Alongside the honed and toned hard bodies pounding the exercise machines, in among the glistening biceps lifting weights only marginally less substantial than a new Routemaster bus, a sudden reversal of evolution appeared to be taking place. The several million years it took for man to walk on two feet had, in less than an hour, been wiped out. After no more than 45 minutes in the place, I was no longer capable of standing upright and was reduced to crawling about on my hands and knees.
That is what happens when you engage with the latest fitness craze to arrive here from the United States: you feel it to the point where you end up barely able to stand. But the temporary return to primitive perambulation is worth it, or so its advocates insist. The rewards are substantial.
I had arrived for my appointment in the gym after a moment of confusion. The Telegraph’s commissioning editor had rung me to say she was looking for a reporter of a certain age to try out HIIT. I knew I was getting on a bit, but I had no idea I was quite so obviously showing the need for a course of oestrogen injections.
“No, not HRT,” she said. “HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training. It’s the latest thing from America.”
You can understand why HIIT would so appeal to the New Yorker. It promises not only results but speed of delivery. The system’s advocates insist that it enables you to get fit and shed the pounds in less time than conventional fitness regimes. What would take hours on complex machines and in clanking weight rooms can be achieved in minutes. For the time-poor city dweller, this is manna from the fitness gods.
And the science is conclusive: if you want to lose weight or get in shape quickly, this is the most effective way to do it. A study by the University of Western Ontario found that if you spend half an hour walking, you will burn off 100 calories, 85 of which will come from your fat stores. Go for a jog and in the same time you will burn off 200 calories, 100 coming from fat deposits. Use that same half-hour doing HIIT, however, and more than 500 calories will be burned off, 150 of which will be from fat.
That is only part of the story, however. The study also found that, because of the substantial increase in resting metabolic rate caused by an HIIT session, the body can continue to consume fat for up to 24 hours after you have stopped. It is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. In other words, because HIIT kickstarts the body’s innate repair system, you slim down even as you recover. The thing works even when you aren’t. Now that is a proposition.
The BBC presenter Michael Mosley demonstrated the effectiveness of high intensity work-outs on a Horizon programme in 2012. Under the instruction of Jamie Timmons of Loughborough University’s sports science department, he was put on an exercise bike and made to pedal at his fastest possible rate for just a minute at a time. A total of as little as three minutes intensive training a week had a surprisingly beneficial effect on Mosley, as much on his wellbeing as his weight.
But while it might not take long, nobody should be under any illusion that HIIT is an easy short cut. It may be over in less time than I was held at a red signal at Edgware Road underground station en route to the gym, but, boy, do you work for it.
All sorts of schemes have been developed to take advantage of HIIT’s undoubted potential, named things like Tabata and Fartlek, which sound like items from the Ikea catalogue. At Equinox, they offer a programme called Metcon3. While it might initially be confused with the US’s defence early warning system (that’s Defcon), Metcon is short for Metabolic Conditioning. The 3 bit is a reference to the number of repetitions involved.
I was to be under the instruction of Geoff Bagshawe, Equinox’s group fitness manager for the UK and a man so ripped he appears to have been chiselled out of iron girders. Geoff’s first task was to check out whether – despite all available physical evidence – I had any hint of conditioning. Although a University of Queensland study discovered that ten weeks of HIIT gave a control group of non-exercising, sofa-bound volunteers close to an athlete’s constitution, Geoff believes it is preferable to have some base level of fitness before taking on a session. This is not for the faint-hearted.
After assuring himself I wouldn’t keel over, Geoff began the process. Normally, he leads a whole class through the exercises. But on this occasion, there was just me and him (plus, alarmingly, a photographer and a video cameraman). Interestingly the equipment laid out in front of us was minimal, no more than a pair of dumbbells and a medicine ball. This is the thing about HIIT: it needs none of the pricey kit of other gym-based regimens. All it requires of its participants is a willingness to sweat. And did I sweat.
This is the thing about HIIT: it needs none of the pricey kit of other gym-based regimens
It was a simple enough class to get the hang of. Geoff had 10 exercises, the names of which he wrote on the mirror in front of which we were to work. Each exercise lasted no more than a minute and the idea was to move on to the next without a break. After 10 had been completed, there would be a short interlude to catch breath. Then, after three rounds of the 10, Geoff said he had a couple of surprises to round things off. In total, we were to be exercising for no more than 35 minutes. Piece of cake, I thought.
And at first, as we began to bounce and skip across the gym floor, it all seemed a little undemanding. A few star jumps, a minute of press-ups, squat thrusts done while holding the dumbbells: was this really what was taking Manhattan by storm?
After 10 minutes of this stuff non-stop, however, I was beginning to feel it, in the break time deliberately asking Geoff more questions than strictly necessary in order to gasp in some oxygen. By the end of the second set of exercises designed to work every part of the body, from glutes to neck, though, I was barely able to speak. The third round, encouraged by Geoff’s gently persuasive tones, involved pushing myself to a point I had not visited for about 15 years. When I did the concluding plank hold, the sweat pooling around me, arms vibrating like an out of control jackhammer, a look on my face suggesting I was in the midst of some arcane medieval punishment, I rather hoped the photographer had run out of battery power.
This is the point of HIIT: by lifting the heart rate to previously uncharted levels, by forcing the cardiovascular system into places it is unused to going, the body begins to work much harder. Fat falls off, slack muscles tighten, the lungs expand. Though you do almost inevitably end up a trembling mess on the floor.
“You’ll be feeling this tomorrow,” said Geoff, as I vainly attempted to return to the vertical. “In the back of your thighs, in your calves, your backside.” That was something to look forward to, then.
The good news is, such is the power of HIIT, there is really no need to do this more than a couple of times a week to feel the most extraordinary benefits. Geoff recommends interspersing a class like I took with yoga, swimming, jogging. And the great thing about HIIT is, because it is so simple, it is entirely portable. This can be done anywhere, at any moment you have half an hour to spare.
Indeed, if the idea of the tortuous squat jumps that constituted Geoff’s surprise ending is a little unappetising, the principles of the system can be incorporated into any fitness regime. If you go out for a jog, for instance, inject some high intensity by every so often sprinting as fast as you can, then jogging for a minute, then sprinting again and so on.
That was the methodology an athletics coach called Peter Coe used back in the 1970s. When the runner under his charge was training, he would encourage him every so often to dash at absolute top pelt, then jog for a few paces to recover, then go again. At the time, no one had named the system, let alone tested its efficacy scientifically. It was based on nothing more than a hunch of Coe’s. But for his son Sebastian, at least, HIIT certainly worked.