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It’s no secret that cardio is more boring than algebra class. Unfortunately, it’s an integral part of the get-ripped equation. The good news is that there’s a formula designed to cut cardio time by a significant amount while boosting your body’s ability to torch fat. But in order to gain entry to this fat-incinerating state, you’ll have to ditch the old-school, slow-and-steady mentality and study up on high-intensity interval training.

Of course, as with any cardio program, HIIT only works when it’s paired with the right diet and training program. After a few sweat-drenched workouts and a payoff well worth the grueling task, you’ll be asking yourself, Why the hell haven’t I been using HIIT all along? Good question. What follows is a breakdown on HIIT and cardio in general – including machines to use and to avoid – with information from FLEX Senior Science Editor Jim Stoppani, PhD, and superstar trainer/nutritionist Hany Rambod, to help you get ripped and ready.

HIIT DEFINED

Although the exact definition varies depending on whom you ask, HIIT mixes periods of high-intensity training with low-intensity training or, at times, inactivity. For example, instead of walking on a treadmill for 40 minutes at a consistent rate — say 60%-70% of your maximum heart rate — you integrate periods of high intensity, when you run at 90% MHR, followed by intervals of low-intensity, slower-paced cardio. To find your MHR, subtract your age from 220.

WHY HIIT IT

In a 2008 study, data showed that subjects following a 20-minute HIIT program lost nearly six times more bodyfat than those who followed a 40-minute cardio program performed with constant intensity of 60% of their maximum heart rate. 

“Your metabolic rate remains higher for longer periods of time after HIIT,” Stoppani says. “Greater calorie burn, or EPOC [excess postexercise oxygen consumption], occurs postworkout, so while you’re at home sitting on the couch, your body is still burning fat.”

A 2001 study from East Tennessee State University (Johnson City) showed that those who implemented HIIT over an eight-week period lost 2% bodyfat compared to no bodyfat lost for those who trained without using HIIT. A separate study presented at the 2007 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine by Florida State University (Tallahassee) confirmed that subjects who performed HIIT burned roughly 10% more calories in the 24 hours following the workout compared to those who performed a steady-state exercise, despite the fact that the total calories burned were the same for each at the end of the workout.

“If you’ve been doing cardio consistently and are aiming to break fat-loss plateaus, this is the way to do it,” Rambod concludes. “HIIT is a good way to attack some deep-seated fat.”

The numbers don’t lie. HIIT flips the postworkout switch and enhances the metabolic machinery in muscle cells that promote fat burning and restrict fat production. Both Rambod and Stoppani agree that 30- to 40-minute sessions are all the HIIT you need.

WHEN HIIT’S NOT IT

The only time, perhaps, that you shouldn’t utilize HIIT is if you are nursing an injury. Exerting more energy and adding more stress to an ailment during high-intensity periods could exacerbate the damage and affect your training. Put it this way: if your ankle’s throbbing, don’t hop on a treadmill and gear up for a HIIT session. Instead, find an alternative — such as a recumbent bike — and apply the HIIT principles there.

SHOULD I DITCH HIIT PRECONTEST?

It’s a legit concern. Would HIIT impede your chances at winning a show? The answer is no, but there are exceptions. For example, when you’re dieting down, it’s important to be mindful of the amount of energy you can exert.

“Always know where you are in terms of your diet,” Rambod warns. “I’ve seen people pass out. They’re going at it and — boom! — they hit the floor. That’s a good way to create an injury or prolong a current one.”

Aside from exhaustion, HIIT can fulfill your cardio needs until it’s time to hit the stage. “Depending on your goals, you can utilize this method up to six days per week,” Stoppani says. “Start with a minimum of three, and — depending on how badly you’re looking to burn fat — boost the frequency and time.”

HIIT HEADBUTTS

Not every aspect of HIIT was harmonious for Rambod and Stoppani. Sure, they both agreed on its usefulness, but preference also crept into the equation.

BEST TIME TO HIIT?

RAMBOD: “Always do cardio first thing in the morning, because you have low, fasting blood sugar, so you’ll be more likely to burn higher amounts of fat.”

STOPPANI: “The best time to do cardio is after you train, whether that’s in the morning or evening. Research shows that after you hit the weights, you burn more bodyfat. Of course, the main thing is to make sure it fits somewhere — anywhere — into your schedule.”

WHAT ARE THE INTERVAL RATIOS?

RAMBOD: “Go from 30 seconds to 2 minutes max, or 60%-70% of your MHR, and then go to 80%-90% MHR during high-intensity portions. I don’t allow any of my clients to do more than that. Or, 3-5 minutes at a lower rate and 30 seconds to 1 or 2 minutes at a higher rate.”

STOPPANI: “If you’re just starting, go with 15 minutes and slowly increase the duration. Use a 2:1 ratio. For example, a beginner would go with 30 seconds high intensity to 15 seconds low intensity for 15 minutes. Increase your high-intensity duration from there, but work up to a full minute, and then rest for 30 seconds.”

WILL I BURN AWAY MUSCLE?

RAMBOD: “You might, if you don’t watch it. Exerting too much force for too long can lead to overtraining and muscle breakdown. So don’t overdo it.”

STOPPANI: “HIIT can actually help you gain muscle. The shorter, more intense bouts can stimulate muscle growth, while longer cardio at a steady pace is more likely a culprit for burning muscle. A recent study from the University of Oklahoma (Norman) found that subjects performing 15 minutes of HIIT three times per week for three weeks — while supplementing with beta-alanine — gained almost three pounds of lean muscle without picking up a weight!”

 

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 CARDIO MACHINE BREAKDOWN 

cardio-bike-recumbent

RECUMBENT BIKE

  • FAT BURNING ★★
    • “You’re not going to be dripping sweat unless you really ratchet up the resistance. This is certainly not the best technique for fat loss.”
  • REHABILITATION ★★★★★
    • “Great for rehabilitation — especially if you’re coming back from a knee injury — because it’s low impact. It keeps the blood flowing to aid in recovery from injuries. A great starting point and a stepping stone to getting back on the fat-burning track.”
  • DIFFICULTY ★
    • “It’s very comfortable, but it won’t do much in terms of burning fat. Real easy to read and carry on a conversation when you’re doing this.”

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STEPMILL

  • FAT BURNING ★★★★★
    • “The Grand Pooh-Bah of cardio, this one is a ball buster. This is the revolving stairs, which is not to be confused with the stepper. Expect a puddle of sweat underneath you after you’re through. It’s a forced step that activates a lot of different muscles — quads, hamstrings, glutes and hips. The maximum fat-burning cardio machine available.”
  • REHABILITATION ★
    • “Not good. I do not recommend using this machine for rehabilitation purposes.”
  • DIFFICULTY ★★★★★
    • “The most difficult machine. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these in your gym, use it — but be ready to work hard.”

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ELLIPTICAL

  • FAT BURNING ★★★★½
    • “You’re also using your upper body, and the more muscles you recruit, the more bodyfat you’re going to burn. Without using your arms, it drops down to four stars. If you have a choice, always take the machine with the handles. You’ll burn more fat, and it’s the only cardio that involves your upper body.”
  • REHABILITATION ★★
    • “This machine utilizes the most muscle groups, so if you have an injury anywhere, you’re probably going to feel it when using this. For rehabilitation purposes, it could exacerbate preexisting conditions.”
  • DIFFICULTY ★★★★
    • “The fact that you’re incorporating both your legs and your arms makes this one of the more difficult machines to use.”

cardio-bike

STATIONARY BIKE

  • FAT BURNING ★★★
    • “It will get you burning more calories, and recruit more quad and hamstring muscle fibers than the recumbent. Going with higher intensity will give you a good pump in the quads.”
  • REHABILITATION ★★★★
    • “Another non-weight-bearing machine, so it’s low impact and easier on your joints. Since the recumbent bike puts more pressure on your spine, this can be useful for people with back problems.”
  • DIFFICULTY ★★★
    • “Comfort dramatically decreases the longer you’re on the bike.”

cardio-run-treadmill

TREADMILL

  • FAT BURNING ★★★½
    • “A very versatile unit, great for any athlete from beginner to pro — the most versatility of any cardio machine. You can target bodyparts, such as your glutes and hamstrings, by increasing the elevation and speed.”
  • REHABILITATION ★★★★
    • “You’re not likely to fall off of this —unless you can’t walk! It’s very low impact and there are several different safety mechanisms.”
  • DIFFICULTY ★★★½
    • “It’s comfortable and easy to manipulate the level of difficulty and intensity. If you pick one machine for a home gym, this is the one to have. It’s the best of all worlds.”

STEPPER

  • FAT BURNING ★★★ to ★★★★
    • “A middle-of-the-road machine. The range for fat burning depends on the tension and the length of your steps.”
  • REHABILITATION ★★
    • “Again, it depends somewhat on the length of your steps — shorter is better if you’re recovering from injury. But as you get tired, it’s tougher to control, so there is a little risk involved.”
  • DIFFICULTY ★★★
    • “This one falls in the middle in terms of degree of difficulty.” 

 FLEX