Book Review: HIGH INTENSITY TRAINING (HIT): How to build muscles in minutes, by Dr Jürgen Giessing
Published in English in 2016, High Intensity Training (HIT): How to build muscles in minutes – Fast, Efficient and Healthy will give the reader a strong and solid understanding of the principles and science behind High Intensity Strength Training. It is written by Dr Jürgen Giessing, HIT expert, sports science professor and exercise researcher at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany.
Having read many books about High Intensity Training, I reached for my review copy of this book hoping it would be worth the time investment of the read, that there would be elements to it that would spark my mind as well as nodding in approval. I want to explore and expand on the concepts of the book that particularly captured my imagination as a HIT veteran, and to appraise it as an introduction for the uninitiated.
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Concept #1: We are not as fit as we used to be
The book begins by framing strength training within an evolutionary context. Prior to the major advancements of civilisation, “those who were fast, strong and enduring were the fittest and had the best chances of surviving”. This has of course changed dramatically over human history, especially in the last century culminating today where “hardly any physical activity is needed to be well-equipped for our modern world.” Unfortunately, it is not a necessity nowadays to be physically fit, we can survive our world in a state of relative physical dysfunction. This is of course problematic for our physiology especially over the medium- to long- term of a potential lifespan. What is lacking today is physical activity in general and intense muscular contractions specifically, suggests Giessing: potentially simple, powerful antidotes to the damage of sedentary living.
Concept #2: More is better
What does Dr Giessing mean by physical activity? Regular, ideally daily, moderate activity: think brisk walking and achieving 10,000 steps per day, this will apparently put us more in line with the typical activity levels of a European of a century ago. “More is better” is a concept that applies quite well to moderate physical activity, i.e. 10,000 steps is better than 7,000 is better than 5000 etc.
The “more is better” concept does not hold up when it comes to exercise targeted at stimulating hypertrophy where intensity of effort trumps volume. The book does a good job explaining how intensity is paramount, after which other variables such as volume and frequency can be adjusted to suit the demands of training to momentary muscular failure. As anyone already versed in HIT knows the primacy of intensity dictates relatively short workouts, think 10-25 minutes.
Whilst short workouts are a major selling point of HIT appreciated by many, they can also be a stumbling block, a barrier to entry for some potential trainees. Faced with this, the author addresses cultural resistance to brevity. I particularly enjoyed the example Giessing chooses to illustrate brevity resistance: Einstein’s doctoral thesis, which was initially described as brilliant, but too short at a mere 17 pages. Would a thesis three times the length bulked out with non-essential fluff have changed the value of the conclusions of Einstein’s thesis? No, just as adding two additional sets of an exercise will not improve on the results of one well performed set.
Concept #3: Why should we desire brevity or efficiency?
To answer this, the author calls upon a quote from classical economists Zimbardo and Boyd: “nothing will allow us to regain time misspent.” A brilliant point, if we can be in the gym for 1/3rd of the time and get the same results or better, we can spend our saved time doing other enriching things; achieving other goals, having fun, studying, resting whilst still reaping the benefits of muscular training. This is a point that has indeed been made in favour of HIT before, but one worth emphasising, and made well in this book.
Concept #4: What is the origin of excessive time spent in the gym?
There are likely multiple reasons for individuals typically spending unnecessary periods of time at the gym including, for example: not knowing what the required threshold stimulus is, or gifted individuals being drawn to spending more time in an environment where they excel. Giessing identifies another reason in the book, one which is a hangover from sports training. Practice for a sport is much like moderate physical activity in that we need to aim to do as much as possible without accumulating significant fatigue. This leads to multiple daily practice sessions for serious athletes looking to be competitive in their chosen sport, as more is (largely) better in this scenario. Many though have made the error of considering strength and hypertrophy training to be akin to sport practice, resulting in the performance of hour-long plus workouts daily, or even twice daily in extremis. Training for hypertrophy is not skill training in the way that training sporting movements and skills are! Those seeking hypertrophy stimulation need not be in the gym for long.
Concept #5: Stimulus-reaction and the ceiling effect
When strength training, Giessing suggests we instead take note of a couple of medical concepts: stimulus-reaction and the ceiling effect. Stimulus-reaction simply means that a specific action produces a desired outcome. The ceiling effect states that once the stimulus reaction has been triggered, then increasing the dose will not make the result happen even more, but only increase the likelihood of, or severity of side effects. For example, if 400mg of Ibuprofen eliminates headache symptoms, then 800mg is not going to eliminate the symptoms any better, only increase the side effect potential. If 1 set of pulldowns stimulates the physiological processes that leads to hypertrophy for the muscles involved, then 2 sets is not going to make that happen to any greater degree, only increase the potential for overuse injury. The take home message is if we get the stimulus-reaction part right we are already at the ceiling limit and there is nothing more required of us.
For those wondering what the critical stimulus-reaction point for exercise targeting the musculature is, here goes: reaching “muscular failure” within a time span of about 60-120 seconds is absolutely appropriate for triggering strength and muscle hypertrophy.
Lastly, what else does the book cover?
There is an informative chapter on the discovery of the HIT principles and the work of Arthur Jones. If you are new to HIT this chapter will deliver the essential Origins story concisely.
Another chapter details the lack of evidence for multi-set training, the preponderance of research supporting instead the efficacy of single set training. This chapter is chock full of research references to follow up on if you enjoy that sort of thing.
There is a fascinating chapter explaining the reason that HIT has not yet had its paradigm shift moment in the culture at large. The short answer: it can take a long time for insights that contradict accepted norms to be accepted, think Copernicus.
There is a look at some of the typical misinformation that surrounds HIT, answers and counterpoints are made to; “Isn’t it dangerous?”, “It is only for beginners.”, “You need to use special equipment to make HIT work.”, and “We should avoid MMF when exercising.” Very useful for someone who has been exposed to exercise misinformation that populates some of the great www.
In Chapter 8: The Essence of High Intensity Training, the rubber hits the road (pardon the pun) and the science and theory are put to very practical ends. Topics addressed include: how often to train, how many exercises to put into a routine, recommended advanced techniques, compound vs isolation exercises, and when to use full body and when to use split routines. There is also a good message about genetic differences between individuals and a reminder to focus on yourself.
Chapter 9 follows on with a healthy number of well written full body and split routines. One proviso here is you will need to look the exercises up elsewhere as correct set up for an exercise and specific information on how to perform each exercise is not provided.
This book is a fantastic addition to the HIT cannon, and one that can serve as a useful refresher to the seasoned pro (whilst probably introducing a few new ideas too), and it is also an excellent introduction for somebody completely new to High Intensity Training setting the reader off on the right foot with regards to exercise.
A snapshot of the prize draw
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