Is HIIT all hype?

By Tom Farrow

The third and final part of the "How to Train Like an Elite Athlete" series from elite performance coach Tom Farrow is focused on a current trend in the fitness world: high intensity intervals. Read on for Tom's thoughts on the pros & cons of this type of training. And if you missed the first two posts, click here for How to Train Like a World Rugby Star and Why You Should Never Miss a Rest Day.

(photo via Under Armour)

After an eventful Rugby World Cup, I thought it best that we end the series with a principle that has a more direct application to rugby due to the energetic nature of the sport: don't get stuck in the middle! And to explore this concept, I'm going to take a look into High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

what is HIIT?

HIIT has been a trend in the fitness industry for some time now. The rational behind it is that harder work in less time is more efficient. There is definitely a place for this type of training within your training programme but it can’t be your whole training programme.

Firstly, training like this all the time means you never really get any stimulation at the real high end of intensity (I’ll explain this in a minute) and you never get any exposure to the low end of intensity either, which has significant benefits that can’t be achieved with HIIT alone. Secondly, you run the risk of burning yourself out and as we’ve spoken about in the previous two articles, you really don’t want this to happen.

The name ‘High Intensity Interval Training’ is a bit misleading, as Intensity can be the measure of many different variables. Weight lifted, power output, heart rate and speed of movement are some examples. Although HIIT can generate high heart rates, it doesn’t affect the higher end of the other variables and this means you can miss out on a lot of positive adaptations. Whatever measure you use, real high intensity is essentially your maximum output, whether it be maximum speed, maximum weight lifted or maximum power output. You don’t have to be working at absolute max to affect your maximum strength, speed or power, you just need to be working in a range that is close to your maximum effort.

hiit can stress you out

It’s also important to consider that HIIT sessions can flood your body with cortisol (stress hormones) and if you already live a manic, high pressured life, where you tend to eat badly and get little sleep then adding to your overall stress levels probably isn’t a good idea. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever perform HIIT sessions, just that you should incorporate them into a balanced programme.

On the other end of the spectrum, the aerobic side of training, you want to make sure you have at least some exposure to what I call ‘Aerobic Capacity’ work, this means you should be operating at a heart rate of around 120-140bpm and the exercise should be continuous, lasting around 20-40 minutes.

(Photo via 2XU)

Balance should be the focus

If you’re a frequent trainer then this aerobic capacity work can be placed on your recovery days and I usually advise that it’s done using a non-impact form of exercise such as cycling or swimming, due to repetitive stress injuries that can come from long runs on road for those that aren’t used to them.

Balance should be the focus of your training. Here are some key principles you can incorporate into your programme so you don’t get stuck in the middle:

Lift heavy weights 1-2 times per week

Key movements: squats/deadlifts, bench press, pull ups) This will create a base of strength that you will benefit from whatever sport you play or if you just want to feel/look better!

Sprint 1-2 times per week

Don’t throw yourself into this. Make sure to build up in speed gradually over a period of weeks/months but aim to eventually be able to tolerate 1-2 sessions of 4-6 sprints of 20-40m around your top speed. You should rest until you feel almost fully recovered after each sprint. If you are unable to run/sprint for any reasons then sprints on bikes/rowers or even in the pool are also effective, aim to apply maximum effort for 6-10 seconds and recover fully after each rep. Always warm up thoroughly before performing this type of work.


I would include jumps in your heavy weight sessions and perform them before your weights, after a
thorough warm up. You can jump with extra weight or just your bodyweight, a mix of both is best. 3-
4 jumps per set is plenty and aim to jump as high as possible with each rep.

Take it slow

Including some long slow distance work throughout your week is important. It will help you
recover from the other work you’ve done throughout the week as well as resulting in the
adaptations that were listed earlier in the article.

Hard interval work still has its place. Just don’t overdo it. I tend to stick short interval sets on the end
of my heavy weight days. 1-3 sets of 2-8 reps of various work:rest ratios seem to work well. The
work can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as 5 minutes and the rest can be as short as 10
seconds or as long as 90 seconds, mix it up!

if you only take one thing away

If you can take one thing from this whole series I hope it’s that training shouldn’t just be a case of working yourself half to death, whether you play sports or not. Training is about personal improvement. Training like this not only physically develops you but also mentally develops you as you set goals and break them. It also takes it away from the comparison led world of fitness, in which you can’t ever really win – someone will always be better in some way and look better in some way. The only person you should be comparing yourself to is your ‘self’ of yesterday. It’s great to have heroes and inspirations but you can only ever truly compete with yourself. I hope this series has been helpful and please do get in touch with any questions you might have!

Tom Farrow is a Performance Coach and Personal Trainer. He is the founder of Areté Performance, a sports performance and personal training company based in London and he is also currently the UK Director of the International Strength and Conditioning Institute. Tom was previously a Senior Strength and Conditioning Coach with Wasps RFC and has gained experience working with England Rugby, the Cuban athletics, weightlifting, wrestling and judo teams based in Havana, Cuba and various high performance training centres in the USA. Tom also works as a combat coach and in this respect has worked with GB Rowing, England Sevens and England Women’s rugby team amongst various other teams and schools.