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Does Insanity Qualify As A Burst Training Workout?

I get quite a few questions from readers asking me about whether a particular workout routine qualifies as burst training.

One of the most frequent home workout DVD’s I’m asked about is the popular BeachBody Insanity program.

While this is certainly a very good program, Shaun T. makes you work hard and it’s no fluff, the Insanity workout however is NOT burst training.

In today’s post I’ll explain why along with providing some clarity on what exactly qualifies a workout to be considered burst training.

At the same time I’ll provide my two cents for what it’s worth on the individuals who tend to do better on Insanity and similar higher intensity cardio based programs, and those who don’t.

More after the jump…

Alright, for starters let’s dig into what exactly burst training is and what it isn’t. I recently put together a presentation for my coaches at Shaping Concepts where I provided my definition of burst training. This is how I defined it…

“A type of workout that incorporates short bursts of high intensity effort with compound movements to produce a metabolic disturbance within the body.”

Let’s break this down so you can see the key components. First of burst training is named such because it entails “short bursts of high intensity effort“. Think working really hard for 5-60 seconds with all-out effort.

Working really hard for sustained periods of time without rest is NOT burst training.

The physiological responses within the body are simply different. It’s not that sustained higher intensity cardiovascular activity is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not producing the same metabolic and hormonal responses as short bursts of all-out effort.

Think about it this way. If you were doing some activity that was really vigorous in nature, say like sprinting all-out or pressing something heavy over your head, how long do you think you’d be able to do it?

You could only sustain an all-out effort for so long obviously. Burst training is all about doing a vigorous activity for a short period of time, allowing a brief, albeit often incomplete recovery, and then repeating.

You’re not going for long periods without rest, neither are you waiting several minutes to rest between the next exercise or set like with traditional bodybuilding routines. Insanity, while very demanding in nature, is more of sustained higher intensity cardiovascular exercise.

Granted in all fairness, Insanity does provide some resistance work through bodyweight exercises like push-up’s and squats. This isn’t to say that you won’t see more muscle definition by doing the program, you will.

However, is it the same as resistance training with free weights, kettlebells, sandbags, etc? Certainly not, as there are more ways to provide an overload stimulus for lean muscle development when external resistance is used.

Once again, I don’t want to turn this into a full scale review of Insanity, but I want you to see the differences.

Ok, let’s look at that next key component in our definition of burst training…using “compound movements.” This simply refers to exercises or activities that are multi-joint in nature and work the larger muscle groups.

Think about the differences between a sprint or squat to overhead press compared to a seated dumbbell concentration curl for example (although you wouldn’t do that exercise in Insanity) .

Compound movements don’t isolate a particular muscle, but rather work several muscle groups in an integrated fashion.

The more you work the larger muscle groups with high intensity effort, the more you’ll produce the third key component of burst training….a “metabolic disturbance” within the body.

The short bursts of high intensity effort produce a metabolic disturbance in the body due to the following:

There’s an overload stimulus placed on the central nervous system thereby triggering the adrenal glands to secrete catecholamines such as adrenaline and nor-adrenaline in part of the natural “fight or flight” mechanism.

The key thing here is the stimulation of the central nervous system through vigorous activity is kept SHORT thereby reducing the likelihood of excessive cortisol production and a prolonged catabolic state. That’s why burst training workouts are typically 20-30 minutes in duration of actual high intensity work.

The idea is to provide vigorous effort in short windows of time, working the large muscle groups with high intensity, then shutting it down.

What are some of the best exercises to incorporate with burst training?

By following our definition of burst training, you’ll see that compound weight training movements like the following are ideal:

- squats (all variations)
- deadlifts (all variations)
- rowing and pulling (vertical and horizontal)
- pressing (vertical and horizontal)

Sure, there are countless others but these are my TOP 4 movement foundations. Try doing a squat with any form of external resistance for even 60 seconds and you’ll quickly see what a “metabolic disturbance” is all about!

You don’t have to do that obviously, but while you could jump around and do bodyweight movements for minutes on end like in Insanity, this wouldn’t be possible if you were working with high intensity under external resistance.

Likewise do an all-out sprint and see how far you could go. This isn’t to say that bodyweight exercises like squats, pull-up’s, push-up’s, and the like don’t fit into burst training, they most certainly do.

They’re compound movements that work large muscle groups and there’s no denying their effectiveness. The difference is with burst training you’re not trying to do sustained activity with minimal rest. We’ll change the overload stimulus by doing more repetitions, adding heavier external resistance, altering the stabilization, increasing volume, and using other variables.

Either way the movements are done in short windows of time with all-out effort, then you’d briefly recover and repeat.

The recovery component is often one of the most misunderstood variables with burst training. A lot of people think burst training consists solely of fast paced circuits with exercises done back-back with minimal to no rest.

Sure you may work with 5-8 exercises done circuit style this way sometimes, but not all the time. You’d want to switch up the overload stimulus on occasion.

I want you to remember, the element of intensity is important here. There are limits on intensity when the variable of time is factored in. When doing an overhead press for example with a decent amount of load, there’s simply only so long you could do this movement before breaking form or getting crushed by the weight.

While I like CrossFit in a lot of ways, this is one of my pet-peeves with coaches who don’t fully understand exercise science and elect to throw all their clients in the same workout. Deadlifts, power-cleans, and the like aren’t well suited for extremely high repetition sets under fatigue, especially with the average non-elite athlete trainee.

A little bit of rest isn’t a bad things folk. You don’t have to go so hard that you puke, pass out on the floor, or worse yet injure yourself. That’s not “hard core,” I’d call that stupid.

Dragging yourself out of the gym is one thing, being carried out is altogether different.

My point is there most certainly can and should be rest periods incorporated into high intensity burst training.

There are a lot of variables for work-rest ratios, and a lot of the determination of what ratios to use revolve around fitness level, exercise selection, and the design of the workout.

Typically more rest is incorporated between exercises when starting out with burst training. You’ll also incorporate more rest, even in the more advanced stages, when you’re doing heavier compound movements.

Let’s be real…you’re going to need a little bit of rest after doing a heavy set of barbell back squats. Rushing into the next exercise and stumbling through it with poor movement patterns, sloppy form, and half-assed effort isn’t doing you any favors.

Burst training can be a lot of things. It can be a fairly faced paced circuit with resistance and cardio exercises combined, it could be just a few compound weight training exercises, it could be as simple as swinging a kettlebell for 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off several times.

Lots of variations, but the common denominator is short bursts of high intensity effort followed by brief recovery periods.

In all fairness, I want to give credit where it’s due with the Insanity program. I think it’s a solid program. Beats the heck out of just jogging on a treadmill or watching the “tee-vee” on the elliptical.

It’s hard work and that’s why it produces change. It does what most people never get a whiff of in most health clubs, brings in the element of discomfort.

I know a lot of individuals who have progressed to combining Insanity and P-90X workouts to get the best of both worlds (cardio and resistance) and have seen very good results.

I want to remind you though, these are high intensity exercise programs that are NOT all that well suited for beginners and the de-conditioned. If you work at your own pace that’s one thing, but try and do too much just to keep up with the video and you could wind up injuring yourself.

Then there’s the whole issue of burning out or getting discouraged and quitting. The journey to changing your body composition isn’t a race ya’ll, it’s a process where you progress slowly and at your own pace.

If you want to do one of these programs I recommend getting with a good coach or certified fitness professional and building up some strength, core stability, and aerobic capacity first.

That brings me to my final point I want to cover in this post. I’ve kinda already covered that you don’t want to rush into ANY high intensity program, be it burst training, Insanity, P-90X, or whatever. Build up to it and train smart.

However, there are some generalities with which group of individuals tends to do best with higher intensity cardio based programs and those who don’t.

There are always exceptions to the rule and like I said, this is a really good program for getting in shape. But here’s the thing. My specialty, niche, or whatever you want to call it is helping middle age adults change their body composition.

This is the demographic I most frequently work with and where I spend my time with research and continuing education.

Here’s a point that everyone gets, but perhaps doesn’t fully understand the implications with exercise program design and nutrition planning.

“The human body isn’t the same at forty and beyond as it was during your twenty and thirties.”

Yeah, with age comes physiological change. You’ve got hormonal fluctuations, changes in protein synthesis, changes in metabolic rate, changes in insulin sensitivity, and the list goes on.

Quite simply the body has changed so your needs have changed.

Doing a ton of cardio and dieting may work well for a lot of folks in their twenties and thirties, but not so much when they get older. If there’s one key component to what middle age and older adults can benefit most from it’s resistance training.

Having a concern for muscle is paramount for anyone over the age of 40…

All strength training is beneficial. What makes burst training an optimal type of strength training for middle age adults? Because it helps to boost hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that naturally attenuate with age.

You don’t get this cardio and the effects are minimal with lower-intensity weight training using light weights with the intention of “toning and firming.”

Put down those cute vinyl colored 5 lb dumbbells and lift some weight ladies! I promise you that you won’t get big and bulky.

Lift weights 2-3 days per week, throw in some cardio 3-4 days a week, maybe a little yoga or stretching if you’d like some days, and follow a clean diet and you’ll see results.

The point is this…

A cardiovascular based program like Insanity is great for a lot of folks if they’re ready for it. Just don’t look to rely on it exclusively for a significant body composition change if you’re a pre or post menopausal woman.

It will be resistance training that will pay the biggest dividends here. Same thing goes for the seasoned guys out there, although they’ll tend to do better with programs like Insanity since they have an advantage with more testosterone helping to maintain lean muscle tissue.

Even still, they’re naturally losing testosterone and going through hormonal changes as well so resistance training will still be at the top of the hierarchy.

Is cardio still beneficial? You betcha. It’s just not as effective (by itself) compared to when you were younger.

At the end of the day it’s not about how much you sweat, how many calories you burn, or how much you’re out of breath.

Read that again and let it sink in.

Yes, hard work trumps everything and covers a lot of bases. The body changes due to an overload stimulus. No getting around that fact.

I just want you think about aligning your exercise hierarchy around your individual needs and not lumping yourself together with twenty and thirty somethings.

Yes, I know there’s going to be someone in their 40′s or 50′s reading this post who’s done Insanity and saw good results. There’s no need to leave me hate mail. I think it’s awesome that you worked your butt off and changed your body. Kudos to you and I tip my hat, seriously.

A good diet and hard work of any type will produce positive results for a lot of individuals. Then again I’ve been in the game long enough to see that not everyone is dealt the same fair hand.

For those dealing with more hormonal issues or other obstacles, they won’t find the “tons of cardio and cut calories” approach to be as effective.

From my experience, resistance training PLUS cardio, PLUS a clean diet, PLUS adequate rest, recovery, and stress management works best for middle age and older adults.

There’s your recipe. It’s the synergy of all the parts working together. Not one component being the magic bullet.

I hope you’ve found this post to be informative and I’ve given Insanity it’s due recognition while merely pointing out the differences compared to other forms of fitness training.

Feel free to leave your comments or questions. The dialogue is always welcome here.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. He specializes in helping people achieve a body transformation with burst training exercise and whole food nutrition. You can receive a FREE no-obligations trial of his Charleston personal fitness programs and start experiencing the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Burst Training.