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“How To Guide” For Interval Training

When it comes to the best type of cardio for fat loss I’ve been on record time and again saying that absolutely nothing can come close to the fat burning benefits of high-intensity, short duration, interval training.

In this post I’m going to go into more detail on how to complete interval training correctly and help you avoid the biggest mistakes that people make when doing an interval workout.

Learning how to do intervals correctly can make all the difference between you rapidly shedding pounds of body fat or remaining frustrated from not seeing results at all.

A lot of people I consult with are confused over their real objective with doing cardio workouts for fat loss. Most people think it’s about seeing how many calories they can burn. The truth of the matter is the number of calories you burn DURING the workout is really not that important.

The real benefits of doing cardio workouts for fat loss.

“The real benefit of cardio-respiratory exercise for fat loss is to increase the efficiency of your heart and lungs to transport oxygen and nutrients (including fat) through your bloodstream and into muscle cells, while also increasing the hormonal responses within the body.”

If fat loss is your goal how many calories you burn during your workout ss NOT that important…

Did you see anything in my benefits definition about burning “calories?” No! The idea is to improve how your body transports oxygen and nutrients along with creating hormonal responses.

The better you are at this, the more efficient you’ll be at burning fat. That’s why cardio is best paired with resistance training to support lean muscle development.

You’ll create more energy demand by increasing lean muscle and improve the ability of your muscles to burn fat through your cardio-respiratory conditioning. It’s this one-two punch that produces the best results.

And nothing helps you create the optimal hormonal responses and improves your ability to bring in more oxygen better than high-intensity, short duration “burst” or interval training.

While it’s true that burning calories is part of the process, you should be more concerned with amount of calories you burn “post” workout.

When you do high-intensity intervals you’ll burn significantly more calories AFTER your workout and throughout the rest of the day.

Plus your metabolism will be stoked due to increases in growth hormone, adrenaline and other important fat buring hormones.

To get a better understanding of how to do interval training correctly let’s first look at some basics of how the human body functions.

When completing cardio-respiratory exercise your body will need to create energy with or without readily available oxygen. When oxygen consumption is able to meet demand you’ll produce energy in what’s called the aerobic energy system.

If oxygen uptake cannot meet momentary demands you’ll produce energy in the anaerobic and/or glycolitic energy system. If this wasn’t the case you wouldn’t be able to continue exercising once your heart and lungs were no longer able to keep up with the respiration process.

Your first objective BEFORE starting interval training is to build what’s called an “aerobic base.”

This is best accomplished by exercising at a moderate intensity of 55-75% of your estimated maximum heart rate. Start by simply walking, jogging or doing any low-moderate intensity aerobic exercise for 5 x week at 30 minutes each session.

As soon as your conditioning improves you can begin doing preliminary interval workouts by combining walks and runs. A good strategy is to walk two minutes, run one minute, then gradually look to build up your “run” time.

You can progress to walking for two minutes, running two minutes, three minutes and so forth. When you can do a 5:00 run at a good clip without too much trouble you’ll be ready for some high intensity intervals.

You DON’T have to be able to run to do interval workouts…

If you find running difficult you can do this same strategy on an elliptical, bike, rower, or by swimming or doing some other non-impact cardio-respiratory exercise. The idea is to improve your aerobic base by simply increasing the work capacity by gradually increasing intensity.

Train at your own pace but just keep trying to do more work in less time. By applying this strategy you’ll be ready to do full fledged interval training in no time.

If you’re just starting an exercise program you can work on building an aerobic base through this progression for the first few weeks then start with intervals after a few weeks. This is the strategy we use at Shaping Concepts for our Charleston personal training clients.

If you want to see if you’re really working at the high end (90-95%) of your estimated max heart rate range, you can calculate your “target heart rate zone” through the Karvonen method.

Here’s how you do it…

Estimating target heart rate training zones: The Karvonen Formula

Find your resting heart rate through a heart rate monitor or blood pressure machine first thing upon awakening in the morning.

  • Find your estimated maximum heart rate by taking 220 minus your age.
  • Find your heart rate reserve by subtracting your resting heart rate from your estimated maximum heart rate.
  • Find the lower limit of your target heart rate zone by multiplying your heart rate reserve by _______% and adding your resting heart rate.
  • Find the upper limit of your target heart rate zone by multiplying your heart rate reserve by _______% and adding your resting heart rate.

Example: A 40 year old individual with a resting heart rate of 70 beats per minute wants to figure out their estimated target heart rate training zones for “aerobic training” at 55-75% of their maximum heart rate.

Age: 40

Resting Heart Rate: 70 beats per minute (calculated manually or through a heart rate monitor/ blood pressure machine).

Estimated Maximum Heart Rate: 220-age (40) = 180 beats per minute

Heart Rate Reserve: 180 (estimated maximum heart rate) – 70 (resting heart rate) = 110 beats per minute

Lower End Target Heart Rate Zone (55%): multiply heart rate reserve (110) by (.55) and add resting heart rate (70) which equals 130 beats per minute

Upper End Target Heart Rate Zone (75%): multiply heart rate reserve (110) by (.75) and add resting heart rate (70) which equals 152 beats per minute.

Aerobic Target Heart Rate Zone: 130-152 beats per minute.

To find your high end target zones for interval training at 90-95% of your max heart rate simply interchange 55% with 90% and 75% with 95% and do the same math.

Don’t get hung up on the numbers…simply train hard!

Now once you get your numbers it’s important to understand this is not an exact science. You don’t have to be within your target zone every time. It’s just a way to give you an idea of where your heart rate should be at. You simply want to make sure you’re working at a high enough intensity to fully benefit from the interval bursts.

If you go over the heart rate range calculated by this formula that’s not a problem. For safety reasons just try and stay close to your zones.

Most of the time it’s working at too low of a heart rate that’s usually the culprit for the lack of effectiveness with interval workouts.

If you’re doing an interval but you’re only at 80% of your max heart rate, you won’t see the same benefits you would if you were pushing yourself at 90-95% of your max heart rate. The intervals or bursts need to really be working you.

Remember it’s all about going from low intensity to high intensity in short bursts. The high’s simply need to be high enough for the hormonal responses to kick in.

Benefits of using a heart rate monitor when doing interval training

You can use a heart rate monitor in the beginning to measure your intensity or simply go off perceived exertion. You won’t need anybody to tell you that you’re at 90-95% of your max heart rate once you get there.

When you’re working really hard to catch your breath and you feel like you simply can’t go any harder you’ll know everything is dialed in where it needs to be.

For best results with interval training you’ll want to look at doing approximately (8) short duration, high intensity bursts. The example below is for doing an interval workout on a treadmill. You’ll see that the intensity gradually increases but the interval time stays the same (ideal phase is around 30 seconds).

Everybody will be different on what speed and intensity they work at but you can see from the example below how to progress your intervals.

It’s not recommended to go “all out” on the first interval due to risk of injury (pulled muscles, etc). Allow your body to build up the intensity then go as hard as you can once you’re fully warmed up.

Example Interval Workout (Treadmill)

Warm-Up   5:00   3.0 mph (walk)

Interval #1  :30   5.0 mph  0.0 incline

Recovery  1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #2  :30   6.0 mph  0.0 incline

Recovery  1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #3  :30   7.0 mph  0.0 incline

Recovery  1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #4  :30   8.0 mph   2.0 incline

Recovery   1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #5   :30   9.0 mph  3.0 incline

Recovery  1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #6  :30   9.0 mph  4.0 incline

Recovery  1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #7  :30   9.0 mph  5.0 incline

Recovery  1:30   3.0 mph (walk)  0.0 incline

Interval #8  :30   9.5 mph  5.0 incline

Cool Down  5:00   2.0-3.0 mph  0.0 incline

Total Time: 26 minutes

* This workout is for EXAMPLE ONLY. The speed and incline required to meet your target heart rate zone will vary from individual to individual.

Adjust accordingly to perceived exertion or for best results use a heart rate monitor.

The amount of recovery time can be extended if needed. It’s important that you bring yourself back to the aerobic state before launching into your next interval.

I would rather you gave yourself more time for recovery and you gave it everything you had during your interval portion. If you’re not fully recovering you’ll stay in an “anaerobic state” and not see the same benefits you would from “spiking” by going from low to high intensities.

For example: if my target heart rate zone for my interval is 160-170 beats per minute, I would want to make sure I was getting down to 135 beat per minute or less during my recovery periods.

If you need more time for recovery, take it. Then simply go hard and give it everything you have during each interval.

Also as a coaching tip, try to work up close to your maximum speed before raising the incline when on the treadmill.

Once you get to the upper levels of how fast you can go then start “climbing the mountain” by using your incline. This combination will spike your heart rate in a hurry and produce a solid interval every time.

Interval training options

It’s good to have some variety with your workouts. Choosing activities that you’ll enjoy are essential to achieving consistency.

Remember interval workouts can be any activity that allows you work at short burst of high intensity followed by an active recovery. Use your imagination as there is no limit on the number or different combinations of routines you can complete. Listed below are a few examples.

  • Treadmill Sprint 8 interval training
  • Outdoor Wind Sprints
  • Plyometric Drills
  • Bodyweight Exercises (mountain climbers, burpees, etc)
  • Elliptical Machine
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • Cycling

Interval training tips

  1. Avoid doing intervals on an empty stomach. Your body needs a small amount of glycogen to meet energy demands. Consume a piece of fruit, protein shake, or something light 45-60 minutes prior to exercising.
  2. Wear a heart rate monitor in the beginnning to measure your intensity.  If your activity permits it try to assess your heart rate when you start doing intervals to ensure your working in the upper limits of your estimated max heart rate zone.
  3. Always perform a warm-up and cool-down period. A good rule of thumb is to warm up and cool down for (3:00-5:00 minutes) during each workout.
  4. Attempt to exercise outside whenever possible. This is beneficial for getting good oxygen plus there’s just something about being outside that clears your mind.
  5. Practice deep breathing techniques by inhaling through your nose and exhaling out of your mouth during recovery periods. This helps to increase oxygen absorption during respiration. Also make sure to keep your head up and don’t bend over at the waist when trying to catch your breath. You can’t get oxygen as well when you’re hunched over.
  6. Never stop a high intensity interval workout “cold” without allowing for a gradual cool down. This could cause blood to pool in your lower body and lead to a possible cardiac failure. This is no joke and is the cause of most heart failures in health clubs.
  7. Choose quality footwear and replace every 3-6 months (or at the first signs of tread wear) to minimize the risks of injury to the ankles and knees from load bearing pressure during runs.

Common mistakes with interval training

  • Not reaching a high enough intensity (90-95% estimated max heart rate) during the interval periods.
  • Not allowing enough time for adequate recovery. For best results you want to recover back into the aerobic energy system before starting your next interval. If 1:30 is not enough recovery time to allow your heart rate to drop into the target “aerobic” zone simply continue your recovery period.
  • Working too long in each interval phase. The ideal interval period should be around 30 seconds. It’s difficult to maintain the necessary high intensity for much longer than that.  The whole principal of interval training is built around “short” bursts of high intensity effort.
  • Doing too many or not enough interval periods. Research has conclusively shown that the ideal number of intervals is 8-10. There is a point of diminishing returns when doing these bursts.
  • Not allowing adequate warm up time before starting the intervals. If you try to go “all-out” during the beginning of your workout, your nueromuscular system will not be ready to handle the workload. This decreases results while also increasing the risk of injury. Allow yourself to build up to maximum effort with any activity.

I hope that this article gave you a better understanding of how to do interval training correctly. When used properly in conjunction with high-intensity, short duration resistance training it will produce the powerful fat loss combination on the planet.

If you have any questions please leave a comment to this post and I’ll be happy to help out in any way I can.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, author and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios. You can receive a free no-obligations trail of his personal training programs and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Fitness Training.

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