Is High Intensity Training (H.I.T.) Safe For You?

One of the most common questions I get from clients and other fitness enthusiasts about high-intensity training (HIT) is whether or not it is safe to do.

People often wonder if and how they should try and incorporate H.I.T. into their exercise and fitness routines, and if doing more sessions or more repetitions of each session will help them achieve faster results.

The sudden rise in popularity of H.I.T. is mostly due to the increased publicity and hype about the “miraculous” and “immediate” results that can be achieved by doing H.I.T., which has been reported by both the fitness and fashion industry media, as well as the large amount of talk about H.I.T. on a variety of social media sites, where H.I.T. is portrayed as the “total solution” and answer to all of your fitness goals, hopes, In other words, a lot of false information has been spread about the truth about H.I.T., which does not really help you get your ideal body quickly and cheaply. H.I.T. can be a good way to get in shape if you do it right and with the help of a professional fitness trainer, but it is not a “quick fix” or a way to get in shape overnight. It is therefore crucial to be aware of what H.I.T. is and is not.

Here are some common myths to help guide you:

Common Myths About H.I.T.

  • H.I.T. will enable you to obtain a “ripped body” quickly and safely.
  • H.I.T. will enable you to push your mind and body to their maximum in a minimal amount of time.
  • H.I.T. allows you to place a low emphasis on nutrition and recovery, as long as you have the will to succeed.
  • It is realistic to use professional fitness models to demonstrate how HIT can work for you.

H.I.T. has been an important part of sports conditioning training for decades, helping athletes get stronger and better at what they do. Over my 15-year career in training professional athletes and clients worldwide, I would agree that this described kind of H.I.T. is authentic and truly the “real deal.” No matter if you do H.I.T. the way it has been done in the past or if you choose to do one of the more recent H.I.T. programs designed and created by fitness professionals, it is important to think about the following factors along with a selection of practical exercises based on your goals:

Benefits of High Intensity Training (HIT) Done Properly

  • When you progress with H.I.T. at a rate appropriate to your initial level of fitness, your body’s energy systems are challenged in such a manner that they result in a post-caloric burning effect lasting up to 38 hours; this is known among the fitness industry as “exercise post-oxygen consumption” (EPOC) or “afterburn.”
  • H.I.T. is a time-efficient form of exercise and a type of highly intense physical activity that will allow you to achieve twice as many benefits as other forms of more leisurely regular exercise, including a more intense excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) or post-workout calorie burning effect (commonly referred to as “after-burn”).
  • H.I.T. is a more intelligent way to reach your fitness goals, whether you want to improve your health, reduce weight, or improve your physical appearance.
  • H.I.T. provides both an intense physical and mental challenge to your body and mind, “in mens sana en corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body)!
  • Done properly and under the supervision of professional fitness guidance, by practicing H.I.T., physical results are visible in a short period of time.

But before you start a serious H.I.T. program, you should only do it under the watchful eye of a reliable and hardworking fitness professional. Also, you should only think about joining an H.I.T. program if it includes all of the following health and fitness rules:

  • Health history
  • Exercise history and current fitness level and ability
  • Movement ability
  • Nutritional intake and dietary planning
  • Rest and recovery
  • Exercise programming and progression
  • negative or positive effect on health and fitness
  • Environmental factors (i.e., heat index, impact of exercising at different altitudes)

Your mental and physical health, as well as your genes, play a part in how you plan your health, fitness, and performance goals. For example, personally, I love basketball and American football and would love to imagine myself playing for the Miami Heat or Miami Dolphins since I have the right mentality and mental fortitude, as well as the agility, speed, strength, and nutrition to match. However, the reality is that I’m too short for basketball, and I don’t have the muscle size to join the NFL, so “it is what it is.” So instead, the best option for me would be to select a skill-related sport, such as fencing, or a weight-class sport, like boxing or mixed martial arts (MMA).

Once you come to terms with your goals, challenges, and the realities of your own physical and mental limitations, you can embrace a plan of action for H.I.T. that is right for you. No matter your age, gender, or fitness level, a structured and supervised H.I.T. program will still allow you to push yourself to do your best and get better every day, even if you have physical or mental challenges or limitations.

Since the Internet and social media are often full of a lot of false information, it is hard to spread all of this information to people who are trying to get quick and long-lasting fitness results by starting a misguided or poorly structured H.I.T. program. But you can fight back against this flood of false information by using common sense and realizing that a good H.I.T. program requires a lot of patience to make progress and build a strong fitness base. Conversely, a lack of appreciation for the time it takes to do HIT properly can decrease your immunity, increase your chances for the onset of injury, lower your metabolism, and increase your negative hormone response (i.e., raise your cortisol levels) due to the mental and physical stress of increased frustration over lack of immediate results.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that while we might admire the incredible and impressive level of physical fitness of a particular professional athlete or fitness model, their results did not happen overnight! These fitness professionals have spent their careers and lives trying to get to a level of physical fitness that most people can’t hope to reach. In fact, it is worth a reminder that these fitness professionals have invested time (and years), money, dedication, commitment, sacrifice, hard work, clean nutrition, and proper recovery in a good fitness plan.

When training new clients in any H.I.T. program, the speed at which they progress at first depends on their current level of fitness and health, as well as their mental attitude and commitment to getting fitter. As part of my initial fitness assessment for all of my HIT clients, I start training with a gradual progression of exercises in the first phase, such as a mix of using bands, cables, free weights, medicine balls, and my own bodyweight. When appropriate, I would consider progressing to the use of punching bags and mitts.  This training progression would increase incrementally as fitness improved. These principles apply across the full spectrum of fitness modalities (cardio, strength, SAQ, power, flexibility, and stability) as well, in order to ensure that my clients are guided to achieve their goals and personal bests in a thorough, in-depth, professional manner.

Fad exercises are frequently characterized by unsightly interconnected arbitrary exercises claiming to challenge individuals to burn more calories per minute while failing to provide all relevant information pertaining to specific calories burned or detailing relevant health risks. In addition, often the rationale and justification behind using various protocols (e.g., sprints, Olympic lifts, muscle ups, and box jumps in succession) are not provided in any appropriate level of detail to ensure adequate health and safety and minimize risk of injury.

In other words, just because an exercise is difficult does not mean it is in your best health or fitness interest to perform it, nor will it necessarily help you achieve your goals. The key to successful H.I.T. is a full awareness of what H.I.T. should and should not be. With the proper knowledge of H.I.T. comes power, and if done properly, H.I.T. can be an extremely beneficial form of exercise and training.

However, if you use H.I.T. protocols on unconditioned individuals (without adequate prior long-term exercise progression), science, application, and medical evidence show that such highly repetitive and intense exercises can have a negative and potentially damaging effect on your health and fitness.

If H.I.T. is not done correctly, you may be at risk for some of these alarming negative effects, as follows:

  • H.I.T. can decrease metabolism if you don’t plan nutrition, exercise programming, and recovery accordingly and under professional supervision.
  • H.I.T. can raise blood pressure and heart rate to a dangerous level and contribute to the onset of cardiovascular (CV) health risks and possible disease.
  • H.I.T. done incorrectly can lead to the overstraining of muscles and joints and possibly lead to further acute or chronic injury.
  • H.I.T. may result in a decrease in blood glucose levels, lowering energy levels and negatively impacting training performance quality.
  • H.I.T. can negatively impact your endocrine system, lowering your immunity and leaving you susceptible to developing coughs, colds, fevers, and other viral and bacterial infections due to a lack of appropriate immune and hormonal functions.
  • H.I.T. can also unnecessarily cause exercise-induced asthma and exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis (i.e., when muscle protein leaks into the blood stream and causes acute renal failure, blood clotting, and abnormal heart rhythm due to elevation of blood potassium).

Therefore, if you are intent on benefiting from what can be a highly beneficial form of serious exercise, done properly and under adequate supervision, H.I.T. can be highly beneficial. Please keep in mind, though, these crucial steps when doing H.I.T. training to ensure you reach your goals in a healthy, progressive, and sustainable way, as follows:

  1. Is the exercise routine comfortable for your body to execute with proper technique?
  2. Consult a trained fitness professional at each level of fitness progression to help you gauge the appropriate pace and level of progression suited to your fitness level as you advance.
  3. If you do consult a fitness trainer, ensure that he or she possesses the appropriate fitness industry credentials, background, and experience, in addition to a proven track record of success. When working with a fitness trainer, always seek clarification on any exercises, etc., and inform him or her if you experience any pain while exercising. A good trainer not only is happy to answer questions but also welcomes them as a sign of sincere commitment!
  4. Adherence to a healthy and adequate eating plan is as important as adhering to a supervised progressive plan of safe and properly supervised H.I.T. Do not be tempted by the lures of offers of “free” or quick-fix exercises or diets that promise you instant results or simply look “cool.” If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Above all, be patient, and remember that in order to help you achieve your short- and long-term health and fitness goals, it will not happen overnight. Once you are engaged in a long-term commitment to your health and life fitness and understand that good health and fitness are ways of living that you must embrace for the rest of your life, with adequate education, training, and knowledge, will come this power: the power for you to make the best and smartest choices for your health. Invest in living healthy with exercise appropriate to you and you alone, healthy and clean eating, adequate rest and recovery, and you can then reap the most benefits of a suitable H.I.T. program for you, whether you want to beat your competition or achieve other personal fitness and health goals.

Ranil Harshana
Fitness Consultant and Performance Coach
Read more about Ranil Harshana.