It’s a Hiit

HIIT workouts have become incredibly popular as a form of exercise for the masses. But how effective are they for us as climbers? And should we be incorporating them into our training programs?

Magazines, websites and other media outlets are always keen to advocate a nice, effective and simple workout for their readers to follow; after all, trying to detail a long and complicated training plan is more than a little tricky within a thousand words. So when they come across something as simple and effective as HIIT, it was inevitable that it would be advocated as the next big thing.

HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, is an exercise routine that is generally completed in less than twenty minutes – as little as four minutes in some case – with repeated movements that are simple for people to copy at home in their own time. They are simple to understand, simple to attempt and don’t require lots of complicated equipment. Moreover, as a HIIT workout doesn’t take long, their appeal is even higher. Throw in the home training aspect that has peaked during the Coronavirus pandemic and you can certainly see why HIIT has become so popular.

But there are sceptics, especially once we look at this from a climber’s perspective. Even as a general fitness regimen, there are still many things that people might be doing wrong. Here, I’ll look into some of the details of a HIIT workout, where you can easily go wrong with them and what the accepted benefits are.

Finally we’ll look to answer the big question: Should you include a HIIT workout into your climbing training program?

HIIT Me With It

Many authors far more eloquent than myself (and even more less eloquent) have gone into detail on what a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout looks like, so i’ll keep this very brief.

The clue is in the name: Intervals of exercises, usually such as press ups, burpees, star jumps or a host of other options completed at High Intensity. So a breakdown would look something like:

Warm up
30 seconds – 2 minutes of exercise
20 seconds – 2 minutes of either active or total rest
Repeated 4-8 times with different exercises
Cool down (optional)

[An excellent explanation of HIIT workouts and a typical routine to follow can be found at Warwick Workout by Dr Laurence Houghton]

This means that a full HIIT workout can be done inside ten minutes but there are some caveats. High Intensity means just that: go hard. To measure this accurately, for exercise periods you are looking for 90% of your max heart rate during these periods or, for those without a heart rate monitor, around 9/10 on the Perceived Exertion Scale (basically working so hard, you can’t speak).

Borg Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and modified RPE alongside expected effects on breathing and percentage of max heart rate, Credited to elitertrainingprograms.com and retrieved from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/53128470587531506/

The Tabata Method

While interval training isn’t new per se, and can take many different forms, the most popular HIIT format is known as the Tabata method. The history is often lost (the original paper can be seen here while a later review from Tabata himself can be seen here) and Tabata is now viewed as a term for a specific format of HIIT.

This well referenced piece from Alexa Tucker writing for Self (Tabata Is The 4-Minute, Fat-Burning Workout You Need To Try) explains Tabata in more detail. However don’t get too bogged down in the specfic timings of Tabata’s original method or the specific exercises on that page; as Tucker herself points out, “you can do whatever moves [and number of sets] you like”.

The Proven Benefits

This piece isn’t an opinion piece and as much of this information as possible has been checked against scientific study. What i noticed researching this is that the findings consistenly show that HIIT workouts are good for your health.

During the 2020 UK lockdown, the BBC ran a series titled The Truth About… and one of their episodes was Getting Fit At Home. While they investigated strength training, supplements and home training products (they love resistence bands, just saying) there was a section in there with Beth Phillips from the University of Nottingham looking specifically at the benefits of completing a HIIT workout at home (skip to 12:56 fot HIIT session).

The academic research backs this up time and again. Michele Olsen states “the Tabata group experienced similar significant increases in fitness despite spending much less time engaged in exercise” in Tabata, It’s a HIIT! in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, with 14 further references should you choose to read more.

Reading academic papers can be difficult for non-academics but the consensus is clear: High Insensity Interval Training has positive health benefits and is more effective than moderate intensity exercise for longer periods of time.

The Major Pitfalls

As much as these benefits are there for you, you’ll only get there if you do these workouts the right way. As much as there is much publicised about how great HIIT workouts are, there is also much out there to warn of how it might not be as effective as you thought.

The first mistake people regularly make has a big clue in the name: it is high intensity. I commented on this above but need to reiterate the point that in order to benefit from your HIIT workout, the periods of exercise need to be hard; either 90% of your max heart rate for those with a HR monitor or around 9/10 or the modified RPE scale in the diagram above or hard enough that you can’t really speak due to being out of breath. This issue comes up regularly, such as from Brock Armstrong (aka the Get Fit Guy) writing in Quick and Dirty Tips and also cited in Scientific American.

HIIT is certainly a marketable commodity and therein lies one of the most significant issues surrounding this form of workout. A cynic would suggest that the claims of HIIT are designed to gain more website hits but with titles such as “Here’s Why HIIT Workouts May Be Best for Your Body — and Brain” (Healthline), “Tabata Is The 4-Minute, Fat-Burning Workout You Need To Try” (Self) and “These 14 HIIT Workouts Will Make You Forget Boring Cardio” (Mens Health) it’s difficult to argue.

As such, the problem lies not with the workouts themselves but with how they are presented and interpreted. Mark Twight (in a piece from Training for the New Alpinism) wrote a rather damning piece on HIIT workouts where he struggled “trying to force the square peg of high-intensity circuit training and heavy lifting into the round hole of endurance performance”. Twight’s feelings are clear with comments such as “a shortcut to improved endurance” and the “”free lunch” method of improving endurance”.

However this seems to relate to a misunderstanding of what one can achieve with HIIT and how to use it to your benefit. Twight’s aims seem to have been to replace his typical endurance training exclusively with HIIT, yielding poor results as this is not what HIIT is intended to achieve. Even Twight alludes to how best to incorporate HIIT thus:

If you train long-endurance exclusively you’ll be weak and slow though able to go forever. To go long AND fast your training program must also include strength training plus high-intensity intervals and speed work – each introduced at the appropriate time – to sharpen the large foundation f endurance that we presume exists

Twight (2012) No Free Lunch, appearing in Training for the New Alpinism, available here

Brock Armstrong (again in Quick and Dirty Tips) presents the perfect example of this while “investigating a fancy new stationary bike… [that] claims that the device is “clinically proven to give you the same cardio benefits of a 45-minute jog in under 9 minutes, with only 40 seconds of hard work.””. The problem here isn’t HIIT, it’s the claims that go with it.

Finally, there is the risk of injury that HIIT can present to people. Cited by Dr Laurence Houghton and Paige Waener on Very Well Fit it is a very real risk for those who are using HIIT as their only source of exercise. Meanwhile, Armstrong comments that HIIT workouts shouldn’t be done in isolation. However, we may need to consider both of these points in the context in which we are concerned; i.e. including a HIIT workout as part of a climbing training program.

Putting This in a Climbing Context

So yeah, great, HIIT workouts are really good for you, there seems a clear consensus there. But we’re climbers and we’re interested in getting better at climbing. So let’s return to that big question right at the start:

Should you include a HIIT workout

into your climbing training program?

For me, the short answer is yes. But as this piece is grounded in research, let’s expand on that a little bit.

It Helps to be Healthy

First and foremost, if you’re going to go headlong into a full-on climbing training program, it really does help to have a good solid base level of fitness. That should certainly include some sort of cardiovascular exercise that, for many modern gym climbers, may well be lacking.

With the current trend of concentrating heavily on the obvious strength training popularised by Lattice Coaching and Cafe Kraft among others, such as focusing on fingerbaords or campus boards, it is a very real possibility that a general fitness workout could be missed. Trying to convince these climbers to give up an hour a week for a non-obvous fitness gain would surely be less successful than a twenty minute HIIT workout that can easily be fit in around climbing specific training.

Eric Horst, in his book Training for Climbing (2008, pg 101) and in a section on Optimizing Body Composition, states,

“make it your goal to perform a minimum of thirty minutes of sustained moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least four days a week. If your schedule is too busy to accomodate this two-hour plus hours of aerobics per week, recent research indicates you can get a similar (and possibly better) fat-burning effect from shorter, high-intensity interval training”

Horst (2008) Training for Climbing, 2nd edition, pg 101, Falcon Guides

Any form of exercise in isolation is not ideal and HIIT presents a convenient way to add another dimension to one’s general fitness levels.

Antagonistic Work

There is much out there in regard climbing training that encourages climbers to work their antagonist muscles as well as the agonist muscles. This means, for example, that while you want to work your biceps (agonists) in order to do more pull ups, you’ll need to work muscles that do the opposite movement or work in the opposite direction (antagonists, such as your triceps in this case) as well in order to stay balanced and avoid injury. Think working push muscles and pull muscles equally, even if all you want to do is pull up.

Working these muscles purely by climbing is clearly impossible as we need to target the muscles we didn’t use when climbing. Tha means we’ll need to design different exercises to do at some stage during our training program. Enter HIIT workouts, which can be a fantastic way to concentrate on working antagonist muscles in an interesting and engaging way.

Specificity to Your Discipline of Climbing

Finally, it is worth returning to Twight’s issues briefly. Twight’s plight in No Free Lunch seems to be that he was aiming for gains in a very endurance focused discipline of climbing and in doing so, ran in to problems. Certainly, it is clear that different disciplines of climbing places differing demands on the body in their own specific ways; the requirements on an Alpine climber are clearly substantially different to those on a boulderer.

While I have yet to find any clear references for this, it seems to follow that any climber thinking of incorporating a HIIT workout would be wise to consider the disciplines of climbing they are liklely to participate in and to adjust the training accordingly. I have written elsewhere on Replication Training and the SAID principle is well established in sports coaching; whereby our training should be related to the activity we are training for. In No Free Lunch, it seems Twight forgot this point.

The website Climbing Workouts advertises just such type of workout: Powerful 6 Set HIIT Climbing Workout for Maximum Endurance in one of the few climbing related HIIT workouts I have come across during this research. We regularly see sport climbers on circuit boards climbing for prolonged periods to increase their endurance for routes before resting and going again in a similar fashion at the climbing wall. However neither would’ve helped Twight achieve his goals in ski montaineering racing as they do not follow the SAID Principle.

From the SAID Principle, we could not only adapt the duration of our sessions but also the exercises we wish to incorporate. For boulderers, this may be short sharp and punchy exercises like burpees with longer rests or for big wall climbers, we may drop the intensity but prolong the activity and perhaps work leg muscles more and include squats to help hauling.

Again, this is not yet backed up with any particular research (please let me know if you find some!) but given principles such as SAID and Replication Training, coupled with the adaptability of HIIT, it seems logical to look at the bigger picture of the overall goals of your training program.

Conclusions: The Big Answer

There is no debate that High Intensity Interval Training has substantial benefits to your overall health; there is ample evidence in support. Instead, the question that we ask ourselves here is whether having a HIIT session as part of a climbing training program is a good idea.

While many traditional climbers – certainly those that climb in the mountains – will partake in some kind of cardiovascular exercise, it is by no means a certainty; and with many modern climbers coming in to the sport an an indoor environment, coupled with the modern trend to focus training on strength gains specific to hard climbing, it is even more likely that many climbers will neglect their general fitness to focus on pulling harder on smaller holds. This has the potential to leave many open to various specific weaknesses, to undervalue the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on their climbing performance and even potentially to leave themselves open to other health conditions.

Yes, HIIT is not a magic formula to open anyone up to the next grade when thought of in isolation but as part of a wider program, HIIT sessions have several big advantages that suggest this form of exercise should not be snubbed lightly. When looked at in context, and with reasonable expectations of what can be gained, including a HIIT workout has the potential to increase base fitness, extend session length and even reduce injury if done correctly.

HIIT won’t get you there on it’s own. But it may just be the missing piece of the puzzle you’ve been looking for.

References

  • Houghton (2016) The Pros and Cons of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), The Warwick Workout
  • elitetrainingprograms.com (ND) Borg RPE, Modified RPE, Breathing and % Max HR, retrieved from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/53128470587531506/
  • Tabata, Irisawa, Kouzaki, Nighimura, Ogita & Miyachi (1997) Metabolic profile of high-intensity intermittent exercises, Med Sci Sports Exerc, vol 29 pg 1327-1330, click here
  • Tabata (2019) Tabata training: one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods, The Journal of Physiological Sciences, vol 69, pg 559-572, click here
  • Tucker (2016) Tabata Is The 4-Minute, Fat-Burning Workout You Need To Try, published on Self, click here
  • The Truth About… Getting Fit at Home on BBC iPlayer. Skip to 12:56 fot HIIT session
  • Olsen (2014) Tabata, IT’s a HIIT!, ACSM’s Journal of Health & Fitness, click here
  • Armstrong (2019) 3 Problems with High Intensity Interval Training, Scientific American (abridged, click here) or Quick and Dirty Tips (in full, click here)
  • Twight (2012) No Free Lunch, Equipe Solitaire
  • Horst (2008) Training for Climbing, Falcon Guides, 2nd edition, click here
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