High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has become increasingly popular in recent years as a time-efficient and effective way to improve cardiovascular fitness and burn fat. In this article, we’ll delve into the science behind HIIT, exploring how it works and the specific physiological adaptations that occur during this type of training.
HIIT is a form of cardiovascular exercise that alternates short bursts of intense exercise with periods of lower intensity or rest. These intervals can range from a few seconds to a few minutes, and the workouts can be as short as 10 minutes or last up to an hour. The key to HIIT is pushing your body to near-maximum intensity during the high-intensity intervals, followed by a brief recovery period that allows your body to prepare for the next intense bout.
The concept of HIIT has its roots in the early 20th century when researchers observed the fitness benefits of interval training in athletes. However, it wasn’t until the 21st century that HIIT became popular among fitness enthusiasts and researchers began to uncover the physiological adaptations that occur during HIIT workouts.
One of the primary reasons HIIT has gained popularity is its efficiency. Research shows that HIIT can produce similar or even superior cardiovascular fitness improvements compared to traditional endurance training, despite requiring less time commitment. In a study by Gibala and colleagues, participants who engaged in HIIT workouts for just 1.5 hours per week experienced similar fitness improvements as those who performed traditional endurance training for 4.5 hours per week (1).
One key factor that contributes to the effectiveness of HIIT is the high level of intensity during the exercise bouts. This intensity stimulates the production of several hormones and enzymes that promote physiological adaptations in the body. For example, HIIT increases the production of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone, which are essential for muscle growth, fat burning, and overall health (2).
Another significant benefit of HIIT is its ability to increase the body’s capacity to burn fat. During high-intensity intervals, the body primarily relies on carbohydrates for energy. However, during the recovery periods, the body switches to burning fat as its primary fuel source. This process, known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), results in an increased calorie burn even after the workout has ended (3).
Moreover, HIIT has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, making it particularly beneficial for individuals with type 2 diabetes. A study by Little and colleagues found that low-volume HIIT reduced hyperglycemia and increased muscle mitochondrial capacity in patients with type 2 diabetes, suggesting that HIIT can be an effective exercise modality for this population (4).
The specific physiological adaptations that occur during HIIT are responsible for its numerous health and fitness benefits. For instance, HIIT has been shown to increase the number and function of mitochondria, the energy-producing structures within cells. This improvement in mitochondrial function enhances the body’s ability to generate energy and improves overall endurance.
HIIT also promotes positive changes in the cardiovascular system. High-intensity intervals place significant stress on the heart, which in turn stimulates the development of new blood vessels and improves the efficiency of oxygen delivery to working muscles. This increased cardiovascular capacity translates to improved performance in both endurance and high-intensity activities.
Furthermore, HIIT stimulates the growth of new muscle fibers and enhances the ability of muscles to generate force. These adaptations not only improve strength and power but also increase metabolic rate, leading to greater calorie burn and fat loss.
In conclusion, the science behind high-intensity interval training reveals how this time-efficient workout modality can produce significant improvements in cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and fat loss. The physiological adaptations that occur during HIIT, such as increased mitochondrial function, improved cardiovascular capacity, and enhanced muscle growth, are responsible for these benefits. As a result, incorporating HIIT into your fitness routine can be an effective way to achieve your health and fitness goals in less time than traditional endurance training. However, it’s essential to listen to your body and allow for adequate recovery between HIIT sessions to minimize the risk of overtraining and injury.
- Gibala, M. J., Little, J. P., Macdonald, M. J., & Hawley, J. A. (2012). Physiological adaptations to low‐volume, high‐intensity interval training in health and disease. The Journal of Physiology, 590(5), 1077-1084.
- Godfrey, R. J., Whyte, G. P., Buckley, J., & Quinlivan, R. (2003). The role of lactate in the exercise-induced human growth hormone response: evidence from McArdle’s disease. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(4), 348-351.
- LaForgia, J., Withers, R. T., & Gore, C. J. (2006). Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24(12), 1247-1264.
- Little, J. P., Gillen, J. B., Percival, M. E., Safdar, A., Tarnopolsky, M. A., Punthakee, Z., … & Gibala, M. J. (2011). Low-volume high-intensity interval training reduces hyperglycemia and increases muscle mitochondrial capacity in patients with type 2 diabetes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(6), 1554-1560.