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The Complete Beginner’s Guide to High Intensity Resistance Training (HIT): What it is, how it compares to other forms of exercise and the results you can expect to get (part 1)

For a while I have wanted to put out a free in-depth resource to act as a thorough introduction to the topic of High Intensity Resistance Training (HIT) for those of you who are just discovering it, and as a refresher for those who need to get back to the basics of what simply works. This is the article I wish that I had had access to when I first began resistance training in earnest back in 1996. It will be a simplified summation of the 21 years of experience I have; training myself, training with other experts in the field and through my work teaching others as a personal trainer specialising in HIT. This post is the first in a series that will cumulatively be the ultimate guide to HIT.

The posts won’t cover every drop of minutia that there is to know about the subject, our HIT courses already serve that purpose. It will however be comprehensive in giving you the information that you need to start training HIT today with solid foundations and with the most result producing approach that I know of.

I am giving this information away for free because I want many more people like you to learn about and understand HIT and to gain the multitude of benefits that training in this style presents. In time some of you may develop a passion for HIT that goes beyond training your own body, and you may want to get involved in spreading the message of HIT far and wide, perhaps ultimately becoming a personal trainer helping others to achieve their own best body through HIT.

For now, let’s focus on the task at hand, in this first post of the series I want to introduce you to HIT so that you can get a clear understanding of what it is and what it can do for you.

What is HIT?

HIT stands for High Intensity Training which to be clear is high intensity resistance training. It is the most effective and efficient form of exercise to a) gain muscle, b) reduce body fat/ “tone up” and c) attain a myriad of other health benefits. By the way it is also evidence based, observing proven scientific principles.

Each HIT workout usually consists of somewhere between 5-10 exercises, all of which are completed within a total time of 12-25 minutes. Every selected exercise, whether weight-stack machine-, free weight- or bodyweight-based, will be biomechanically appropriate, tracking muscle and joint function. There will be no wasted effort, all your energy will go into proven productive muscle building movements. Proper performance of the exercises adheres to guidelines that will concurrently boost the stimulus and the safety of the exercises. There are a multitude of approaches/interpretations to strength training or resistance training, many of which may be effective, however HIT is unique in its focus on providing the best results possible efficiently and safely.

HIT is the most efficient and effective form of exercise, and it’s the safest!


The time commitment (Time, Safety, Efficacy)

When you follow the HIT method outlined in this series of posts, you will not be spending unproductive hours in the gym each week. In fact, if you have already been training regularly, you will likely find you have much more time for other pursuits too when you make the switch to HIT. At the absolute most, you will exercise for less than 30 minutes, 3 times a week. However, once you have passed the initial break-in period of the first 2-3 weeks, it is much more likely you’ll be exercising only twice a week and sometimes just once, still for a maximum of only 30 minutes per workout.

In many ways, your time spent doing your HIT workouts will be like making a sound financial investment – in this case though you will need to invest some of your finite time and energy into your workout to provide the stimulus for the muscular return you will get. A return that will be compounding in your physiologic bank account after every workout you perform… every week, month and year that passes. This investment relates to both your long-term wellness and health resilience as well as to your muscular strength, size and physical appearance.


HIT and other types of exercise

Is HIT Bodybuilding?

The short answer is both yes and… not necessarily. HIT certainly is bodybuilding if by the term “bodybuilding” you mean exercise to optimise hypertrophy (muscle gain). However, if by bodybuilding you mean posing on stage in a pair of trunks or a bikini… well that is entirely up to you!

Exercise is only a part of the package required to be a successful “strutting-on-stage-bodybuilder”, where everything from how you pose through to application of fake tan, impacts on success. The issue of performance enhancing drugs also inevitably rears its head when we mention bodybuilding. Professional and even many amateur bodybuilders use performance-enhancing drugs to help them achieve the acquisition of supra-normal amounts of muscle tissue.

It is important to understand that genetics favorable to muscle tissue growth, combined with drugs produce the exaggerated physiques associated with professional bodybuilding. Without the right genetics and the right drugs, no form of exercise is going to turn Mr. Average into Mr. Olympia. On the other hand, if you are an aspiring bodybuilder you can of course use the HIT principles in these blog posts to assist in achieving an award-winning physique. In the purest sense of the term HIT is indeed body-building as you will be building your own most muscular body.

Is HIT strength training?

Yes, HIT is a very effective form of strength training, as you progress you will be increasing your strength and the strength of your muscles. By working each exercise to the point of momentary muscular failure (MMF) you are stimulating both hypertrophy and strength gains simultaneously.

Is HIT similar to powerlifting or to Olympic weightlifting?

Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting are both sports where the primary goal is to lift as much weight as possible in given movements. In powerlifting the movements are the squat, bench press and deadlift and in Olympic weightlifting the movements are the snatch and the clean and jerk. The focus in these sports is on shifting the loaded bar from A to B by any means necessary. This is a very different goal than the HIT approach, where the primary objective is to safely fatigue muscle tissue with the purpose of stimulating hypertrophy. If we perform a squat in a HIT workout we do so very differently and with different intent to the powerlifter. Consider powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting as competitive and skilled sports which may have a side effect of stimulating hypertrophy, and consider HIT as science based exercise focused first and foremost on stimulating hypertrophy with the use of weight/resistance.

Is HIT as intense as “functional movement fitness”?

Functional movement fitness describes workouts that may include a combination of Olympic lifts, powerlifting, gymnastics, bodyweight exercise, battle ropes, circuit training and cardio. HIT performed well is more locally intense and yet less systemically draining than “functional movement fitness”. Let’s break that down: in HIT a muscle group or several muscle groups are specifically targeted with each chosen exercise and then exercised to momentary muscular failure, in as an efficient way as possible. In functional movement fitness, muscle tissue is typically not targeted with this degree of precision. This means that the stimulus tends to be dispersed somewhat more systemically across the body, and this is likely less efficient at stimulating hypertrophy.

Is HIT like Circuit training (also referred to as High Intensity Interval Training HIIT)?

HIT can be performed in a circuit manner. This is where any rest period between exercises in the HIT workout is kept to a minimum and you briskly move between exercises, providing quite the metabolic challenge. You don’t however have to perform your HIT workouts like this if you do not want to, the rush factor does not increase the hypertrophy stimulus, but can provide a fun challenge from time to time. There is also far more focus on correct exercise technique, the use of a controlled tempo and the safe attainment of momentary muscular failure (MMF) during the exercises in a HIT workout when compared with a typically performed circuit routine.

HIT vs Cardio HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)

Sometimes high intensity interval training gets called HIT too and this can cause confusion!

High intensity interval training is a form of cardiovascular (CV) exercise involving sprint intervals- traditionally that type of exercise was always known as High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. At some point one of the I’s got dropped though and it is now often referred to as HIT, too!

CV focused high intensity interval training (HIIT) is like the cousin of High Intensity Resistance Training (HIT), and is an effective form of applying traditional CV exercise, such as stationary cycling, for CV fitness benefits. Whilst sprint intervals are excellent at providing CV fitness they do lack when it comes to providing a balanced strengthening stimulus for the musculature of the whole body.

The same is not however true in reverse: although High Intensity (Resistance) Training uses workouts that consist of exercises that are traditionally considered strength training exercises, the effect of applying these exercises in a highly intense manner produces similar CV health benefits as the more traditional CV modalities (e.g. stationary cycling).

In many ways HIT (resistance training!) is the ultimate all-in-one workout protocol as it stimulates hypertrophy, strength increases and CV benefits together. When training to momentary muscular failure (as per HIT) the acute metabolic and molecular responses do not differ from traditional endurance training and myocardial function is maintained or even enhanced.

Here’s a mega-table comparing HIT with all these exercise modalities. Scroll right and left to see all of them. Do you have any more you’d like to see here? Suggest in the comments below.


Who is HIT for, who this is not for

HIT is for everyone, male or female, young or old… with some provisos.

If you love hanging out in the gym, chatting for 5 minutes at time between all your sets and exercises then HIT is unlikely to fulfil your social need to be in the gym for long periods. You will need to find other things to do with your spare time to meet that need when you switch to HIT!

HIT is focused on results and suits results-driven individuals. If you want to optimise your approach to gaining muscle and strength then HIT is for you, and you will simply seek other more fun places to be social instead of the gym.

If you are not prepared to significantly challenge your muscles, then HIT is not for you! To make HIT effective you will need to work hard during your workouts. However, research shows that to get all the benefits resistance training offers, you do indeed need to work hard. You may as well get the job done properly and HIT it if you are going to invest your time in resistance training at all!


Typical results

How your body responds to resistance training is largely predicated by your genes. Let’s look at what is possible for men and women who are beyond teenage muscle maturation and are now in their twenties or older and are ready to take HIT seriously.

  • If you are a male who has been born with fantastic genetics for muscle growth, you may gain in the region of 20-30lbs of muscle, drug-free.
  • Right at the other end of the spectrum, there are a small number of men who may find it a challenge to gain a few pounds of extra muscle tissue.
  • Most guys will lie somewhere in between these two extremes, finding they can gain 10-15 lbs of muscle tissue with focused HIT training… a significant amount.
  • Women will gain less muscle tissue on average than men.
  • Super hypertrophic responders may gain 12- 15lbs.
  • In the middle of the Bell curve, will be women who can gain around 5-8lbs of lean tissue.

Whether you are male or female, a hypertrophic high- or low- responder, most of your muscular gains will occur within the first year or two of serious HIT training. After which the goal will be to squeeze out any further possible hypertrophy in ever decreasing amounts and ultimately to maintain your newly acquired muscle tissue.

Note that your genes hold ultimate sway over all the other aspects of fitness too, such as; strength potential, leanness potential, endurance capability, flexibility and so on. Unfortunately, it can initially be a bitter pill to swallow if your genetics do not match up with your most desired goals/outcomes.

Remember that everyone will benefit from performing HIT, different individuals will benefit dramatically in certain outcomes and less apparently so in others. Set the clock for a year from today and challenge yourself to see what your genes hold with HIT, and determine to be the best physical manifestation of you!


Muscle gain

Will I gain a lot of muscle by doing HIT?

This depends on what you mean by “a lot of muscle”. You will gain the optimal amount of muscle for your body, so long as you support your HIT workouts with appropriate nutrition, rest, and sleep whilst managing various other life stressors adequately. No matter what anyone tells you or sells you, your genetic make-up is the primary determinant of the amount of muscle tissue you can ultimately carry. By consistent long-term application of HIT you will attain the optimal amount of lean muscle tissue for you and your body. As mentioned above for some this may be a few well won pounds, for others it may even be up to about thirty or so pounds (this without the assistance of any performance enhancing drugs).

Weight loss

Can I reduce my body fat by doing HIT?

Yes, that is possible, as HIT plays a valuable role in fat reduction as well as in lean tissue gain. If you have excess fat to get rid of, applying HIT whilst eating appropriately and managing lifestyle stressors, will result in a reduction in body fat. The utilization of stored glycogen, the release of fat burning hormones and the increase in metabolic rate (during and way after the workout) stimulated by HIT, all support the goal of reducing body fat levels effectively.

How your body responds to resistance training is largely predicated by your genes and body type.
How your body responds to resistance training is largely predicated by your genes and body type.


Benefits of High Intensity Resistance Training

High intensity resistance training is excellent at building muscle tissue, stoking the metabolic engine to help fat reduction goals and improving cardiovascular health but there are other, less obvious benefits. These are benefits to the muscular system, skeletal system, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, digestive system, nervous system and endocrine system.

Here is a fuller list of the benefits you can expect from HIT.

Physiological benefits of Resistance Training
  • Attain a biological age equal to, or lower than your chronological age
  • Increased strength
  • Increased muscle mass
  • Improved possibility of longevity and reducing all-cause mortality
  • Decreased gastrointestinal transit time (reducing the risk of colon cancer)
  • Myokine release and combatting of metabolic disorders
  • Increased metabolic rate
  • Increased muscle protein synthesis
  • Reduction in low back pain
  • Increased bone mineral density
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved muscle quality and insulin sensitivity in persons with type-2 diabetes
  • Partial reversal of mitochondrial aging
Psycho-social benefits
  • Improved cognitive functioning
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced depression
  • Improved self esteem


Attaining your personal goals

What outcomes are you aiming to achieve by working out? What are your specific goals? What does success look like to you? Is it muscle mass gain, body fat reduction, getting shredded, the way you look in the mirror, fitting into a favorite old pair of jeans, filling out a certain shirt or simply being fit and strong enough to get the most out of life? Why do you exercise in the first place?

The above are all valid and valuable desired outcomes. Make sure that you have clear expectations/goals that are both realistic and challenging and decide in advance how you will measure your progress toward your success. Will it be scale weight, body fat percentage, physique photographs, muscle circumference measurements, or more qualitative elements like your energy levels, the way you feel and your self-esteem. Decide in advance and make sure that you track your progress toward your goals. Be prepared to reassess and adapt your goals when appropriate as time goes by based on the physiologic feedback you get.


Why isn’t everyone doing HIT?

That’s a great question, and one we are looking to do something about. The ultimate answer is that not enough people have a) heard about HIT, b) have fully understood the benefits it can provide and/or c) gained an adequate understanding of how to properly apply it.

Some individuals have had a go at doing what they think is HIT only to give up when they got lacklustre results because they hadn’t had access to resources that could give them the knowledge to apply HIT correctly right from the get go. It certainly takes some focus to get good at HIT, there is a learning curve: skills to acquire and apply. Luckily this series of blog posts is specifically intended to help you learn to apply HIT well from the very start of your journey so that you can get the rewards and the results you deserve from exercise.


Summing up

This post is the first in a series that makes up the ultimate guide to HIT. The focus here has been on giving you an overview of what HIT is and isn’t, providing you with a greater context and expectations for your journey into HIT. In the posts that follow, we will crank up the dial and get into the HIT exercise protocol itself, the primary principles of HIT, the supporting science and I reveal the exercises and workout routines that will elevate your training to the next level. Till then… be stronger!


10 responses on "The Complete Beginner's Guide to High Intensity Resistance Training (HIT): What it is, how it compares to other forms of exercise and the results you can expect to get (part 1)"

  1. Fantastic article. Thanks Simon.

  2. Hi Simon,

    I am 57 and have been working out with body weight only and dumbbells for decades and recently have come across hit through Drew Baye. I find him very good but somewhat controlling, and over the top. I was wondering where I have some dumbbells and a flat bench and a pull-up bar how best to utilize my dumbbells for squats and stiff legged deadlifts in proper form? Thanks, I’ve been doing HIT for over 2 months now and love it.


    • Hi Dan,

      Great to hear that you are loving HIT.

      It is totally possible to create productive routines with dumbbells, a bench and a pull-up bar.

      In terms of squats and SLDL’s there are two main challenges that come about with dumbbells:

      1) Is the weight you can load onto them enough for progressive overload?
      2) The path of travel of the dumbbells i.e. ideally they are not dragging against your clothing or skin at all, or at least not too much (ouch!)

      If you begin to be limited by the load you can use, you can spend more time in the most challenging part of the range of motion i.e. the bottom of the squat and up to the mid-range (and spend less time out of that part of the range, perhaps eliminating it altogether). In the SLDL that would also be from the bottom position up to the mid range.

      Keep your technique super-together throughout the exercises which will help keep them not only as safe as possible but also more challenging for the targeted musculature.

      To see thorough demonstrations of the squat performed specifically with dumbbells consider the HITuni DIY course.

      If you have any follow-up questions let us know!

  3. Hi Simon, Great article. I am familiar with HIT as I tried it about 15 years ago and recall getting good results (assuming I was actually doing it correctly).. I’m an Endomorph so have always had the ability to build muscle.
    I want to give this a REALLY good go as I don’t have surplus time to spend gazing into the mirror at the gym! My question is.. (Let’s assume I don’t have a training partner) with some exercises you can’t really perform 1 set to failure due to safety.. how do you get around that? I guess fixed weights and cable equipment protects you if you can’t lift the weight? And in terms of Maximum load.. the weight selected is one that you can only manage 10 reps of to failure… them onto the next? Not sure if I actually answered my own question there but hopefully I have painted enough of a picture that you could offer me some gamechanging advice! Thanks again for the article.
    Best Wishes

    • Hi Tony,

      Safety absolutely needs to come first, that means for example, going to muscle failure in an exercise like free weight squats is a no-no. You should only consider working to muscle failure in an exercise or with equipment where there is no risk of dropping something heavy on yourself or getting trapped under a load you are unable to lift. So yes, well designed weight-stack machines are often a good choice, otherwise you are better off leaving a couple of reps in reserve when you end the set so you minimize the risk of getting caught in a compromised position.

      If you are using exercises where for safety reasons you are not going to muscular failure, then yes you may well find it useful to do a second set.

      10 reps is a good target for most people. There is actually a pretty broad range of reps that can be used to provide an appropriate stimulus, but somewhere between 8-15 tends to work well for the majority of people.

  4. Hi Simon,
    Thank you for sharing such a detailed article. I can see a lot of effort went into it!
    I currently workout 4 times a week, working each muscle group twice a week, using bodyweight exercises. I concentrate on the body mechanics method (vert pull, vert push, horiz pull, horiz push) for my upper body and I add bicep and tricep curls for my arms. I also do a quad, ham and calf exercise for my legs. I do the typical 3 sets per exercise and always make sure I go to failure on the last set. I’m always on the hunt for more efficient workout programs and your article has really inspired me to try something different, especially with the added benefit of cardio, which my current program lacks.
    However I am very pleased with my current progress in strength and I’m able to do harder variations of my body weight exercises as I progress. I’m just a bit concerned as to whether I will still be able to achieve the same level of progress in strength using the HIT method. Or whether I should expect this to slow down in the short term and be looking more at the long term?

  5. Hello Pete,

    It sounds like what you are doing is working for you and fairly well structured, which is great. And strength increases when measured honestly are a good metric for evaluating progress.

    So what can you gain from moving closer to a HIT paradigm? As you mention you will be able to make your workouts somewhat more efficient, with perhaps less exposure to wear and tear and you may bring a greater metabolic challenge to your workouts too.

    Many find that the greater recovery period between workouts often increases strength increases between workouts. I would focus on this aspect first and foremost without trying to make your workouts more significantly metabolically challening at the outset (that can come later). Testing just this aspect I would expect your strength increases to be at least similar to your current routine and probably better.

    How are you thinking of structuring your weekly workouts to be more aligned with the HIT approach?

  6. Hi Simon,
    I was thinking of primarily the big 5 and the calf heel raise, as per your article but then I’m unsure whether to finish off with the Nordic Ham Curl and maybe the bicep curl and tricep extension. I realise that I’m neglecting my core somewhat but I find I get a good core workout when performing purely bodyweight exercises. Although squats are compound exercises so they do work the hamstrings so maybe I don’t really need the nordic ham curls and I should include a core exercise instead?

    Anyway as long as I do the big 5 (with the calf heel raise to break it up) I can get a good foundation and I can play around with the latter exercises as I progress. This will definately free up more time for my Wing Chun!

    Thanks again for the advice, much appreciated.

  7. Hi Pete,

    Consider sticking with the Big 5 and calf heel raise to start with. Really bed the HIT workouts in alongside your Wing Chun training. Then after a couple of months you can, if you see the need, start to experiment adding or substituting exercises.

    Good luck!

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