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High Intensity Interval Training and Natural Bodybuilding

By Ivan Nikolov

copyright © 2008 Ivan Nikolov

It was about six or seven years a go when I first read about High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT for short).

Being a natural bodybuilder I immediately new this is something that I should be doing. I gave it a try and since then I havenít performed a single conventional regular cardio workout.

So, what is it and why it is especially important for the sport of Natural Bodybuilding?

If you read the name HIIT again you most likely wonít need my explanation but any way I will explain. HIIT is a type of cardio workout, which differs from the regular cardio workout in the following: Very fast intervals of a particular type of physical activity are followed by slow or moderate intervals.

The sprint bouts are performed with about 90% of your maximum effort while the slow bouts with about 60%. The maximum effort can be expressed also as max hart rate. Max hart rate is 220 Ė age. So, for a 25-year old athlete the max heart rate will be 200 Ė 25 = 195 bpm. Then 90% will be 175 bpm and 60% will be 117 bpm.

And why is it so important for the sport of natural bodybuilding? Because firstly HIIT cardio is performed for shorter periods of time this way sparing the body from entering full force into the catabolic zone due to an eventual lengthy workout; and secondly it is proven to cause dramatic increase in the HGH (Human Growth Hormone) levels.

HGH plays an important role in the fat metabolizing processes as well as in the muscle building ones. It is highly lipotropic agent (causes the fat to be used for energy) and it has anabolic properties when converted into IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor-1).

This is a topic for another article. The most important thing to remember is that HIIT cardio burns more fat and not only does it spare the muscles for being used for energy but is somewhat anabolic (donít think you will put on some serious muscle by doing HIIT cardio, though).

HIIT cardio can be effectively performed early in the morning on an empty stomach (I prefer to have a scoop of whey protein in my system) or immediately after the weights workout. This is possible because the usual duration of HIIT is not more then 20min. This way a natural bodybuilder can complete his weights workout in about 35-40 min, do 15-20 min HIIT cardio and still finish his total physical workout in not more than 1h.

Why is this important? Because after 45min to 1h the body starts releasing large amounts of catabolic hormones due to several reasons including microtears, higher levels of pain, and glycogen depletion. And we all know what catabolic hormones do in the body. Thatís why itís essential that a natural athlete makes everything possible to complete his total workout in not more than 50min to 1h period.

I got ahead of myself a bit. Letís get back to dissecting the HIIT cardio.

A number of studies have been done since HIIT first started gaining popularity in the mid 90ís. Here is what we know about it nowadays:

HIIT causes increased fat loss compared to low or moderate activity cardio. It is true that during the cardio session the regular cardio burns more fat than HIIT cardio but here is what happens. First, if you do HIIT you will burn more calories overall compared with regular cardio. Example: If you burn 100 Cal in ten minutes with regular cardio and 60% of then come from fat that means you burned 60 fat Cal. But if you did HIIT cardio for 10min and you burned 150 Cal overall, 50% of them came from fat you actually burned 75 fat Cal for the same period of time. How do these two compare?

Second, it is proven that HIIT cardio increases the metabolism for long periods of time some times up to 24h. That doesnít hold true for the regular cardio Ė once you are off the machine you will soon be back to normal. So, what does this tell you? Not only do you burn calories during the HIIT cardio activity but also for many hours after that giving the added value of extra burned fat. And how about the Growth Hormone that we already mentioned about. Isnít that nice?

Moreover, HIIT causes increase in the lactic acid threshold. Lactic acid builds up in the muscle during intense exercise such as HIIT due to the inability of the tissues to metabolize it fast enough. It is associated with the burning sensation commonly known as soreness although this is not the main reason for that. Increased lactic acid threshold is important as it allows you to exercise at higher intensity levels without the effects associates with the lactic acid buildup.

HIIT is also proven to increase the VO2max, which is how good is your body at utilizing oxygen. No need to explain how big of an advantage that is.

But the main advantage remains the fact that HIIT is short in duration and can be performed immediately after your weights workout without the risk of entering deep into the catabolic zone.

There are a number of different ways to perform HIIT cardio. It can be done on any cardio exercise machine in the gym but in my opinion it works best in the classic way Ė on the street. The best ratios of sprint/slow intervals are 1:1 or 1:2. The sprint intervals should be done for at least 30 sec and be followed from at least 30sec moderate effort activity.

Some recommend a lot longer sprint bouts followed by shorter slow periods. Example: 5min sprint and 2min moderate effort. However, in this case the sprint part cannot be performed with 90% or more of the maximum effort but rather 70 Ė 80% this way making it work more like regular cardio than HIIT. Thatís why I personally donít agree with this type of interval training. Here are some options Iíd recommend:

On an inclined treadmill:

l     30sec of ďall-outĒ sprint followed by 1 min brisk walking

l     30sec of ďall-outĒ sprint followed by 30sec moderate walking

l     1min sprint with 80 Ė 85% max effort followed by 2min moderate walking

l     An ďall-outĒ sprint followed by moderate walking until heart rate drops to 60% of max heart rate.

These can be successfully performed on stationary bike, stairmaster or elliptical machines.

My favorite HIIT activity remains sprints on the street. I do 30sec sprint with at least 90% of my max effort and then walk back to the start position for a minute. I repeat that for 20min.

It all sounds good so far but I ought to warn you if you have a health condition you might not be able to perform HIIT. You should consult your doctor to determine if HIIT is an option for you.
If you donít have any experience with regular cardio activity or you havenít exercised for a while and would like to switch to HIIT instead of regular cardio you will still need to start building up little by little. Begin by doing only one sprint session three times a week for one week. Then increase the sprint sessions each week until you reach the time duration that suits your personal fitness goals but not more than 20min.

Final notes: HIIT cardio has proven overtime to be the most effective way for losing excess body fat while preserving the hard earned muscles. It is beneficial for increasing VO2max, the lactic acid threshold, and the metabolism for extended periods of time, thus assuring continuing fat loss during the course of several hours to a day; it is short in duration and it is not nearly as boring as the regular cardio. This makes the HIIT an absolute champion and a first choice for better health and physique quality.


Ivan Nikolov, an accomplished natural bodybuilder shares a wealth of information on Natural Bodybuilding and Sports Nutrition on his website Start using his comprehensive Free Nutrition Software today!

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