Wait? There are RISKS to HIIT? Why would we be on Week 6 of the HIIT Challenge and I’m just mentioning this now, you might ask?
Well, first of all, if you’re new to this challenge please start here to learn about HIIT benefits and what the challenge is. Then circle back to this “201” level discussion.
Now, to address your question…there are drawbacks to anything/everything we might do for fitness. That’s why, especially in our 40s and beyond, it’s so important to create our own personalized workout mix to get the best-of various things, and navigate around their con’s.
If you’re reading this, you’re already aware of HIIT’s benefits. And maybe already feeling them for yourself. So now’s a good time to flag potential risks or drawbacks of HIIT, and to discuss ways to avoid them.
POTENTIAL HIIT RISKS
At the same time HIIT is offering you time-efficient cardio benefits, effective “functional” strength work, and an elevated calorie-burn rate during and after the workout…it poses four possible risks you should watch out for.
1. Burnout / Gradual Energy Depletion
If you do HIIT frequently, go really hard during each session, and/or go for more than 30 minutes at a time, you can start to feel this. It might show up as a creeping lower-energy feeling than you’re used to. This can happen at any time, but especially when it’s the next workout time. Or, you might start to feel generally run down, or be more susceptible to colds and other minor ailments.
By its very nature, HIIT is using a lot of your energy — a LOT more than a go-through-the-motions workout we all sometimes do. You don’t have an infinite supply of energy, man — you didn’t when you were 18 even, and you certainly don’t now. So you gotta watch out for wearing yourself down.
(For this and the other drawbacks mentioned here, see “Remedies” in the next section — this isn’t all doom-and-gloom).
2. Aches/Pains (Up to and Including Injuries)
Experimenting with HIIT is probably putting your body through things it’s not accustomed to. And HIIT moves can be rough on the body even once you are used to them. Sprinting, jumping, doing bodyweight exercises at high cadence or rep counts, swinging kettlebells around…these make it pretty easy to put strains on a foot, ankle, knee, hamstring, hip, shoulder or back.
F**k…that’s a long list of vulnerabilities. But it is what it is. And your fitness routine should make you less vulnerable to injury, not more…so be careful.
3. Sacrificing Your Variety
If you’re the enthusiast type – and as an OlderBeast you likely are – it’s easy to get obsessed with the “new thing.” Maybe you joined a HIIT-focused boutique gym, or maybe you started following online HIIT routines at home. Whatever it is, it’s easy to let the new activity replace that trusty run, swim, hike, plain old walk, maybe yoga practice…whatever.
But that variety was giving different body parts a break during the week, and bringing you a natural alternation of harder and easier days. Turning into a HIIT-Nut has some benefits, to be sure, but it can also cause you to “lose the plot” a little bit on the beauty of variety (in fact, the necessity of variety if you’re a 40, 50 or 60-something guy).
4. Missing Out on Your Stress-Reduction Time
Exercise best helps you manage stress when workouts are moderately-paced and give you the chance to tune out the world and be serene (ideally, outdoors). By contrast, being in a gym with a group of people, music cranking, and alternating pull-ups and then goblet squats on a timer…that is a totally different type of thing. It’s actually maintaining the freneticism and clock-worship we often want to escape from as part of self-care.
Said differently, HIIT ain’t doing much for your soul, brother.
And we can all benefit from some nourishment of the soul via physicality…we just need the right kind.
Are you at risk of – or already feeling – one of the drawbacks above? Some combo of these remedies will do the trick, and let you keep on benefiting from HIIT without the negative side effects.
1. Take post-workout replenishment more seriously.
I mean carbs and protein; not just protein. Smart/moderate carbs is a much better approach for most guys, especially intensely exercising ones, than low-carb. Without that, it’s a pretty simple equation: high-intensity workouts empty your tank, and you’re not refilling it. Make sure you’re taking in some quality carbs and protein within 60 minutes of a HIIT workout. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, make sure to do this post-workout replenishment and pick some other time of day to be abstemious. (There. I got my $2 word in for this article!).
2. Do HIIT less frequently.
Even a couple times a week, as part of a weekly mix with other workout types, brings great benefits. Or three or four times a week, even, if you’re feeling good and like it. But a lot of times, joining a HIIT-focused gym or following an online program nudges you into 5+ HIIT workouts per week…and that just may be too much.
I realize this particular piece of advice ain’t rocket science, man. But sometimes you need to give yourself “permission” to not be extreme. If that’s the case for you here — “permission granted.”
3. Do HIIT for less time.
A lot of the research studies you see are testing effects of doing pretty short HIIT workouts. Like, less than 30 and sometimes less than 20 minutes. But if you’re a dedicated workout guy, there’s a tendency to merge the concepts of “HIIT” and “work out for about an hour” into what proves to be a very challenging workout. Maybe this is all good, but maybe the really intense days should be shorter (or at least, less frequent…see above).
Because you get a lot of benefits from a short amount of HIIT training, they lend themselves pretty well to hybridizing with another workout element. For example, maybe you do a moderate 30-minute cardio machine workout at the gym, then 15-20 minutes of more intense bodyweight-based HIIT to get strength and interval benefits.
4. Mix up the types of HIIT you do.
Prior HIIT Challenge articles have differentiated between cardio-interval and metabolic resistance training varieties of HIIT. No one says you have to pick just one kind, man. Having one or two of each of these in a weekly plan will create less-concentrated stresses on you, and bring you some variety even under the HIIT umbrella.
5. Throw in an “easy week” once a month.
Guys tend to think a lot about how many times per week they’ll work out, and how to create variety within a week. Those are both good things to think about. But no one said that the week is the only time frame for which you can think about these things. Sometimes it helps to follow a given routine for three weeks, then take an easier / change-it-up type week. I.e., create some variety and change-of-pace within your month.
For example, with my own adherence to this challenge, I’ve been noticing some tightness in my shoulders and a little stiffness in my lower back. So – overcoming my own tendency to obsess – I’m taking an easier week this week. It will feature an extra day off, and a more mellow mix of workouts. By next week, I plan to be ready to resume with higher intensity.
All this discussion of HIIT risks and how to respond to them isn’t that different than the discussion might go at a higher level, about fitness in general. In striving to feel great, look our best, and live long…these are always good moves:
Be curious and try new things. Keep mixing it up. Always. Don’t be too extreme, too much of the time. Yeah, there are times for that, if you’re training for something or to just challenge yourself every now and again. But always-really-hard, all-the-time isn’t a good formula for sustainability, brother.