Ellington Darden, Drew Baye, Jim Flanagan

Will The Real HIT Please Stand Up?

If you’re a regular reader of this web site or if you know who Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer, and Ellington Darden are nothing that follows will be news to you. This is for the people who keep misusing the term “high intensity training” to refer to things like sprint interval training and various faddish infomercial exercise programs. Whenever you come across one, please share this with them and hopefully it can help reduce confusion over what HIT is and is not.

The term “high intensity training” was coined by Ellington Darden, PhD, during a presentation at Duke University in 1975 to describe the Nautilus training principles:

  • Intensity – train with a high level of effort, performing each exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure
  • Progression – gradually increase the resistance you use as you get stronger and better conditioned
  • Form – always maintain strict form to more efficiently load the targeted muscles and minimize risk of injury
  • Duration – keep your workouts brief to avoid overtraining, perform only one set per exercise
  • Frequency – allow adequate time for recovery and adaptation between workouts, training no more than three non-consecutive days per week
  • Order – as a general rule perform exercises in order of the sizes of the muscle groups worked, from largest to smallest

In What Is High Intensity Training? I describe HIT as “…a form of progressive resistance exercise characterized by a high level of effort and relatively brief and infrequent workouts, as opposed to typical training methods involving low to moderate levels of effort and longer, more frequent workouts.”

Ellington Darden, Drew Baye, Jim Flanagan

Drew Baye with experts on real HIT, Ellington Darden, PhD (left) and Jim Flanagan (right)

Unfortunately, the term “high intensity training” is vague enough it can apply to almost anything done with a high level of effort including non-exercise activities. “High” is relative, “intensity” is usually incorrectly defined by others talking about exercise, and “training” can mean teaching, learning, or practicing a variety of skills and behaviors. Because of this vagueness, people currently use “HIT” to describe everything from sprint interval training to various resistance training programs done at a relatively fast pace.

If “high intensity training” is so vague, why does it matter how we use it? Because to effectively communicate it is necessary for terms to have specific, agreed upon meanings. If a word can mean anything it might as well mean nothing.

Additionally, a big problem is people getting injured doing other programs and incorrectly claiming they got hurt doing HIT. Having ignorant trainers out there teaching unscientific and often downright stupid exercise methods and programs and calling it HIT reflects negatively on those of us practicing and teaching real HIT (unfortunately, the same goes for many trainers and organizations who practice and teach real HIT very poorly, but I’ll write about that some other time).

While the term is vague, Ellington Darden set the precedent for its use in the context of exercise to refer to the kind of hard, brief, infrequent exercise described by the Nautilus training principles, and it has generally been used in that manner for almost four decades now.

If you’re performing max effort sprints (running, cycling, rowing, swimming, etc.) you are doing sprint interval training, not high intensity training. It shouldn’t even be called “high intensity interval training” or HIIT since the terms are too similar.

Unless you are performing proper exercises (with positioning and movements based on principles of efficient muscular loading) to momentary muscular failure (real high intensity) in strict form (with a controlled speed of movement and smooth turnarounds while maintaining proper body positioning and/or alignment and path of movement) you are not doing HIT.

Stated differently, if you’re doing so-called “functional” movements (movements mimicking sport or vocational skills rather than designed around specific muscle and joint functions), not consistently training to momentary muscular failure (after the initial learning stage/break-in period and with a few other exceptions), or doing your exercises in a fast, jerky manner emphasizing quantity of work over quality, you might be working hard, but you are not doing HIT.

CrossFit and its clones are not high intensity training. P90X, Insanity, and similar programs are not HIT. Those people jumping around, doing sloppy calisthenics, and sprinting in the park and calling it “boot camp” are not doing HIT. The majority of programs claiming to be high intensity training are not HIT. Regardless of what you’re calling it, unless your exercise program is based on the Nautilus training principles outlined above you are not doing or teaching HIT.

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