Should You Be Doing High Intensity Exercise?

by Suzanne Hiscock

Whether you’re a novice when it comes to exercise or regularly workout, I’m sure you’ve noticed the latest trend of high intensity exercise. Whether you know it as CrossFit, P90X, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), Tabata or boot camps, what it comes down to is heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, ‘my clothes are drenched and I can’t move’ intense workouts.

Intense workouts burn calories.

But more isn’t always better when it comes to exercise. Should you be doing high intensity exercise? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

What is High Intensity Exercise?
Whether it’s 1 hour P90X workout or a 20 minute high intensity interval training, a high intensity exercise is anything that gets your heart rate up to 80 to 90% of your maximal heart rate and pushes you close to your limits. Calculate your Target Heart Rate.

If you’re weight training, you’ll find yourself lifting to failure or near-failure.

On an RPE scale of 1 to 10, it’s right up there at 8 or 9 with gusts up to 10.

You’re sweating. It’s not easy to carry on a conversation. You’re past the “this is uncomfortable” point and holding steady at the, “OMG, please make it stop” threshold.

Check out the RPE Scale on this page.

Types of High Intensity Exercise
You can make any type of exercise high intensity — yes, even yoga — but some of the more popular trends popping up are related to interval training and boot camp style workouts.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
With HIIT, you alternate between bouts of high and low intensity exercise. The ratios can vary depending on how intense you want to work out or how fit you are. After warming up, you could alternate 1 minute of light jogging with three minutes of walking.

The goal is to get the heart rate up and then bring it down.

You repeat the intervals any number of times depending on your fitness level.

Tabata is an extreme form of interval training. Based on research by Professor Izumi Tabata, it might sound a bit easy at first. You go all out for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat for a total of eight cycles. That’s only four minutes.

Easy, right? Wrong. That first cycle might not be so bad but by the end of a Tabata session, trust me, you’ll be gasping for breath.

Circuit Training/Boot Camp
Circuit training not only gets your heart going but strengthens muscle too. It’s a high intensity workout where you do 10 to 12 “stations” of exercise with a rest period at the end of a circuit. In a circuit, you might run in place for one minute, do squats to failure the next minute, do pushups the next minute and so on.

Why Do High Intensity Exercise?
If high intensity exercise is so intense, why do people do it? There’s the time factor: High intensity means you’ll burn more calories in shorter period of time. You’ll also burn extra calories because the high intensity of the workout will give you a bigger post-exercise calorie burn. Add in improved heart and lung capacity and you have a recipe for a more fit body.

What Are the Dangers of High Intensity Exercise?
But there’s a downside to all that intensity. When you work out at a high intensity, you run the risk of injury — especially if you compromise proper form for intensity. Pounding away while running to get your heart rate up is an injury waiting to happen.

Your body also needs to progress from less intense exercise to more extreme exercise. If you don’t exercise at all, you wouldn’t run a marathon tomorrow, right? You’d start with walking and work your way towards running a full marathon.

Same thing with high intensity exercise. Don’t just jump in unless you’re already in good shape. You can still do intervals but ease up on either the intensity and the overall duration or add in lots of rest/low intensity intervals between the high intensity bouts.

Listen to your body while doing any type of high intensity exercise. Pushing yourself outside of the comfort zone is good. Pushing yourself into another time zone? Not so good.

You also run the risk of overtraining with high intensity exercise. Give yourself plenty of time for rest and recovery.

Guidelines for High Intensity Exercise
When you’re ready to add a high intensity workout to your overall exercise routine, here are some guidelines you should follow.

  • Always warm up and cool down.
  • Start with one high intensity workout a week. If you want to add more, work your way up to not more than 3 times a week.
  • Give yourself adequate time for recovery between high intensity workouts.
  • Don’t sacrifice proper form for intensity. If you’re losing form, you’re going too far.
  • Make sure you’re well hydrated before, during and after the workout.
  • Push to the limit but then back off. You don’t want to be at “10” all the time.
  • Make sure your rest interval is really a rest interval. The whole point is recovery.

Do you do any high intensity exercise? Have you ever been tempted to add it to your routine or is it just too intense for you?

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About the Author

Suzanne Hiscock is a PN L2 Certified Master Coach, ACE-certified Health Coach, as well as an ACE-certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist. For over 20 years, she's been helping people lose weight and get fit through her website,

And she’s really TRULY SORRY ABOUT THAT. You see, she didn’t realize she was contributing to diet culture; she just wanted to help people feel better. But losing weight isn’t the way to do it. She’s on a mission to change all that with an anti-diet approach. So, pardon the dust on the floor as the website gets revamped.