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Why and How Does High Intensity Short Duration Interval Training Work

Effects of high intensity intermittent exercise on subcutaneous and abdominal fat, body mass, waist circumference, VO2 max, and insulin sensitivity. (4)

Professor Izumi Tabata (3), was one of the early researchers of high intensity interval training. He investigated the effects of 20 seconds of very high intensity activity followed by 10 seconds rest, repeated for eight cycles over a total training period of 4 minutes.  He found that the athletes showed improved cardiac and respiratory capacity and fitness compared to a group of athletes following a traditional aerobic routine (medium intensity, medium duration).

Abdominal fat levels are also shown to be consistently reduced by high intensity, short duration training regimes, as compared to moderate intensity type exercise routines - which are often found to actually increase body fat levels, hypothetically due to increased chronic stress reactions in the body leading to a conserving type response.

The graphs below show that adrenaline and noradrenaline levels are significantly elevated after high intensity, short interval sprints.

Various studies have found consistently improved fitness and body composition effects from high intensity, short interval training, including increased aerobic (yes, surprisingly aerobic fitness is improved compared to normal aerobic type exercise routines) and anaerobic fitness,

Twelve weeks of brief intense interval exercise improved indices of cardiometabolic health to the same extent as traditional endurance training in sedentary men, despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment (1).

improved skeletal muscle strength and endurance capacity, decrease fasting insulin and decreased insulin resistance.  

Given the markedly lower training volume in the training groups, our results suggest that intense interval training is indeed a time-efficient strategy to induce rapid metabolic and performance adaptations (2).

Plasma noradrenaline (NA) and adrenaline (AD) concentration of subjects at rest (CON) and following each 6-second sprint (EX) (mean ± SD, n = 12). *Indicates a significant difference from equivalent CON value (P < .05). (4)

This significant response to high intensity interval training is in contrast to that from moderate, steady state aerobic exercise, which results in only small increases in adrenaline and noradrenaline. This adrenaline response to high intensity interval exercise is an important feature of this type of training as catecholamines, especially adrenaline, have been shown to drive lipolysis (fat burning) and are largely responsible for fat release from both subcutaneous and intramuscular fat stores. Even more significantly, more β-adrenergic receptors have been found in abdominal (visceral) fat compared to subcutaneous fat suggesting that high intensity interval training may have the particular potential to lower abdominal fat stores (4).

However, no one exercise is perfect: Compared with other regimens, such as slow, steady weight-bearing exercise e.g. walking, hiking, jogging, classic aerobic routines or resistance exercise such as body-weight training e.g. press-ups, squats, pull-ups or free-weight training, short duration interval training may not be as effective for improving bone mass or core stability.

How To Do High Intensity Short Interval Training

The best thing about this type of exercising is not only do you not require any special equipment, you also don’t need much time.  The whole routine, including 3 or 4 minutes warm-up beforehand and cool down afterwards, should only take about 10 minutes.

The most important aspects of this type of training are:

Intensity factor: this is not about a brisk walk - you have to really go for it! You should be “out of breath” at the end of each sprint interval.

Duration: it’s a really short time - the intensity has to be so high that you can only sustain it for a maximum of 20 seconds.  And note, as your fitness improves you will find you have to up the ante as you will find it harder to get out of breath. So at first you will find that running up a couple of flights of stairs for 15 seconds is enough to get out of breath, but after a couple of weeks you will find this too easy.  Then you could try adding a back pack with a few books in it to add resistance, or you could try a different exercise such as burpees (see below for some examples of activities to try)

Recovery Interval: this is interval training so you need to stop after each 10 to 20 seconds of  activity and get your breath back. Allow yourself 20 to 40 seconds of recovery time (maybe enough time to walk back down the hill or stairs if that’s what you are using). Long enough for the blood to get back in your legs!, but not so long that your heart rate completely recovers.

Repetitions: Not too many! For the average person, I recommend 4 repetitions. By the end of the fourth repetition you should be feeling like you really don’t want to do another repetition. If you feel you could do more, you have not been exercising intensively enough!

Each routine should only take a maximum of about 10 minutes including your warm up and cool down.

Only highly fit athletes (who are also under the guidance of a coach or physio) can do up to 8 repetitions of the interval training, but it is still important to note all the above conditions to ensure the correct responses.

Post-Exercise Recovery: Only repeat this training 3 times per week (or every other day).  It is important to allow your body, muscles and cardiovascular system time to respond to and recover from the interval training.  Otherwise the benefits will be lost as your body will have not had time to heal and will go into a chronic stress response state: The interval training, like all types of exercise, puts acute stress on the body and your body should respond to this stress by healing in a stronger state.

High Intensity Short Interval Exercises

Ensure that you are thoroughly warmed up before performing your high intensity intervals: walk or cycle or gently jog on the spot for 3 minutes before you begin your high intensity reps.

You need to use movements that are explosive and incorporate a lot of body mass in order to reach the maximum effort level necessary:

     •     Sprinting

     •     Sprinting up hill

     •     Running up stairs

     •     Sprint cycling

     •     Treadmill inclined-sprints

     •     Squat jumps

     •     Burpees

     •     Lunge jumps

     •     Box jumps

     •     Lateral jumps

Some trainers suggest little mini routines e.g.  5 x burpees, 5 x jumping jacks, 5 x lunge jumps, however I find that this leads to excessive mental stress in trying to remember what you are supposed to be doing and therefore leads to reduced exertion levels and increased interval timings. Therefore, by all means add variety to your routines, but stick to one particular movement activity per workout/day.

If required, you can add weight to increase resistance to the exercise and therefore keep the duration timing to maximum exertion within the 20 second window. Try using a back pack filled with books or leg weights. But please take care: Add weight gradually to avoid straining muscles or injuries due to unbalancing yourself.


1. Gillen J, Martin B, MacInnis M, Skelly L, Tarnopolsky M, Gibala M. Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment. PLOS ONE. April 26, 2016.

2. Bayati M, Farzad B, Gharakhanlou R, Agha-Alinejad H. A Practical Model of Low-Volume High-Intensity Interval Training Induces Performance and Metabolic Adaptations That Resemble “All-Out” Sprint Interval Training. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2011;10(3):571-576.

3. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Futoshi, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K, (1996). "Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max". Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 1996 28 (10): 1327–30.

4. Boutcher SH. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss. Journal of Obesity. 2011;2011:868305