate monitor and time how long each rest period takes for your heart rate to come down you will see this tapering effect happen.
How Many Intervals to Complete?
The secret here, like all exercise programmes, is progression. Start off slow and build up. Here’s a simple progression you can use:
- Week 1: 3 Intervals
- Week 2: 4 Intervals
- Week 3: 5 Intervals
- Week 4: 6 – 7 Intervals
- Week 5 – 7 – 8 Intervals
- Week 6: Change Interval Exercise
- Repeat from Week 2
5 Interval Training Programs for You to Try
This type of training although very effective is hard on the body so you should limit its use to only 2 times per week and allow a few days rest in between. So Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday are good choices.
A Word of Warning – Develop Base Conditioning First
Before beginning any Intense Cardio training like the ones below you should first ensure you have at least 4 weeks of base cardio conditioning first. You can develop base cardio either by a simple jogging program, swimming program or, my favourite, bodyweight circuit training. Diving into training that is very intense is never a great idea so ease your way in gently.
Workout # 1 – Treadmill Workout
I want to start by saying I’m NOT a great believer in treadmill training unless you have no other option. You are always far better to get outside and run in a more natural environment. Regardless of whether you use this programme indoors or outdoors the method is still the same.
- Run for 3 minutes at a conversational pace of about 5 RPE
- Increase the pace for 2 minutes at about a 7 RPE
- Increase again for 1 minute at about 9 RPE
- Return back to the 3 Minute Pace and repeat for a total of 3 circuits
This program is good for those new to interval training but have some running experience. You will find the hardest transition is from running hard at a 9 RPE and then returning back to a steady 5 RPE pace again. You will want to stop but you should try to just keep doing even if the pace is very slow.
Workout # 2 – Simple Sprints
This method of training is very simple but highly effective. I have used it many times with clients looking to rid themselves of that final few inches of fat.
- Warm Up thoroughly
- Run hard for 30 seconds with RPE 9
- Rest 2 minutes or until heart rate is down to 65% of max
- Repeat 3 – 8 times
Please be aware that as you are sprinting hard the risk of injury increases. Ensure you warm up thoroughly first and pay special attention to those hamstrings, they are particularly vulnerable during sprints. You can make things even harder by running up hills. For those less conditioned simply jogging or walking up hills can be an option too!
Workout # 3 – Kettlebell Swings
This method is not only effective but great for people with little space or who need to keep impact to a minimum. So if you suffer from knee problems then this could be an option for you.
- Warm up your hips and hamstrings
- Swing Kettlebell for 30 seconds
- Rest 15 – 30 seconds or until heart rate is down to 65% max
- Repeat 3 – 8 times
There are lots of varieties you can use with this kettlebell program. For example one handed swings, two handed swings or double kettlebell swings. Another variation that I have used successfully is to decrease the kettlebell weight as you progress through the intervals, this allows for the fatigue that is generated:
- Intervals 1 & 2 = 32kg
- Intervals 3 & 4 = 24kg
- Intervals 5 & 6 = 20 kgs
Here’s a Video Tutorial of the Kettlebell Swing:
Workout # 4 – Rower Intervals
Using an indoor rower is a fairly safe way to work on your cardio intensity and it utilises a lot of muscles so its very effective. There are lots of options you can use including the Workout # 1 protocol above but here is one of my favourites:
- Set the damper to between 7 – 10
- Warm up with 3 minutes of easy rowing
- Perform 20 Hard Stokes
- Row for 2 minutes at 5 RPE for recovery
- Repeat for 3-8 circuits
I used this simple program to enable me to break the 7 minute barrier for 2000M. Give it a try I think you will like it.
Workout # 5 – Bodyweight Circuits
Using just your bodyweight in various ways can seriously elevate your heart rate and is a great interval training option. Here’s one simple option:
- Following a full mobility warm up
- Fast Mountain Climbers – 30 seconds
- Rest 15 – 30 seconds
- Burpees – 30 seconds
- Rest 15 – 30 seconds
- Repeat 3 – 8 circuits
Here’s how to do the Burpee:
And the Fast Mountain Climbers:
How Should this Intense Training Feel?
These types of intense workouts only really work if you push into that anaerobic zone.
The trick here is find the correct balance between working hard and not producing too much lactic acid. Once you start to hit the higher end of your anaerobic zone then you will start to feel sick because the bi-product of producing energy without oxygen is lactic acid and this will build up in the system.
If your mouth starts to taste unusual and your saliva thickens then this is generally a sign of lactic acid build up.
With time your lactic acid tolerance will improve and you will be able to push harder and for longer without feeling sick. To start with take it easy and get used to how it feels.
So there you have my guide to Interval Training. There are lots of great benefits to be had and the results will speak for themselves. Just start off slowly and get used to working hard and then resting. Enjoy the workouts but most of all warm up well and progress gradually. Good luck!
Here’s an Infographic that you may also find useful….
For all my Interval Training I use a Gymboss Interval Timer