The Holy Grail of High Intensity Interval Training

What The Latest Research Says In The Quest For the Ideal HIIT Formula

A new study was published earlier this year. I know, this happens like all the time. But this one has been posited as unveiling the ultimate, dare they say, ideal high intensity interval training (HIIT) formula. Now, this has been a topic of study for a long time. Tons of research studies have been performed just in the past decade alone, and each one has shed a little more light on the whole HIIT method. Naturally, we must be getting closer to some really big discoveries. So, could this be it? Could we finally have what we’ve always been looking for? Have we found the Holy Grail of high intensity interval training?

Female RunnerI think you know the answer to that because you know better than all those lurid, pesky journalists would like to think you do. Alas, the new findings of this recent study are interesting and do help us to figure out what works best in HIIT – even though it merely reinforces what we’ve known since before Tabata was in diapers.

Here it is.

The 10-20-30 HIIT Formula

For those who are wondering, you can read the study’s abstract yourself, but I can summarize it for you here (and translate it into English).

A massive pool of runners (18 total) were divided into two groups and tested over seven weeks, which is like forever, to compare a unique method of interval training to a more traditional endurance running program. The interval training group performed the following split:

30 seconds at 30% of max (e.g. walking)
20 seconds at 60% of max (e.g. running)
10 seconds at 90% of max (e.g. sprinting)

That’s 30-20-10 for short, and it’s a pretty clever idea if you ask me. Now, that’s a 1 minute interval, and they performed it 5 times in a row without rest. After the 5 minute round, they would then rest for two minutes and repeat for a total of 3-4 rounds. That’s a 21-28 minute workout depending on how many rounds they did.

The abstract doesn’t tell us how frequently they trained or for how long the workouts lasted on average, but it does mention that they ran an average of 14 kilometers per week (about 8.7 miles). For you non-runners, that’s very conservative mileage for most runners. Most runners will average at least 15 miles per week, and in my experience, running for 20-50+ miles per week is more common.

Apparently, the other runners in the control group simply ran a little over twice the distance (~30.4km or about 19 miles per week) for about twice the duration, presumably. The abstract doesn’t tell us much more about them.

Now, onto the results…

The Results

The interval training group improved their 1500m times by an average of 21 seconds, and their 5k times by an average of 48 seconds. That’s nothing to sneeze at for “moderately trained individuals.” The control group saw no improvement, which if you ask me, should be a big red flag to those people. You’re not doing it right! Seriously, regardless of the method you use, you should see some improvement. Otherwise, one might wonder if the trainees and the researchers were really trying, or if they were seeking a certain result. But I digress.

The abstract tells us this about the results: “The present study shows that interval training with short 10-s near-maximal bouts can improve performance and Vo(2max) despite a ∼50% reduction in training volume.”

Wait a minute! You mean to tell me that working really hard for a short duration will improve performance, and that you won’t even need to work for as long as you would at a lower intensity? I mean, a 50% reduction in training volume and they still got results? In other words, if you work harder than somebody else, you’ll get better results than they do. That’s just so amazing!

It goes on: “In addition, the 10-20-30 training regime lowers resting systolic blood pressure and blood cholesterol, suggesting a beneficial effect on the health profile of already trained individuals.”

In other words, introducing a positive stimulus will actually cause the body to adapt in a positive way. How about that?

Apparently, this is supposed to be Earth-shaking, and journalists the world over would have you believe it is. But in all seriousness, I think we give way too much weight to research like this, especially when that research is seeking after the unknown, so-called best formula for peak performance and all-too-often only reports on very specific results in a very specific scenario.

So, let’s find some common ground here and simplify things a bit.

The Simplest, Fastest, and Often, Easiest Way to Achieve Peak Performance in Any Physical Endeavor (No Lab Coat Required)

You want to learn what it takes to perform at an elite level? Talk to someone who does every day.

If you can find his number, call up Michael Phelps and ask him what his formula is for winning 22 medals (18 of them gold!) and making world history. He’ll probably cite a few scientific references for you: a burning desire to succeed, persistent hard work, faith, discipline, among other things. I’m sure Phelps has got a long list of references.

When you’re done with Phelps, ask Usain Bolt what’s his secret to running the 100m sprint in 9.58 seconds. Knowing him, he’s probably got his own HIIT training program down to the 100th of a second.

Then you can ask Michael Jordan what research studies contributed to his success. He’ll tell you it wasn’t the research studies. It was his Hanes (don’t believe him).

Ask Lance Armstrong whether he thinks it was the high intensity interval training or the long, slow distance training that enabled him to win the Tour de France seven times in a row. He’ll first tell you that it was not the drugs, and then he’ll tell you to stop asking silly, irrelevant questions.

Ask Tiger Woods about the brand of polo shirts he wears to maximize swing performance and regulate his body temperature… I’m sorry, but I just don’t get golf. Maybe because I can usually throw the ball further than I can hit it (when I actually do hit it, that is). But that’s beside the point.

Speaking of which, you’re probably starting to understand the point I’m making. As a culture, we get bombarded with an onslaught of new-and-improved training methods that will supposedly revolutionize the way we train and sky-rocket our results. I don’t know why we keep falling for it. Sensationalism was so 90’s.

Who To Ask For Help About Your Goals

Anyways, if you want to know the best way to train for your goals, don’t ask the researchers. Ask someone who has already accomplished what you’re trying to do yourself.

You want to get jacked and stay lean? Talk to the bodybuilders (note: not necessarily the so-called bodybuilder at your health club, but a competitive bodybuilder who lives this stuff).

You want to get freak strong? Talk to the competitive powerlifters and strongmen

You want to be able to move well? Talk to a MovNatter or Parkour athlete.

You want to burn fat, get lean, and stay healthy? Talk to as many people as you can who’ve done it before and are doing it every single day.

Learn from people who have been there, done that – the ones who walk the talk. And in my opinion, those who have a track record of helping a lot of people over a long period of time should take precedence over all others. Being able to do something yourself is no indicator of being able to help someone else do it themselves. And I’d wager that you’d get more actual help from a self-taught success than you would from a PhD who has never worked outside of a lab before.

Note: if you can find a PhD who has successfully worked with many people outside of a research setting, hold onto that one!

So, what is the Holy Grail of High Intensity Interval Training?

Alright, enough with the whole dramatic shtick. It’s effort. The bottom line is that the harder you work (safely), the better your results will be – no matter what training formula you use. It’s really that simple. And every permutation of the interval training formula from Tabata’s 20/10×8 formula to this trending 30-20-10 formula from Gunnarsson, respectively, reinforces this fact.

So, my advice is to find a formula that you like – that you enjoy – that will challenge you, and stick with it for long enough to see some measurable results. And forget about learning the next best thing. I don’t care if you use tabata, 30-20-10, high density training, whatever. Effort always takes precedence over theory.

If you need even more evidence to convince you, check out this article by my friend and colleague, Tom Venuto, which is way more astute – and better referenced – than mine.

High Intensity Interval Training is 5X LESS EFFECTIVE Than Steady State Cardio

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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach

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P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/

P.P.P.S. References: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22556401/, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8897392/

More Info

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How to Optimize the 4-Minute, Tabata-Style HIIT Workout (Without Killing Yourself)

Give me 4 Minutes and I’ll Give You 4+ Hours of Fat Burning

3 Responses

  1. John, it really does make sense that even if someone has the best training program outlined for them…getting results requires actual work. I haven’t tried the 30-20-10 formula but it does look interesting. Have you given it a go?

    Mitch

    • I haven’t used those specific numbers, but in the past, I have used a similar interval format of walking, trotting, and sprinting in much the same way. I usually don’t use a timer or wear a watch when I run, but just recently, I did a walk/trot/sprint session. My intervals were probably along the lines of…

      1 minute walk
      30 second trot
      10-15 second sprint

      I’ll often throw some interval training into the middle of a long run, too. For instance, I’ll run for a mile or two, then do some intervals like the one above, and then finish with another mile or two of easy running/trotting. I’ve got an upcoming post on this strategy – coming soon.

  2. High Intensity Interval Training is really a great program. I just wish I have the time to adhere to it, though. Thanks for the great article!

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