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Why intense workouts like CrossFit and HIIT are good for you

High intensity workouts are growing in popularity, as more people are taking to them to develop strength, fitness and peace of mind

Why high intensity workouts are good for you.
Why high intensity workouts are good for you. (Istockphoto)

HIIT (high intensity interval training), boot camps and CrossFit became popular in India around the same time, a few years ago. It is not by random chance that these three schools of exercise found success pretty much simultaneously. Something similar had happened in the West too, and the pattern was simply repeating in India. And the reason for this is pretty simple—all three are practically one and the same kind of exercise routines, even though the branding, equipment and programming are different. The underlying principles for the three are the same.

All three are enhanced forms of interval training where a period of rigorous exercise is followed by a period of easy or relaxed exercise or recovery. This cycle is repeated for a specified time, in terms of rounds or repetitions. In all three, the periods of rigorous exercise involve fairly intense to very intense exercise and the session are relatively short and you could wrap up the entire session from warm-up to cool down in 60 minutes or less. 

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With HIIT you have the option of sticking to bodyweight-only routines or using minimum equipment such as a kettle-bell or dumbbells. Boot camps involve use of sandbags, tyres and other unconventional equipment. Finally, CrossFit is a combination of gymnastics, cardio and Olympic lifting. It uses a variety of workouts using barbells, kettle-bells, medicine balls, dumbbells and even body weight. CrossFit has an exciting and effective benchmark workout called Cindy that involves performing 5 pull-ups, 10 pushups and 15 air squats for 20 minutes. 

There are some differences between the three as well. CrossFit usually has a skill or strength module before the actual workout. Boot camp workouts are usually always done outdoors and prioritise calisthenics over kipping. The latter is a popular technique in CrossFit, uses the body’s momentum for exercises such as pull-ups, toes-to-bar, muscle-ups and handstand pushups. But these differences are just in the details. 

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Each of the three workouts have grown in popularity, particularly HIIT workouts since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic and the introduction of lockdowns in our lives forced us to workout at home. It is the tremendous impact this kind of interval training has on the human body, mind and emotions that has led to a surge in their uptake. 

Numerous studies have demonstrated greater health-related benefits from HIIT compared to traditional moderate-intensity continuous training. HIIT has been reported to more effectively increase aerobic capacity and reduce risk factors associated with blood pressure and fasting glucose in overweight and obese people who performed HIIT workouts for 12 weeks or less, found a 2016 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine

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Those who stuck to these workouts longer experienced significant improvement in waist circumference, body fat percentage, VO2 max, resting heart rate and systolic blood pressure. Among the normal weight population, the long-term impact of HIIT was a significantly improved VO2 max, the researchers noted.

Apart from these health benefits, the workouts also help achieve body image goals to a large extent. The golden rule for becoming lean and also shredding is to perform high repetitions of an exercise using lighter weights with little rest in between, says former Indian rugby captain-turned-fitness trainer Gautam Dagar. All three routines follow this principle in their workout programming. You might do a short session on skill or strength with heavy weights and low reps in a CrossFit session, but it is always followed by a WOD (workout of the day) with high reps, light or no weights and little rest in between multiple exercises. Hence, all three routines are excellent when it comes to toning and becoming lean, adds Dagar.

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People have also reported a huge positive psychological and emotional impact of these workouts. It helps them relax and even boosts their confidence. “I feel lighter, my legs look toned and my fitness levels have been great and even my doctor confirmed that last bit. Even though I haven’t seen any significant weight loss, I feel great,” says Mumbai-based casting director Tess Joseph, 43, who turned to HIIT workouts with the help of an app and YouTube when the lockdown started. 

The HIIT routine was so effective that she surprised herself when she managed to do the full 30 minutes of the workout within a few days of starting, which gave her a huge confidence boost. “There was an even greater sense of surprise when I was able to progress to a full hour of the workouts. The challenge-up is so great. Realising that your body can do stuff that you couldn’t or didn’t as a kid or young adult does wonders of self confidence. It is addictive stuff and the knowledge that I can keep achieving and improving even when the world had stopped was very reassuring,” she says.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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