What is HIIT?
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a form of training where quick repeated bursts of all-out, intense exercise are followed by periods of recovery. The periods of intense exercise may range in time (ex: 10 seconds to a few minutes) and must be performed at 80% to 95% of your maximum heart rate (1). The recovery periods will be equal in time to the periods of intense exercise and are performed at 40% to 50% of your maximum heart rate (1).
The phrase “recovery period” in HIIT can be a bit misleading, because this phrase really means “active recovery”. An active recovery period is a less vigorous exercise period and may include either strength training or cardio exercises.
The intense exercise periods and recovery periods are alternated until the full workout is complete. This can range from 20-60 minutes. Ask yourself, would you rather continue with the 2-hour gym sessions, 5-6x/week where you were seeing little to no results, OR would would you rather sweat your face off for 30 minutes, 3-4x/week and see AMAZING results? (Is that even a valid question, I mean COME ON!).
How, you ask, is it possible to accomplish such incredible results in such a short amount of time? The answer lies in a phenomenon called “EPOC” (sounds fancy, right?) and that because of this fancy term, HIIT tends to burn more calories than steady state cardio. So what is “EPOC”, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption?
We generally tend to think about any form of cardio as an aerobic activity, that is our muscle tissue uses oxygen for it. HIIT however, if you are doing it correctly and working at your max output in the intervals of work, often hits an anaerobic threshold where your body can no longer take in the amount of oxygen needed to support the work you are doing and thus must start to support your muscles in a different way. It’s probably no surprise that your body can’t work without oxygen for too long, but while it does you are getting a GREAT workout and really blasting any excess fat stores. For this reason, it’s important to work in intervals and take your body in and out of the anaerobic state (mostly so you don’t die from lack of oxygen – not joking, but kinda joking LOL, you’ll understand when you start sweating your face off in one of these workouts I promise). This is also why it’s important not to overtrain and also to only keep to the 3x/week schedule (pretty good excuse if you ask me). So getting back to “EPOC” (that fancy acronym we talked about earlier), in order to make up for the energy used during HIIT, our bodies must then use excess energy after a HIIT workout to restore back to normal state. This means that one would burn more calories both during and after a workout because of the nature of HIIT training. How awesome is that?!
[If you’re thinking ‘YES, sign me up RIGHT NOW, how do I start?!’…see the section below on how to create a HIIT protocol.]
As you may have guessed, HIIT training has many benefits. A few benefits in particular make HIIT especially beneficial to all of us with PCOS.
What are the Benefits of HIIT for PCOS?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) (1), HIIT has been shown to improve:
-aerobic and anaerobic fitness
–insulin sensitivity** (which helps the exercising muscles more readily use glucose for fuel to make energy)
–abdominal fat and body weight while maintaining muscle mass
So all of those things are awesome benefits, but I’m going to focus on the benefits that I’ve bolded because they are SOOO important (and AWESOME) for all of us with PCOS.
Cardiovascular Health: You may or may not know that women with PCOS have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and risk of suffering from a cardiovascular event (ie: heart attack). Because of this risk, it is insanely important for us to keep our cardiovascular health under control. HIIT has been found to improve cardiovascular fitness quite rapidly. Cardiovascular fitness is generally measured by VO2 max, your maximum oxygen uptake/maximum aerobic capacity (4). Low VO2 max is predictive of death due to cardiovascular event (4), so an increase in VO2 max (especially a rapid one) is a pretty incredible thing for your body. If you all but guarantee your cardiovascular health in 20 minutes a day, 3-4x a week, why WOULDN’T you do it?!
Insulin Sensitivity: When it comes to PCOS, insulin and insulin resistance are terms that are thrown around A LOT. The insulin response is a fairly complicated endocrine process and I will not bore you to tears by explaining it all here (however, because I am a HUGE science nerd I am going to write a post about it since it’s SUPER important and integral in the PCOS disease process). I’m just going to give you the high level. Insulin is a hormone that helps to remove sugar from your blood, and thus lower blood sugar. It does this by shuttling the sugar out of your blood and into other cells, such as your muscle and fat cells. When you have too much sugar in your blood or your body can’t regulate the sugar in a normal fashion (ie: insulin resistance in PCOS), you will store that excess sugar as – you guessed it – FAT. When you perform HIIT, your muscles stimulate special sugar transporters to take the sugar from the blood into the muscles that are contracting while you are exercising. They can do this whether insulin is there or not (2). Because there is less sugar in the blood, insulin can now respond more effectively and is more sensitive. Therefore, you will often see that HIIT improves insulin sensitivity. While there is an immediate short term improvements, lasting improvement can also happen after a relatively short period. Some studies have shown improvement after 2 weeks, while others have shown improvement after 16 weeks. Data indicates that insulin sensitivity can be improved anywhere from 23-58% by doing HIIT (3,4)!
Cholesterol Profiles: Studies have shown that HIIT can improve HDL cholesterol after 8 weeks of training. In order to see improvements in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, it is necessary to do HIIT and lose a few pounds of body fat (4). Remember, HDL is the “good” cholesterol, while LDL is the “bad” cholesterol.
Abdominal Fat and Body Weight while Maintaining Muscle Mass: Researchers agree that about 12 weeks of HIIT Training are needed in order to have notable changes in body weight and/or body fat percentage (4). When you do HIIT training, your body releases adrenaline and noradrenaline, which help to drive the breakdown of fat. This fat is used as fuel for your workouts! Additionally, it just so happens that specialized receptors on fat cells in those REALLY ANNOYING areas of your lower stomach respond to HIIT (3). This type of fat is often hard to get rid of because the fat stored here is deep fat or “visceral fat” as opposed to subcutaneous far just below the surface of our skin. In addition to being hard to get rid of, visceral fat is extremely unhealthy because it surrounds our organs. Do some HIIT and get rid of the pooch!
How do I create a HIIT Protocol/Program?
I have fantastic news for you….this is the easiest (and in my opinion, most fun) part! There are some great resources out there that have already been developed if you’d prefer to go that route – I’m talking workout classes, YouTube videos, infographics – all kinds of stuff! Or, if you’d rather create your own routine, you can do that as well!
Here are some great resources if you’d like to do a HIIT program that’s already been established:
Check out FitnessBlender.com – Daniel and Kelli are adorable and will kick your butt with some awesome HIIT workout videos! They are also on YouTube and all of their videos are free. They do have training programs and meal plans that you can buy (all of their stuff is high quality and their workout are varied). I love their message and lost about 15 lbs working out in my tiny apartment with their videos. Check them out!
Pinterest – Pinterest has some fantastic infographics with HIIT workout suggestions. Feel free to do some searching on your own, or follow me here! I share several great HIIT workouts on my exercise boards, all of which have been specifically chosen for women with PCOS.
Workout Classes – There are several interval training workout classes out there if you enjoy the group training workout vibe. My personal favorite? Orange Theory. They monitor your heart rate throughout the class so that you know how hard you’re pushing yourself. With different workouts on different days, you’ll never get bored!
Daily Burn – I can’t personally attest to this option because I’ve never joined their site, but I’ve heard from friends (and done some research of my own to verify) that Daily Burn provides a ton of different workouts on their website. They have everything from dance workouts to yoga to HIIT. I believe it’s a paid subscription service, but if you get tired of the free videos you find online this may be a great option for you.
If you’d like to create your own HIIT Routine:
More great things about HIIT: you can do it almost anywhere, you don’t need any equipment, and you can modify it for almost any fitness level. All you need is yourself, some mental fortitude, and a water bottle (trust me, you’re going to want to make sure you stay hydrated and recover well). If you do have the budget to invest in some equipment, I would recommend getting a yoga mat, a pair of dumbbells (weight depends on strength, 10 lbs would be a good starting weight for women), and some shoes that give you great support.
Below I’ve listed a few examples of the type of exercises you can do in a HIIT routine. Remember that you are switching from intense intervals to periods of active recovery, all over a 20-60 minute period:
Cardio/Intense Periods: Running, Cycling/Spinning, Rowing, Swimming, Jump Squats, Jumping Lunges, Burpees, Jumping Jacks, Jump Rope, High Knees, Mountain Climbers, Butt Kickers
Active Recovery/Less Intense Periods (perform slowly and feel the burn!): Sit-Ups, Push-ups, Tricep Dips, Planks, Squats, Lunges, Wall-sits, curls, Russian Twists, Butt bridge, Dumbbell Rows, Donkey Kicks, Dumbbell Front/Side Raises
The goal for the intense periods of exercise is to get your heart rate up to 80-95% of your maximum heart rate (AKA work your booty off!) and in the active recovery periods to get your heart rate to 40-50% of your maximum (AKA try to catch your breath, but not THAT much). Remember, your workout should NOT be longer than 60 minutes. I would recommend 30 minutes to start off with, then work your way up as you start to notice that the 30 minutes fly by.
I’ve found that around 45 minutes is the perfect HIIT training period for me. I use a little time prior to the actual HIIT portion of my workout to warm up my muscles, get my heart rate going, and get my head in the game.
There are some fantastic free sources out there if you’d like to read a bit more on creating your own workout routine. These sources will go through entire workout options at home and at the gym and show you proper form (which is crucial to prevent injury!). They also often include low impact modifications. Jen Reviews has a fantastic article which you can read here, that covers how to build your own workout routine.
Example of a HIIT Routine:
This workout is taken from FitnessBlender.com and the intervals are 20 seconds of intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of active recovery. The video also has some strength training at the end!
Side Note: My fellow ladies, do not be afraid to lift weights. This is what’s going to give you strength, prevent future injury, and make you look supa sexy! But duh, you already are!
This routine is a great full body workout at about 37 minutes. FitnessBlender rates all their workouts on a difficulty scale of 1-5, and this one is ranked at a 4. Feel free to browse their workouts (there are hundreds!) on the website to find one that better suits your needs. My goal is just to give you the tools to get you started!
HIIT Cardio Workout: 20 on 10 off – only one time through for each interval
2 Squat Hops + Reverse Lunge (squat hopping to the side)
2 x Runner’s Knees & Switch
Static Squat Reverse Step Jump (stay low the whole time)
Kickout + Step Out (burpee kickout & then step just one foot back in tall plank)
Squat Jack Burpees
Heel Clicks + Touch Down
Fwd Jump, 2 Hops Back
Plank Jack + Step
Jab Punch Knee & Switch
2 Single Leg Lateral Hops + Touchdown
Curtsy Lunge Jumps
Push Ups + Leg Raise
Lunge Squat Lunge (lunge to sides, squat in center)
A Final Note on HIIT
One more thing I’d like to mention. HIIT is NOT easy, I won’t lie to you. But, I truly believe that it is the BEST way anyone with PCOS to not only lose weight, but be the healthiest version of yourself through exercise. If you are consistent in your HIIT training, you WILL see weight loss. I know how exciting this is for anyone who struggles with weight loss. The first time I ever saw what I thought may be ab lines on my stomach (I wasn’t positive because I’d never seen them before, HA!), I literally cried. BUT, you MUST be careful when you train with HIIT to make sure that you do not get injured and that you keep your body properly nourished.
Keep the following in mind:
- Do not over-train. Let your body recover and your muscles repair themselves. You don’t want an injury.
- Maintain proper form in all exercises. This is also critical in preventing injury, especially for the exercises that involve plyometrics (jumping). You can modify ANY exercise to accommodate current injuries so that you can still do your HIIT routine.
For example, instead of jumping up at the top of a burpee and jumping out when going into the push-up position for the burpee, simply replace the jumping with standing up or stepping down into position. This will avoid impact on your knees and ankles, but will still get your heart rate going and tone up your arms and legs.
*If you don’t know the proper form, google it! There are several exercise forums that provide videos and how-to’s for different exercises.
- Eat to nourish your body and to train. Also, acknowledge your body’s signals… they mean something! Are you craving salt? Maybe you need sodium to re-balance your electrolytes from that crazy HIIT workout you did yesterday. No, this does not mean your body really needs that every so salty bag of chips you’ve been thinking about for the last 20 minutes. Don’t deny your body the nourishment it needs to train or you won’t have the energy for your workouts. Eat healthy, properly portioned meals to keep your blood sugar stable. This will also prevent you from getting so hungry that you want or eat EVERYTHING IN SIGHT (or does this just happen to me?). Eat throughout the day and eat breakfast – check out this recipe for a quick and healthy breakfast to keep you full and energized.
- Supplement, if needed, for increased energy pre-workout and better recovery post-workout. More on this in another post.
I’d love to hear your favorite HIIT workouts or if you’ve tried any of the workout resources I mentioned in this post. Comment below!
(1) American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM Information on High Intensity Interval Training [Brochure]. Indianapolis, IN: ACSM; 2014.
(2) American Diabetic Association. Blood Glucose Control and Exercise. Diabetes.org. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/get-started-safely/blood-glucose-control-and-exercise.html. Published September 2013. Updated December 16 2013. Accessed April 11 2017.
(3) Boutcher, S. H. High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. Journal of Obesity. 2011; Article ID868305, 10 pages. doi: 10.1155/2011/868305.
(4) Kessler, H.S., Sisson, S.B. & Short, K.R. The potential for high-intensity interval training to reduce cardiometabolic disease risk. Sports Med (2012) 42: 489. doi:10.2165/11630910-000000000-00000.