Interval Training Guidelines

In the last two weeks I’ve started working on the upcoming “51 Interval Training Workouts” manual (for a July 2012 release), and it’s been a lot of fun to review past fat burning workouts that didn’t make the original manual.

Intervals are a research-proven KEY to your fat loss program and health. Researchers are even starting to use intervals with patients recovering from heart disease! So you know that interval training is just going to get more popular.

But a lot of folks worry that intervals can get boring, if you do the same ones over and over again. And that’s true. Heck, Alwyn Cosgrove told me that his clients had a low stick rate with interval programs until he introduced metabolic conditioning classes at his gym.

So here’s the deal…If you don’t have variety in your program, you are more than likely to end up at a fat loss plateau soon rather than later. Variety is one of the keys to keeping that fat loss coming.

Not only should you have variety within your training week (i.e. alternate between two different interval training workouts, rather than just doing the same interval workout each time), but you should also change these workouts every 4 weeks.

Just like your resistance training, you need to change your interval training program every 4 weeks. To modify your interval training workouts, you can…

– switch exercise methods (and even use bodyweight exercises for intervals)
– increase or decrease the length of the interval (while decreasing or increasing the intensity, respectively)
– increase or decrease the number of intervals per workout
– increase or decrease the rest time between intervals

First, let’s take a look at the interval methods. Here is my list of preferred ways to do your intervals, ranked in order from best to worst, based on my experiences…

1. Sprinting outdoors (and hills might be the absolute best)
2. Strongman movements (Farmer’s walks, tire flips, car pushing)
3. Bodyweight interval circuits
4. Treadmill running
5. Stationary cycle (upright preferred)
6. Stairclimber
7. Rower
8. Swimming (only works for competent swimmers)
9. Elliptical & Crosstrainer machines

Okay, so how long should you do intervals?

First, there is NO “best” interval training program – no best “sets and reps” for fat loss.

But that is good because it allows us to use variety in our approach. (So perhaps the best interval training method is simply the one that changes every 4 weeks.)

Interval recommendations have ranged from 15 seconds (from Muscle Media waaaay back in the late 90’s), to 5 minutes (these are known as aerobic intervals). So let’s take a look at each interval recommendation and all those in between.

8 seconds on, 12 seconds off
This is the duration used by the Australian researchers in the now famous “intervals vs. cardio” study from 2007. The results found that intervals helped subjects lose belly fat, but cardio didn’t. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to replicate 8 seconds on, 12 seconds off using cardio equipment in your gym.

15 seconds
The great thing about 15 second intervals is that you’ll be able to work at a very high rate (almost near your maximum power output), as long as you get adequate recovery between work intervals. The downside is that it is very difficult to do 15 second intervals on machines, because it takes a long time to “build up” and “bring
down” the machine settings to the correct speed.

If you decide to use these short, high-intensity intervals, you should do so only if you already have an above average level of fitness. Your rest interval should be at least 15 seconds long, and can be as long as 60 seconds. The longer you rest, the harder you will be able to exercise in each interval.

20 seconds on, 10 seconds off
This method is known as the Tabata protocol, after the Japanese scientist that published a study on this routine. It is very demanding (obviously), and while some trainers have suggested this is the best method for interval training, there is NO proof that you will get better fat loss results.

Clearly, the pro’s with this method (as well as the 15 second intervals) is that you’ll get your workout done faster (provided you do the same number of intervals as any other workout). Again, it would be very difficult to perform this type of interval training on a machine, due to the time lag as you increase or decrease the settings. And finally, these too should only be performed by above average fitness levels.

30 seconds
The Turbulence Training workouts tend to use a lot of 30 second intervals. Beginners will rest up to 90 seconds between intervals, while advanced fitness levels will rest 30-60 seconds. The longer (relative) rest allows you to work harder in each successive interval (i.e. you’ll almost be able to match your performance in the first interval with each following interval). Short rest intervals (as in the Tabata protocol) will lead to a dramatic drop-off in performance with each interval. You can easily do the
3-second intervals on any machine.

I started using these with athletes back in the 90’s, and that is when I first realized they worked AWESOME for fat loss. Sure they don’t sound as exotic as Tabatas, but they work!

45 seconds
These intervals are proven for fat loss, in addition to being effective for many team sports (such as hockey, soccer, basketball, and rugby). I have used 45 second intervals extensively in both areas of training. Not only will these tax your muscles, they will also tax your will to complete each interval (if done at the right intensity). Use 45-90 seconds of recovery between intervals. Do 3-6 intervals per workout. Your fitness and fat loss will skyrocket.

60 second intervals
Similar to the 45 second intervals in benefits and toughness. Use 60-120 seconds of recovery between each.

120 second intervals
These are now officially aerobic intervals, and can be used for both fat loss and improving aerobic capacity for sports and running. A great way to achieve two fitness goals at once. Exercise for 2 minutes and then recover for 2 minutes. Repeat 6 times. These workouts take longer (obviously), but can have a role in changing your body and improving your performance.

3, 4, or 5 minute aerobic intervals
These have been used in a lot of strength-endurance studies, and also in a lot of soccer-training protocols. Same strategy as with the two minute intervals. This really
increases your workout time, so these are only used with serious endurance athletes.

Beginner vs. Advanced
If you are thinking that these intervals all sound “too intense” for you, please don’t worry. Interval training is all relative. In fact, a recent study found that coronary-heart disease patients found interval training EASIER than cardio! You don’t have to sprint for your life in each type of interval.

Instead, just work at a slightly harder than normal pace. By the end of the interval, you should be getting tired, but you shouldn’t be gasping for air. Start conservatively and you will get the hang of it.

For example, if you regularly use level 5 on the stationary bike for 30 minutes continuously, you might try doing a 1 minute interval at level 7. Try that for an interval workout and let me know how it goes.

My favorite intervals for fat loss are between 30-60 seconds. These have been the staple intervals in my Turbulence Training workouts since the first workout was designed back in 2001.

But again, you will get your best fat loss results if you vary your interval training workouts – just like you must vary your strength training workouts.

(Get the 31 Intervals Workouts, 51 Intervals Workouts, and the Tough Mudder Adventure Race Training program here as part of the TT Platinum Membership Deal – on sale this week only.)

Intervals are your secret to success,

Craig Ballantyne, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer