Is HIIT good or bad for you? How to do HIIT without hurting yourself
A good exercise program will yield all the desirable benefits you’re looking for (increased muscle mass, increased stamina, increased cardiac health, improved bone density, improved metabolic health, etc.) while minimizing wear and tear through joints. I always keep this in mind when discussing exercise. To me, it’s simple, if it leads to the goal of improving overall health without the often significant trade-off of damaging joints, it’s worth it.
HIIT has various metabolic benefits, and studies show that it is effective in preventing disease and aiding in weight loss.
However, many HIIT programs include high impact exercises, which tend to be controversial in the health-sciences world.
Let’s consider the pros and cons of high impact exercises:
Pros of high-impact:
Improved bone density
Studies have shown that high-impact exercise can help improve bone density (but so can resistance training!).
Cons of high impact:
Large amounts of force through your joints, potentially creating microtraumas
High impact exercises can create forces through your joints that you may or may not be able to tolerate. Some people have the muscle mass and control to absorb the forces through their muscles and might not ever experience joint issues. Others will transfer the stress straight into bones and cartilage, creating micro-traumas and could eventually lead to a serious injury. Others are somewhere in the middle (like me) who can tolerate impact in small doses, but will pay for it later if they over-do it.
To make the conversation even more interesting, here’s an unpopular opinion: I don’t think high impact exercise is the root of all injuries.
I think a low-impact move that violates an individual’s biomechanics can be just as damaging as certain higher impact moves. For example, I would rather (most) people do ten small-range jump squats than ten curtsy lunges. You may tolerate both these exercises, but I always try to consider the potential microtrauma in your joints.
So what’s best practice for the average person?
My advice is this:
Incorporate mostly slow and controlled strength training exercises to build muscle mass. Strength has to come first, before high impact exercises, so you have the ability and control to tolerate a high-impact exercise. So if you’re new to exercise or jumping back in, avoid high-impact for at least a couple months to build a base-level strength.
Once you’ve built a base level of strength, lace in short HIIT workouts (maybe 2x/week) that incorporate mostly lower-impact exercises (exercises where one point of contact is on the ground at all times). If you can tolerate it, sprinkle in some higher impact exercises.
How to choose a high-impact exercise wisely?
1. More surface area when you land
A good rule of thumb (for the most part) is to think about landing with as much surface area as possible, like landing on two feet in a jump squat.
2. No need to touch the sky
To be safe, stay in a shallow range of motion, and no need to jump super high (unless you’re training for a sport, that’s a different conversation). Remember: the goal of a high impact exercise in HIIT is to achieve maximum exertion while minimizing the adverse effects (muscle strain, joint injury).
3. Use equipment!
One of my favorite ways to do HIIT is to use equipment. Slam balls, ropes, chairs, and gliders are all great ways to empty those glycogen stores while avoiding the wear-and-tear that higher impact moves tend to generate.