HIIT Advice From Cross-Fit “Legend” Carl Paoli (HIIT Challenge, Week 9)

As part of our HIIT Challenge, I caught up recently with Carl Paoli to discuss his perspectives on HIIT and advice for OlderBeasts on how to incorporate it into our fitness. Carl’s a former elite-level gymnast, a well-known leader in the CrossFit world, a bestselling author, a corporate mindset coach, and an entrepreneur. Above all, he’s a longtime student of physical movement and physical education – and so it’s great to have his perspective! (You can learn more about Carl here).

OlderBeast: You’ve been deeply involved in CrossFit for a long time. With that perspective, was CrossFit essentially “HIIT before everyone started talking about HIIT”?

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As part of our HIIT Challenge, I caught up recently with Carl Paoli to discuss his perspectives on HIIT and advice for OlderBeasts on how to incorporate it into our fitness. Carl’s a former elite-level gymnast, a well-known leader in the CrossFit world, a bestselling author, a corporate mindset coach, and an entrepreneur. Above all, he’s a longtime student of physical movement and physical education – and so it’s great to have his perspective! (You can learn more about Carl here).

OlderBeast: You’ve been deeply involved in CrossFit for a long time. With that perspective, was CrossFit essentially “HIIT before everyone started talking about HIIT”?

Carl: Starting way back in the 90s, CrossFit highlighted the notion of constantly varied movements at high intensity. But the concept of high-intensity training goes back a lot farther than that. Personally, I learned high-intensity principles as a kid starting gymnastics training in 1988. And if you study history, you find high-intensity concepts dating all the way to the ancient Olympians.

So while HIIT may seem hot and new in a commercial sense, the idea of working at the end ranges of your metabolic capacity, to elicit great improvements in your base fitness, goes back thousands of years.

CrossFit was pioneering in that it brought HIIT principles into a branded philosophy. It brought HIIT from its heritage in elite athletic training into practicing such movements for everyday fitness.

Some boot camps and HIIT-focused boutiques position themselves as more-evolved versions of CrossFit – less risky and more beneficial for most people. What’s your perspective here?

First of all, let me clarify that I’m not directly associated with CrossFit as a business anymore. But I do think the average “Physical IQ” (or “PQ”) of most CrossFit affiliates’ instruction is higher than the average of these more-recent branded concepts.

This isn’t ideological or any kind of us-versus-them feeling. And it’s not meant as offense to the great teachers I know are out there. It’s just that, after all this time, CrossFit is a mature market where the cream has risen to the top in any given local market. Successful CrossFit affiliates that have been around a long time have a high level of knowledge related to quality movement practices. They wouldn’t still be in business otherwise.

By contrast, newer HIIT-focused concepts are in a rapid-growth market. New companies and concepts see a low barrier to entry. And so we see many new entrants. On average, and I think it’s logical, the “quality control” and experience level is less.

Seeking the best-quality instruction seems like advice that’s impossible to argue with. But convenience and concept-type sway people, too. Can you give an example of how higher-quality instruction really matters for HIIT?

Metabolic conditioning is easy to achieve. Just have people do an action at some minimum blend of difficulty and pace, and you’ll push them to the end of their metabolic range. That is, into an unsustainable heart-rate zone that will soon require a rest interval.

But designing movement routines that are most transferable to everyday life, and which safely contribute to mobility as well as strength and conditioning, is not so easy. For example, basics like squats or medicine balls throws have so many ways you can “do” them. And many ways you can do them incompletely, by the way. In many cases, some of the opportunity to improve fitness and overall quality-of-life is being left on the table.

One thing I notice about CrossFit people is they’re not just attending scheduled workouts. They’re frequently engaged in thinking about techniques, they’re watching videos online and talking to people. They’re students of all this in the larger sense.

I’m not necessarily plugging CrossFit here. But whatever flavor of HIIT you choose, look for qualifications and experience of instructors. And be a student of your fitness beyond the time you spend in fitness classes!

Whether via CrossFit, some other group-fitness concept or on our own — how often should 45+ guys be doing HIIT training?

Every day! But before you react to that, let me explain. You should have the experience of breathing heavily due to exertion, even if for just two minutes, every day. And high-intensity exertion doesn’t necessarily mean “fast” or “high-impact,” either. You can do slow, controlled things – like carrying a heavy weight – that will get you to that metabolic threshold.

With all the recent attention on HIIT, I think people understand the benefits of challenging your body to transform oxygen and nutrients into energy (to metabolize) at the limits of your capabilities. But people also worry about allowing sufficient recovery time, avoiding injury, and not over-stressing their bodily systems, I know.

I see resolving this tension as a matter of dosage. Yeah, for most people doing hard metabolic resistance training for an hour a day, many days per week, might be too much HIIT. But you should incorporate what Tim Ferris calls a “minimum effective dose” of HIIT into your everyday workouts. And, try to find that intensity from a variety of movement types.

Training and movement are medicine. We all need to be students of our own bodies and figure out the right prescription for ourselves. Whatever that is for you, though, should likely include at least small doses of HIIT on a frequent basis.

And don’t let the high-profile fitness brands and methods dictate to you exactly what this should be. Learn it for (and about) yourself!

You and other experts are talking about “mobility” a lot these days. I confess to an imperfect understanding of what this really means. Is it a more-sophisticated way to say “flexibility”?

Flexibility is a narrower concept. It’s about the body’s ability to be molded or shaped into certain forms. Mobility is about that and your ability to actually move into those forms and use them in athletics and daily life.

For example, under anesthesia, most people’s toe can be brought to their nose without any harm. They’re “flexible” enough to allow that. But when awake, they can’t adopt this shape. Their nervous system (and maybe mindset) resists. Mobility is about changing behaviors so over time we become more able to move our bodies in ways that promote fitness and maintain health. And which simply feel good, and free.

Think about this. In a yoga class, if you become more able to do a certain pose within the span of an individual class, you didn’t become more flexible in that hour. But you learned how to perform a movement, came to feel comfortable and safe doing it, and helped your nervous system to let you do it. That’s mobility.

And rather than thinking of “mobility” as a separate discipline you focus on in dedicated sessions, every workout should include mobility. Think about carefully exaggerating your movements just a little to go to a place where you find resistance, then spending some time to get comfortable there.

This could be reaching forward that extra half inch when you’re swimming, swinging that kettlebell just a bit farther back between your legs, getting your nose just a little closer to your knees in that forward fold. There are opportunities in everything we do.

Thinking of swimming and kettlebells brings my mind back to the subject of heart rate. And technology to measure it. How do you see fitness tech playing into a healthy HIIT habit?

Well, we live in a technology age. Wearables and smartphones can provide a good snapshot of what we’re doing heart-rate-wise, of course. There’s also movement toward being able to do more-advanced things, like measure sweat for a variety of purposes.

But all this data is not a substitute for being aware of and mindful about how we feel. Our bodies are way more complex than just heart rate. True performance can only be measured by how you’re feeling. That’s why my view on technology is “use it, but don’t succumb to it.”

And on a different dimension, I think people sometimes focus too much on tech-enabled performance data as a reflection of themselves and their worth. We’re at risk of putting all our emotional baggage into these numbers.

I like to try to remember that life doesn’t need to measured to be experienced.

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