HIT: Acronym Acrimony
By Joe Anderson
High-Intensity Training (HIT) is an inadequate moniker for the concept of exercise and needs to be decommissioned. Additionally, the HIT ‘community’ has all but stalled toward the advancement of exercise and dissociation seems prudent. I’ll admit I’m probably not the one who should be writing this. Further, it is unfortunate, albeit obvious, that such lines must be drawn.
However, if the goal is to advance exercise, then I submit that those advancing it must be willing to make the necessary distinctions in order to sufficiently distinguish exercise from ALL other activities (including and especially those which are similar and related). I believe the RenEx associates have done this well, the lingering HIT association notwithstanding. It is time to part ways.
This may seem disrespectful to those who have forged the path that we continue to travail, but I assure you it is not. We honor their contributions by advancing beyond them. In my opinion, it is disrespectful to simply enjoy the fruit of their labor, content with “if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for me.”
This reminds me of a poem entitled The Bridge Builder by Will Allen Dromgoole. An old man decides to build a bridge across a formidable chasm he proved crossable. He took the time to build the bridge so that those following after him, possibly less capable than he, could similarly cross it.
You can read the entirety of this piece here.
While I’m sure some will disagree with the nature of this old man’s intention, the point remains: a bridge was built. Some may approach the bridge and simply stand in awe of it. Others may cross the bridge just to try it out, with no desire to travel beyond. Still others may decide to find alternative ways to cross the same chasm or improve upon the design of the bridge. Yet others, upon crossing the bridge built for them, travel onward, charting new territory.
I believe the associates of RenEx are the latter. It is time to move forward.
High-Intensity Training (HIT)
There is not a clear description of HIT, at least not one that I’m aware of, which makes this critique challenging. To better understand HIT, it seems appropriate to start with its inception.
Dr. Ellington Darden was the first to describe a method of exercise as High-Intensity Training, coining the HIT acronym. HIT was in reference to Arthur Jones’ vision for proper exercise: a preference for a progressive application of “outright hard work” performed for the entire body, which necessitated a relatively low volume of exercises and frequency of performance (as compared to the bodybuilding ‘norm’ of the 1970s)…and rest.
- Outright hard work
- Full-body routines
- Relatively low volume of exercises
- Relatively low frequency of performance
That was perhaps the clearest explanation of HIT there has ever been. It seems that from this point forward, HIT has been used to describe dozens of different (and often conflicting) ‘methods’ of strength exercise. A genesis of unfortunate word choices spawned an ambiguous concept, which has been bastardized as needed to the liking of whoever chooses.
There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.
Does the phrase “high-intensity training” improve or impede understanding of what is attempting to be described?
Consider the term “intensity,” which means the degree, volume or magnitude of a thing.
Presumably, intensity is in reference to the concept of “outright hard work”; the degree, volume or magnitude of the effort involved. The descriptor “high” is then added to further convey the concept. “High-intensity” is suggested to mean a full effort; exhausting one’s ability to perform (i.e. training until muscular failure).
Given enough background and context, the use of this phrase to express to-failure training becomes more comprehensible. However, the phrase “high-intensity” already has an established meaning in exercise science literature. In reference to resistance training, intensity is a percentage of one repetition maximum (1RM). Typically, high intensity is expressed as >80% of 1RM. [Note: scientific literature often uses the phrase “resistance training.” It too is a worthless descriptor of the exercise activity, but I digress.]
In a recent paper, James Fisher et al. discussed intensity as “the percentage of momentary muscular effort being exerted” and suggested other authors follow suit. I applaud their effort, however in the meantime high-intensity is widely accepted as meaning a heavy load. Such ambiguity is unnecessary since we have the ability to simply refrain from using this term or choose a more precise one.
“Training” was another poorly chosen word by Dr. Darden. The term has a sports or performance connotation, commonly used as the preparation necessary to acquire the skill or proficiency for an event. This is understandable, in that HIT was born out of the bodybuilding culture, where athletes were preparing for competition.
However, with the conversation moving toward exercise as a means to improve health and function, this lingering connotation is undesirable. Exercise is not training; performance is not the point; competition is not the goal. (Tangentially, the term “Trainer” is not an appropriate way to identify a person who instructs exercise; neither is “Coach”. Circus elephants have trainers; sports teams have coaches; exercising subjects simply need an “Instructor”).
Further, the use of “training” is counterproductive toward developing the mindset and corresponding behavior appropriate for exercise. Not surprisingly, this training mentality is common in HIT and errant terminology is culpable.
High-Intensity Training does not describe exercise in a meaningful way. Rather the phrase is ambiguous and an impediment toward advancement. It is an obstruction in communicating, understanding and developing the appropriate mindset for exercise. It is time to remove it from our vocabulary.
An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains.
The problems with HIT extend beyond semantic inferences and are firmly rooted in the philosophical foundation. There are two specific trains of thought that seem to have derailed HIT:
- Train for muscular strength in order to build muscular size
- Exercise for increasing strength should be brief, infrequent, and intense
“The strength of muscle is in direct proportion to its size.” Arthur Jones took that statement and noted the following:
- To increase the strength of a muscle, you MUST increase its size.
- Increasing the size of a muscle WILL increase its strength.
- If all of the other factors are known and allowed for, then an accurate measurement of the size of a muscle will clearly and accurately indicate the strength of the muscle —and vice versa.
- There IS a DEFINITE relationship between muscular strength and muscular size.
Once the above points are clearly understood, the implications are obvious;
a) bodybuilders, who are primarily interested in muscular size (with or without actual muscular strength) MUST train for maximum-possible muscular strength in order to build maximum-possible muscular size
b) weightlifters, who are interested only in strength, MUST train for maximum-possible muscular size in order to build maximum-possible strength (Size or Strength, The Arthur Jones Collection)
This line of reasoning led him to the following conclusion regarding exercise performance:
“You should perform as many repetitions as momentarily possible without sacrificing good form. Do not stop at 10 repetitions merely because that is the upper limit of your guide figures, continue for as many repetitions as possible…12, 15, or whatever number you can perform in good form…if you can reach or exceed your guide figure, then that is a signal to increase the resistance; the fact that you can perform more repetitions than you anticipated is proof that your muscles have grown, so you are stronger, and need more resistance.” (The Relationship of Muscular Mass to Strength, ArthurJonesExercise.com)
In the absence of the ability to control enough variables and thereby standardize exercise performance, I’m not sure what, if anything, can be deduced from the event. “In good form” is insufficient for any meaningful comparison to be made.
I am sure that exercise performance improvement is not evidence of muscle mass increase. It is neither a sign of progression, nor is it a sign to progress. When “strength” is measured by exercise performance and the goal is simply to improve it…baddabing, badda boom- the assumed objective of exercise.
HIT seems to promote the belief that “doing more than last time” is both the stimulus for adaptation and the signal that adaptation occurred. This line of thought promotes the need to “get more reps” in order to “add more weight.”
It has always seemed odd to me that HIT prided itself on working harder, not longer; yet the intent of each exercise was an attempt to do more. The measure of “progress” unfortunately becomes a sign that a subject figured out how to work longer, not harder. This intent and the resulting behaviors are exactly opposite those of proper exercise, yet they are rampant within HIT.
This is not to say that progressive loading is problematic or to be avoided. Rather, progressive loading needs to be distinguished from progression. Whereas progressive loading is a decision, progression is an adaptation; it is a consequence of a stimulus. The decision to progress loads in order to increase exercise demands should not be done haphazardly, nor is it the only means to increasing exercise demands.
Brief, Infrequent and Intense
Arthur Jones correctly observed the relationship between effort, volume and frequency of exercise; that these variables influence one another. For productive exercise, he viewed effort as paramount, which was a shift from the volume-dominated thinking of the times. If effort were great, the resulting volume and frequency would not be. HIT exercises were performed to failure (his view of 100% intensity), with much less volume and repeated much less often than the bodybuilding norm. “Brief, infrequent and intense” became the HIT mantra.
Somewhere along the line, “brief, infrequent and intense” ceased being an acknowledgement of the influence effort has on volume and frequency and became an aspiration unto itself. What was once a consequence was now a cause. The variables became ends unto themselves, as if the point were the brevity, the infrequency or intensity. A person can develop the ability to effectively exercise themselves in a brief, infrequent and intense application. However, you can’t simply decide to work out infrequently or decide to work out briefly, simply because you worked to “failure” on your sets. An oversimplification of the exercise variables basically degraded Arthur’s astute observation into a peculiar HIT logic:
High intensity = train to failure
Muscular failure = weight won’t move anymore
Hard work will be brief = only perform one set
Fully Recover = come back next week
Progressing = added a rep (or TUL) OR moved more weight
Not Progressing = genetic limitation
“Brief, infrequent and intense” is a description of productive exercise, not the prescription for it. Without any real means of discerning the influence and affect these variables have on a subject, I’m not even sure a relevant prescription is possible. Yet, with exercise performance improvement (lifting proficiency) as the judge and jury of progress, HIT seems to embark on a journey toward ever diminishing volume and frequency, trying to evade the overtraining boogeyman as “intensity” (load) rises.
This HIT Logic has led some on the quest for super-intensity, ultra-brief and extremely infrequent exercise. I find it humorous that attempts at “least amount necessary” have mostly produced “least effective possible.” Trying to force these variables into being only leads to the behaviors that prevent the activity from actually necessitating them!
There is no need to manufacture a brief, infrequent and intense scenario; proper exercise most certainly will become relatively intense, brief and infrequent as the exercising subject hones in the ability to inroad himself, as adaptation improves the level of output, as lifestyle influences recovery (nutrition, stress, sleep, etc.), and, most importantly, within the constraints of the paradigm one is exercising. And, if you find yourself in need of a tagline for exercise, I would suggest, “safe, effective and efficient.”
A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.
- Isaac Asimov
The missteps of HIT provided the quandary that has given rise to more fruitful inquiry. Exercise will only advance to the degree we are willing to relinquish these errors (despite any sentimental attachment) and discover where the current inquiry leads. It is time to put aside anything obstructing our objective, including HIT associations that prevent it from being taken seriously as a method of exercise.
Let’s move exercise forward without pandering to a Bodybuilding audience, without the baggage of the Paleo and Low Carb communities, without mentioning Ayn Rand.
The renaissance continues…