HIIT Is Failing You and Your Fat Loss Efforts

Summer shred season has officially begun which means gym-goers across the country are now in search of the “best fat loss program” they can find. 

What they typically find on the internet is that HIIT is the “best” form of training to shed fat fast. 

So let’s talk about this for a quick sec. 

HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training, is a method of training where you perform an exercise at a high intensity for a specific duration followed by a period of low intensity exercise, then repeating the process. 

HIIT became popular for good reason – when done correctly it can be very effective and time efficient for burning fat. 

Due to what’s commonly referred to as the “after-burn” effect where the body will burn more calories after a brief period of intense exercise, you can effectively burn more calories throughout the day with a shorter duration of exercise. This process is also known as EPOC, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. 

EPOC occurs after intense exercise because your body is going through its metabolic processes to return to homeostasis, which requires energy and so more calories are required for these energy demands. 

So that’s great! More calories burned per day with less time spent working out. 

But here’s the problem…

The Problem With HIIT For Fat Loss

Like anything else that hits the mainstream, this effective training method became butchered throughout boot camps, online workouts, classes and gyms world-wide.

Let me explain.

As the name suggests, high-intensity interval training must be done at high intensities, followed by a low intensity or recovery period. If we’re looking at energy systems, a short bout of high intensity exercise will primarily be fueled by the Anaerobic Alactic or ATP-PC system. 

To utilize this energy system the physical output must be maximal, or very close to it. After about 10 seconds (give or take) of maximal output this energy system becomes depleted and the body will shift to a different method of energy production.

Training in a way that targets this energy system, with true high intensities, creates the amazing EPOC effect we’re looking for.

As mentioned earlier, training at this level of intensity cannot be sustained for very long. After about 10 seconds or so, the body will no longer be able to produce energy (ATP) at such a high rate and will now have to utilize different energy systems (anaerobic lactic and aerobic) to produce ATP. 

If you look at 99.9% of HIIT classes they aren’t nearly training at a high enough intensity to tap into anaerobic energy production. This means that there’s a good chance that the aerobic system is primarily responsible for the production of ATP.

Essentially, people think they are training HIIT, but are actually just getting sweaty, tired and burned out doing sloppy cardio.

But is more cardio for fat loss such a bad thing?

Cardio AKA Aerobic Conditioning For Fat Loss

Training aerobically is certainly not a bad thing, but if that’s the case you aren’t actually performing HIIT or reaping the benefits that true high intensity interval training has to offer. 

So what does this mean to you?

It means that HIIT is great for fat loss when it’s done correctly but unfortunately, most of the time it’s not. And when you throw together random exercises and do them in circuit fashion while fatigued like most of these classes do, you’re setting yourself up for injury.

So you’re not actually performing HIIT, your increasing your potential for injury and certainly not tapping into the benefits that a well thought out training program (like more muscle, strength, stability, mobility & a decreased potential for injury) has to offer. 

Doesn’t seem like a great plan if you ask me.

A Smarter Solution For Fat Loss Training

Now here’s the thing. If you have a lot of body fat to lose and you’re currently sedentary, the important thing is that you get up and get your ass moving. If a HIIT class is what you find and something you enjoy then more power to you. Do it! You’ll be burning calories, improving your overall health, and if your diet is in check you’ll be shedding fat, and those are all good things.

Of course this type of exercise has its drawbacks, but those drawbacks aren’t as bad as obesity and obesity-related disease. I just want you to be aware of these drawbacks and to understand the leverage of marketing that these programs are using. 

However, if you’re reading this article right now on DrJohnRusin.com, then odds are you’re someone who already likes to train and is looking for a way to optimize your fat loss results. 

So this is what you need to know…

Optimally Structuring Your Training For Fat Loss

Even when HIIT is done correctly it shouldn’t be the only method of training when it comes to fat loss. In fact, it should just be a small piece of the puzzle.

Here’s why.

It’s important to understand that muscle tissue is metabolically active, meaning that it requires a greater demand for energy and so calories will be needed and utilized for this energy production.

The more lean muscle mass on your frame the higher your metabolic rate, and so more calories are burned while at rest and during activity. That’s certainly a plus in the fat loss department. 

This shows us the role that quality strength training plays in losing fat. And notice that I said quality strength training, meaning that you’re training all 6 foundational human movement patterns with near perfect technique, with the right exercises for you, while progressively overloading. 

What that DOES NOT mean is turning your strength work into some whacky circuit consisting of 500 box jumps, 437 reps of deadlifts, 108 burpees and 12 laps around a building. You’ll never build muscle that way and you’ll likely get injured. Neither is good for losing fat, so keep your training about getting strong and building muscle.

Want To Lose Fat? Don’t STOP Building Muscle

Just because your goal is fat loss that doesn’t mean you should deviate from true strength work. From a body composition standpoint the lean muscle you have on your frame is what will give you the shredded look you’re going for. 

And remember the EPOC effect we talked about? That certainly comes into play when your strength work is up to par as well. 

So to maximize your fat loss results my advice would be to design your training template as follows:

  • Strength train 3-4 days per week 
  • Do some method of real HIIT 1-2 days per week for 20 minutes
    • (ex. Hill sprints x 10 with your rest being the walk back to starting position +)

But what about low intensity steady state cardio or LISS?

How To Properly Program Cardio For Fat Loss

I think it’s a great way to help aid in recovery, burn more calories and enhance cardiovascular health. So do it. And the good news is that it can be done seven days per week.

Going for a long walk is my favorite way to do this, especially fasted first thing in the morning if your schedule allows for it. It can also be hiking, biking, swimming or anything similar, but I would suggest activities that are low impact so you give your joints a breather and really maximize the recovery benefits. 

You can also simply shoot for 10,000 or more steps per day to ensure that you’re getting enough daily movement in.

With all of that said it’s time for the most important piece of the fat loss puzzle.

Your diet.

Successful Fat Loss Efforts Are MORE About Diet Than Training

If your diet sucks you won’t lose fat. Period. 

Diving deep into nutrition goes way beyond the scope of this article, but here are some key principles to help you shred off that unwanted body fat this summer. 

  • Eat real food 90% of the time. Think of single ingredient whole foods like chicken, beef, eggs, turkey, pork, fish, yams, rice, oats, quinoa, lentils, fruit, vegetables, nuts, etc. 
  • Get at least 2-3 servings of green veggies per day
  • Shoot for anywhere between .7-1 x bodyweight in grams of protein per day (If you have over 20%  body fat you’ll be closer to the .7 x bodyweight per day mark, but that will depend on how much muscle you have, your activity level, etc.)
  • Enhance your gut health with foods like kimchi, Greek yogurt and sauerkraut for probiotics and foods like green bananas, asparagus, onions, cooked and cooled potatoes and apples for some prebiotic fiber (think of this as the food that the good bacteria in your gut eats to thrive)
  • Shoot for half of your bodyweight in ounces of water per day
  • Avoid highly processed foods that contain sugar, flour and industrial oils

Following these simple guidelines will certainly help you move the fat loss needle. When it comes to nutrition, one of the biggest keys to staying consistent is preparation. What gets scheduled gets done, so one thing I always suggest to my nutrition coaching clients is to put your food shopping, meal prep or placing your order for your meal prep service on your calendar. That removes a lot of guesswork and leaving things to chance, so put it on your calendar and then honor your damn schedule.

Living A Lifestyle That Supports Fat Loss

With all of that said, your nutrition and training are the obvious things to address to create the lean, strong, muscular physique that you want. However, there are some key lifestyle factors that are typically overlooked but play a major role in your body composition and your health. 

Here are some things to consider:

  • Get 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night
  • Learn to manage stress in a way that works for you
  • Prioritize recovery

You might not think so, but getting quality sleep effects your body composition. This is when tissue that’s damaged from training is repaired and the body secretes hormones like testosterone & HGH, along with many other key factors.

If you’re chronically stressed that means that the stress hormone cortisol is chronically elevated. Not only does that impede your health, but cortisol has a catabolic effect, which means it can break down muscle tissue and make it very difficult to lose fat. 

Your recovery starts with your sleep, but including massage, sauna, cold plunges, cryotherapy, float tanks, contrast baths/showers are great ways to help you recover, build more muscle and burn more body fat. 

Simply put, be sure to address these things or your fat loss results will suffer. 

Losing Fat Requires More Than Just HIIT

At this point, I hope you have come to the realization that building a beach ready body has MORE to do with strength training, nutritional adherence, recovery and sleep than just adding more High Intensity Interval Training.

While this popular training modality can be sexy (and sweaty and tiring), it’s simply another piece of the fat loss puzzle, not the entire solution to achieving superhuman leanness in record time.

When it comes to shedding the fat, stick to the basics, double down on your diet and do NOT forget about the other 23 hours of the day (aside from training) where there real fat loss opportunities lie.

And while HIIT may not be totally dead, it’s also not the be all end all to fat loss we’ve all been sold. There, I said it.

Thanks for reading, now lets get shredded.

About The Author

Chris Tutela is a coach and owner of Tutela Training Systems in Clark, NJ. Since 2006 Chris has worked with hundreds of clients ranging from pro athletes to the general population. In 2019 Chris began an online training, nutrition and personal development program for men who want to lose fat, build muscle & transform their lives in a simplistic, sustainable way. He also runs retreats for men who want to strengthen their bodies & minds to forge better lives. 

You can learn more about Chris’s training, nutrition and life philosophies on his website christutela.com, his podcast, The Iron Life Podcast monthly column for Elite FTS or on Instagram @chris_tutela.