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Low-Intensity Interval Training: Better Results By Doing Less

"No pain, no gain," no more — here's why the bright future of fitness will be smarter, more effective, and far less demanding than you think.

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Irony alert: The things you think you need to do in order to be fit are actually making it harder for you to achieve fitness.

The modern view of fitness, simply put, is that you have to suffer in order for your workout to work. Think about some of the most popular trends in exercise: CrossFit, P90X, or the Insanity DVD series. The method and philosophy is high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. In it, you burn it down for a few minutes or seconds, try to catch your breath, then repeat.

There’s plenty of good research that supports this approach—for those who can consistently do it.

But here’s the thing: With consistency, just about any fitness protocol works. The issue is finding something that works for you. Which means finding an activity that you can—and are willing to—consistently do. You can actually get much better results with what may seem like far less effort.

“With these high-intensity methods, the fitness world is basically responding to two things: some research and scientific data, and pushback from the public about time,” says posture and alignment expert Pete Egoscue. “We’re missing the elephant in the room, and that is: It’s not what you do, it’s the body you bring to what you do.”

“If your posture is compromised, your big muscles are already under a lot of stress. When a structurally dysfunctional person does high intensity training, what they’re really doing is further stressing themselves,” Egoscue says.

That’s why, for many, the result of HIIT isn’t fitness, it’s frustration. For proof, you need only look around at a basic fact—and your own circle of friends.

First, the fact: CrossFit and P90X have both been around for nearly 20 years now, yet America’s obesity rates continue to rise.

Now on to your friends. Of all the people you know who’ve tried CrossFit, how many stuck with it? Probably not many. Of all those mail-order fitness DVDs, how many are sitting in cabinets right now. Probably most.

You can easily understand why. There are only three types of people who’d be willing to put themselves through something that can feel so miserable:

  1. Those who are already fit and functional, and therefore find that level of activity enjoyable
  2. Masochists
  3. Those who are forcing themselves to do it, thinking that they “have” to in order to get in shape

Most of us fall into that third category. We work out because we think we have to. We muscle through with determination and willpower, which works—until it doesn’t. Research shows that willpower is an exhaustible attribute. As you tire, it fades.

After you’ve tired yourself out from performing wildly strenuous workouts, the predictable result happens: You quit.

That’s what most people do, and that’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news: There is a better way.

You can train in a way that not only delivers positive physical results, it makes you feel more positively about yourself. The method may sound simple and easy, but in a way that’s the point. Simple and easy is repeatable. Being repeatable is the key to consistency. And consistency is the true key to fitness. What is this method?

It’s low-intensity interval training or LIIT.

We told you it would sound simple. Perhaps it even sounds funny. But isn’t fun something that’s missing from most workouts? How nice would it be to have fun in yours? Wouldn’t you be more likely to do it—and keep doing it—if you were having fun?

“‘Low intensity’ has more or less become a guilt statement,” Egoscue says. “‘High intensity’ means ‘I’m out of breath,’ while ‘low intensity’ means ‘I had fun and enjoyed myself.’ People think they can’t enjoy themselves training. They’re wrong. You can.”

So what is low intensity interval training, exactly?

It’s performing exercise at the minimum effective dose, so that you yield every ounce of results without any diminishing returns. It’s tuning in to your body, giving it what it needs in the time you have available, and then getting on with your day.

What exercises do you do during low intensity interval training?

Really, you can perform almost any exercise or activity. The protocol is less about “what” you do than it is “how” you do it.

“Let’s take an example exercise like box jumps,” says Elev8d Fitness Head Coach Brian Bradley. “In high intensity interval training, people do 20 of them in a row until they get tired, move dysfunctionally, and wind up doing more harm than good to their body.” For proof of this, watch any one of these many videos of people failing at box jumps.

“In a LIIT program, you’d do far fewer box jumps—let’s say five,” Bradley says. “The focus would be on doing each one well. And then you’d move on to some other exercises or moves that improve your mobility. The result is that the moves teach your body’s systems to work better together. It will clear up imbalances and help re-establish functional movement patterns stemming from your hips and pelvis.”

That’s the idea driving Elev8d Fitness. You perform just enough of just the right movements, in workouts that are only eight or 16 minutes long.

“It literally could be, ‘Hey Brian, I only have time for lateral bear crawls.’ Well, okay, if a minute is all you’ve got, then let’s do it,” Bradley says. “Really, it comes down to minimum effective dose. The minimal effective dose creates a residual effect for the next 24 hours, like the heater got turned on. Your metabolic rate stays on, the furnace is still burning.”

What should low intensity interval training feel like?

“It should feel energizing,” Bradley says. “It should feel like you just had fun, like you just accomplished movements that maybe you even thought were a little corny, but you were surprised at how difficult they were when performed them correctly and finally started generating the movement at your hips instead of through a compensation pattern.”

Sometimes, performing a move correctly will mean that you do it slowly and gradually, like with Elev8d’s Side Unders. They’re far more challenging when you do them deliberately. Other times, you may still move fast, like you would with Elev8d’s Finish Line Abs.

“Finish Line Abs is a fun exercise that safely lets you sprint—even if you haven’t sprinted in 20 years or more,” Bradley says. “You perform a move that makes you feel like a kid again, and takes you back to your childhood when movement was fun. That’s mentally empowering. And you’ll definitely feel the results in your abdominal wall.”

How often should you perform low intensity interval training?

As often as you’d like. That’s the great thing about it: Because it’s low intensity, you can return to it regularly, even daily, and do so without the risk of getting hurt or tiring yourself out. It’s not like traditional exercise modalities such as lifting or distance running, which can take a heavy toll on the body and require long recovery times.

What does low intensity interval training do for you?

Like any form of exercise, low intensity interval training creates stimulus—one that’s a welcome break from the day-to-day patterns most of us live, like sitting in a chair typing on a computer—or worse, staring at a smartphone.

This stimulus, Egoscue explains, “creates an increased metabolic demand by removing you from the repetitive motion of your environment. This not only increases your basic metabolic rate, it can lead you to feel different emotions about exercise. You stop criticizing yourself and thinking that you’re ‘lazy’ or ‘out of shape,’ or that you ‘can’t do it.’ Instead, you see that you can do it, and wind up wanting to do it again because it was fun.”

The result: A reinvigorated body and mind, one that’s more capable and willing to do—and do again.

 

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