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HIIT or miss! Does your cardio routine need a revamp?

You need cardio for Crossfit and here’s how to improve yours, writes personal trainer Dean Merton.

Image: Shutterstock/Denis Kornilov

DO YOU DO a lot of HIIT? Perhaps want to compete in Crossfit? Wanna build a better engine in a much more scientific and measured way than the lucky dip conditioning methods most PT’s use these days? This article may be for you…

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go in the fitness industry. When I first began coaching it was all the rage to completely ignore endurance training in favour of the super sexy HIIT approach to cardio. The boasts were that it got as much work done in far less time and allowed your body to burn more calories after the session had finished due to the magic that is an elevated EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption).

All of these claims were at least partly true, however after a while of coaching using this approach I began to question the method. My questions arose not in relation to the efficacy of the protocols employed, but rather the practices both myself and those I seen training and coaching around me used to gain this magical training effect.

Far more often than not I would see a random assortment of exercises strewn together in a haphazard fashion to elicit a training effect within a client. It seemed that HIIT was basically an anything goes smorgasbord of any exercise one could think of that:

  1. Left you feeling like death
  2. Made you sweat
  3. Got you da shredz!!!

Also, anecdotally, I noticed that some of my own and other trainer’s clients would simply be unable to shift into a higher gear when required as part of a HIIT circuit or pairing, and would instead move at a pace that would make the exercise much more akin to a steady state cardio session with a highly elevated heart rate.

We’ve all seen that guy or girl in the gym slogging it out behind a sled moving at a snails pace or sluggishly raising a battle rope in a limp effort while their trainer yells “C’mon, pick it up, 15 more seconds.”

Seriously, I’ve been that trainer, and I can tell you that every trainer who has seen their client get to that sluggish state knows they messed up planning that particular HIIT ‘conditioning’ session.

Have you ever heard the expression ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’?

Well if your, or any of your client’s HIIT sessions turn into steady state cardio with an inability to get the prescribed work done in the work time you have allotted, or an inability to move above 70% of max pace, or just the general stench of death hanging over them after one round — guess what? You have one hell of a squeaky wheel begging for some grease buddy, and it’s aerobic conditioning.

shutterstock_199731338 Source: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

You see the key to doing good solid interval training is, and always has been, the ability to recover between rounds, not the ability to amplify the output during the work period. While it’s unrealistic and not optimal to expect a full recovery between rounds, some semblance of recovery is required if you expect a high level of output in the following rounds. Therefore if you want to be a Crossfit superstar or get your Instagram account more views by doing the most bad ass clapping burpee metcon you would be very wise to build your aerobic base — the engine that does the majority of the work while you exercise (and generally live for that matter).

“But Dean, steady state cardio is boring, and it takes too long.”

Tough. It’s the best way to build your aerobic base… but just because I’m feeling nice today here’s an alternative method that you may not have considered before.

Step 1: Test your Maximum Aerobic Speed

So what you’ll need is pretty simple: a rower, a ski erg, an assault bike or a stretch of land that you can measure. Optional: heart rate monitor.

Pretty much any form of self powered cardio machine or methodology will do here, but I’m trying to reach out the the Crossfitters out there so let’s say you’re using a rower or an air bike for this one.

Set out to do a 10-minute steady state row or cycle on the erg at the fastest pace that you can maintain for the duration. If you have access to a heart rate monitor all the better, as the name suggests we want you stay within your aerobic training zone for the duration of this test.

Once you complete 10 minutes, divide the distance you’ve covered in metres by the duration of the test in seconds, this will give you a value in metres Per Second and this is your Maximum Aerobic Speed.

For example, if you take a 10-minute test on the rower and you cover exactly 2,500m in that time, divide that by 600 (seconds in 10 minutes) to arrive at the figure of just over 4m/sec

Step 2: Use this to plan smarter training sessions

In a good strength or hypertrophy training program, a coach will use previously acquired data about an athlete to make decisions on the periodization and progression of their training sessions.

For example, if I was training a strength athlete to lift a heavier weight, I will allow their one rep max weight to dictate the loads I select for their training session. A stronger athlete will be given a heavier load by virtue of the fact that 80% of their max may be vastly different to 80% of a smaller, weaker, or less experienced lifter.

The goal is that by allowing each athlete to work with a load relative to their best effort, they can increase their abilities over time. The weaker athlete is not simply crushed by the heaviest load they can handle, the stronger athlete is not presented with an unchallenging load which offers no training stimulus.

This is the case in strength training, so why not in cardiovascular, endurance, or interval training?

What I’m proposing here is that when programming intervals for clients or athletes it’s not enough to simply say ‘go fast for 20 seconds, then go slow for 20 seconds.’ If we want to get the most from our athletes we need to programme the level of intensity we require from them.

Going back to our test example above, there will be a marked difference in aerobic capacity and speed between an athlete who achieved a result of 4m/sec vs a slower athlete who achieved 3m/sec. Generally the faster athlete will be better conditioned, and more able to do a higher workload within a stressful environment…. or the same workload while incurring less stress. Can you see how this would be beneficial in the world of competitive exercise?

So why is it that when attempting to increase the capacities of the weaker aerobic athlete we don’t allow for some level of objective measuring of distances covered? Simply put — because it’s easier on the coach to just say ‘go hard for 20, rest for 10.’

shutterstock_160379219 Source: Shutterstock/Sebastian Duda

However planning a personalised interval based aerobic session is pretty easy. Here’s what you need to know.

  • You need to be working at intensities which are supra maximal to your maximum aerobic speed — somewhere in the region of 120-140%
  • You need to place a premium on adequate rest intervals to preserve movement quality.
  • Wearing a HR Monitor is advisable as it will allow you, as the coach or athlete, to monitor recovery between rounds.

To use the example of the athlete above with a 4m/sec maximum aerobic speed row, an interval training session may be laid out as follows:

Work: 75m in 15sec (120% of MAS)
Rest: 15sec easy rowing
Rounds: 10
Total time: 5min

This is a basic 1:1 ratio of work to rest intervals which can be used to great effect with beginners — the intervals can be made longer, the total time of the training piece can be increased, and the modalities can be changed to accommodate running, cycling, or the use of the ski erg.

As an option for more advanced athletes you can begin to tinker with work to rest ratio, moving closer to the likes of Tabata based intervals which would look something like below:

Work: 100m in 20sec (120% of MAS)
Rest: 10sec easy rowing
Rounds: 8
Total time: 4min

Again, the idea here is that the athlete is given an objective so to achieve during their work period to ensure the same level of output in both the first and the last rep of the interval set.

Integration To The Program

While I can predict that some of you will ask ‘what about battleropes/kettlebells/insert fancy gimmick here?’ I will say that these interval protocols are intended as a way to increase the physical capabilities of the athlete only, with that in mind they are slightly limited to more traditional forms of cardio training.

If you’re uber advanced and just need to do something super sexy to get a training effect or you have a very Crossfit or sport specific combination of skill and work capacity in mind, may I suggest adding in some form of skill practice to a slightly extended rest period, something not overly taxing on the cardiovascular system:

A: 150m in 30sec (120% of MAS)
B: 3 Cleans @ 70% in 1min
Rounds: 5
Total time: 10min

Wrapping up

And there you have it, what I hope will be a little food for thought.

Do me a favour and share this article with a friend if it made or ruined your day, a little healthy debate never hurt anyone. If you find that you want to argue my methodologies or buy me a beer for helping get some mental gears turning, my inbox is always open.

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Dean Merton is a Dublin-based strength coach and personal trainer. For more information you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or you can send him a direct message here.

You can also see some of his previous articles here. 

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