In recent years, the proliferation of high intensity interval training (HIIT) has changed the culture of health clubs—personal training and group exercise, specifically. According to a new study by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), HIIT is predicted to be the biggest fitness trend of 2018.
For health club operators and trainers, it can be tricky to know how to scale this practice for different audiences. For insight, Club Industry consulted Michael Piercy, founder of The LAB, Fairfield, New Jersey, an ambassador for Under Armour and TRX, and the 2017 IDEA Personal Trainer of The Year Award. Piercy, also a former professional baseball player, spoke at the 2017 Club Industry Show on "Short Circuits: Mastering the 30-Minute Training Model." In the following Q and A, he shares what he said are best HIIT practices while also offering his thoughts related to several myths about the training style.
Q: Which aspects of HIIT should trainers and clients alike not lose sight of as the training style's popularity continues to grow?
MP: The social media explosion says a lot. When we look at it, HIIT is obviously the most popular form of training in the U.S. right now. Ask the average person about HIIT, and they think of Crossfit, which in some ways, in some circles, can be looked on as a negative thing. But there's different types of HIIT for different types of people, we like to say. When Crossfit first came about, I wanted to be certified as a Crossfit coach and wanted to learn Crossfit from the best. If I was a former athlete, really competitive and looked at training from a sporting perspective, Crossfit is a great, competitive atmosphere for me to enter into. The problem you run into is when you take a form of training and scale it to everybody. That's very difficult to do. For a minority or small subset, it might be great. But for the most part, we might not find a lot of seniors or other populations who are drawn to that sporting perspective. The most important thing is that you want to come into a fitness atmosphere and be able to raise that level of intensity but not be overwhelmed. To the average person, you do not need to be the guy or girl you're watching in the Instagram video doing box jumps. That leads to insane levels of intensity and not a lot of self-efficacy. We do want a level of intensity, but what we really want is quality.
Q: What does that ideal HIIT environment look like?
MP: We want to build a program that has people gain that level of stability and mobility. This is a huge part of TRX philosophy, actually, to have them maintain some purposeful, qualitative movement, and then we throw in the fitness aspect. We want them to move better; we don’t want to injure people. Think safe and stable. We tend to jump over a few aspects and jump right into the performance aspect. Building that continuum or model is all about people gaining a sense of empowerment and a sense of, "Hey. this is a process." We can apply resistance aspects. We want to consider that rate or perceived exertion, or a RPE scale, which is attributed to the intensity of cardio exercise. Frequency is important. Time and type, too—what type of exercise is it? We want to be technique-specific and consider movement patterns. The worst thing in HIIT programming would be to convey something that goes against basic science.
Q: How can trainers connect with clients over these concepts? How can they be sold, understood and implemented?
MP: Eighty to 90 percent of people come into [our gym] looking for transformation. They have an overarching goal. They want to lose weight, gain strength, become more athletic—things like that. The average person could read all the books out there, watch all the videos, but they come in because they want to simplify that process and get better. Our job as professionals is to put them in the best space we can. Fitness should be fun. And the best workouts, a lot of times, are about being very engaged but for a shorter period of time, instead of less engaged for a longer period of time. When people hear "30 minutes," they think, "I can do anything for 30 minutes."
Q: Can you talk about the power of the group dynamic in HIIT training and how trainers can harness that energy and use it to motivate?
MP: The group dynamic is what’s great [about HIIT]. As the trainer, I’m no longer the sole person responsible for the energy, like in a one-on-one training session. You get some help from the camaraderie, from the accountability within the group. Suffering breeds cohesion. Really great forms of HIIT have great cultures. It’s like military boot camp. People celebrate when boot camp is over because it really sucked, but they went through it together. Almost like championship teams. You’re always in touch. People who suffer together, go through that great workout, it becomes like connective tissue. And for me as the trainer, I can get more than one person in. That means more people who I can share this thing I’m doing with.
Q: At the Club Industry Show, you cited the "red-zone challenge" you issue at your studio as an effective means of engaging members with HIIT methods.
MP: Yes, I do an online video every week during football season. It's based on scores, based on athleticism. The workout is always tailored around a big game. The [Dallas] Cowboys versus the [Philadelphia] Eagles, let's say. The Eagles lost 31-21, so you have 31 seconds of work and 21 seconds of rest on each exercise. That’s how it breaks down over a 16-week season. You might come in for three or four weeks and we're at a lower RPE. The intensity can be totally different at week 16. It helps you develop a different level and understanding of yourself. Also, fitness does not have to be boring. I believe often it is.
Q: Would you call HIIT a fitness fad?
MP: I do not see the overall concept as a fad, but formats within HIIT will be fads. HIIT is here to stay. It's not ever going to go anywhere. The science is very stable. I'm a big fan of HIIT when it's done very effectively. It allows you to realize results in shorter intervals. With training, the No. 1 complaint I get is: "I don't have time." This is why a lot of busy people utilize a 30-minute session model. That's the huge misconception. Fitness is this big chasm. You're on one side, and there's this whole matter of getting across. So you bridge it by running on the treadmill for three hours a day and become a treadmill zombie. You don't need three hours. Nowadays, there are ways you can double your results in less time. That's HIIT, and that's why it's not a fad.