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High Intensity Training: Can you do it without a Personal Trainer?

High intensity training is an evidence-based approach to resistance exercise, an approach that is particularly attractive as it produces excellent results with relatively little time investment required. Not only does it stimulate hypertrophy of muscle tissue, it also concurrently improves strength, flexibility, bone density, metabolism and cardiovascular health. All of these improvements can be achieved and most likely optimized with just one or two, 10-25 minute workouts a week.

This is obviously a hugely attractive proposition, so attractive that some think that it must be sales pitch or exaggeration that so little exercise can provide the full gamut of exercise benefits. This however is not the case: the claims for the efficacy of HIT are legit. The only proviso is that to get these results with this minimal time investment, you do actually have to challenge the physiology, and this level of focused exertion can feel temporarily uncomfortable during the workout itself.

Applying HIT well is a skill, which is best acquired by working with a Personal Trainer, who specializes in teaching this type of exercise. Hiring a great HIT Personal Trainer is not possible for everyone, all the time… which leads to the question, is it possible to learn and apply HIT without a Personal Trainer? The answer is yes it is possible, if we can overcome some specific challenges.


High Intensity Training

  • A workout that typically consists of ~5-10 different resistance training exercises.
  • Each exercise is performed for somewhere between ~60-120 seconds.
  • Each exercise culminates in momentary muscular failure (MMF), or as close to MMF as the individual performing the workout is capable of.
  • A full workout is typically completed in ~10-25 minutes.
  • Workouts of this nature are usually only performed once or twice a week.


The challenge factors of HIT


  • Performing each exercise in a given routine correctly and safely.


  • The motivation to push through to momentary muscular failure, whilst being able to maintain correct and safe performance.

At its absolute essence, the above challenge factors are all that it takes to get the most out of high intensity training.


How a HIT Personal Trainer will help you address the challenge factors of HIT

CHALLENGE FACTOR ONE: Performing each exercise in a given routine correctly and safely

A skilled personal trainer will be able to teach proper exercise performance via multiple methods, including:

  • explaining
  • showing
  • observing
  • correcting
  • giving feedback in real time
  • dissecting performance

The skilled trainer will then repeat the above process, or elements of it, as often as necessary for you to attain the specific skills of each individual exercise and the general skills (breathing, keeping uninvolved musculature relaxed etc.) required.

CHALLENGE FACTOR TWO: The motivation to push through to momentary muscular failure

The last 20-30 seconds of an exercise set taken to MMF feels uncomfortable. I have observed with the clients that I have worked with over the years that those unaccustomed to exercise initially tend to want to stop the set just at the start of this final 30 seconds period i.e. just when the exercise begins to feel truly challenging.

Once the client has been coached to safely get past this stage with confidence, they will then often tend to slow to a halt in a set slightly prematurely of true MMF- often one or two full reps prior to MMF. Getting passed this stage in the set again requires practice, feedback and encouragement.

Even when a client has become well practiced at achieving actual MMF, it is always easier to do so with the appropriate and well-timed feedback and encouragement of a trainer.

…whilst being able to maintain correct and safe performance

Getting to MMF whilst being able to maintain correct and safe performance is the essence of High Intensity Training. This takes skill and practice for sure, and this is also where the real-time feedback of a trainer really comes into its own.

The physical sensations that build as we approach MMF can become all consuming- meaning our awareness of our own performance usually decreases and it is at this point that form and safety discrepancies are most likely to creep in.

Often we unconsciously begin to tense the whole body rather than contracting only the desired musculature, we may also begin to slow or hold our breath to enact Valsalva, and engage in other behaviors that reduce both the safety and the effectiveness of the exercise.

A good personal trainer will spot any of these discrepancies as soon as they begin to happen and immediately provide simple and straightforward instruction to the client facilitating awareness and correction. If the client is unable to follow the trainer’s instruction then the trainer can step in and stop the set before the client’s technique becomes dangerous.


The approach to take if working with a trainer is not currently possible for you

1) Learn to perform the exercises correctly and safely

Outside of having someone directly show you how to perform each exercise correctly, the next best thing is to use a combination of video, audio and written instruction. A combination of all three is superior to just video, just audio or just the written word, and will give you a clearer more comprehensive picture of what you need to be doing to perform exercises well.

The information that needs to be covered to be able to learn exercises and correct performance via this method includes:

• Name of the exercise
• Muscles worked and movement they produce
• What should be done with non-targeted parts of the body during the exercise
• Appropriate set up/starting position
• Breaking the movement down into parts (start/positive/upper turnaround/negative/lower turnaround)

It is then a question of absorbing the information, internalizing it and perfect practice.

2) Build your motivation to reach momentary muscular failure

Going to MMF (the last 20 or so seconds of the set) is not for most people a particularly pleasant experience, in the moment (it does however feel great a few seconds after you have finished the set!). So why do we aim to go to MMF? We do so as it appears to produce the best results in the most efficient manner possible.

It is absolutely critical that you have a clear understanding of the purpose of going to MMF, because without that, the motivation to reach MMF will dilute the moment the set begins to get challenging.

The intellectual understanding that we will get the best results possible by safely reaching MMF is critical. It is critical because in the heat of the moment when near ever fiber of the targeted musculature is sending a message in no uncertain terms that they would really rather you stopped the set – you can do an intellectual flip-trick. You can welcome the temporary discomfort of true muscular exertion as a signal that you are close to achieving your goal of MMF. As bizarre as it sounds this mental trick works exceptionally well.

Next time you perform a set to MMF, welcome and embrace the accumulating sensations of exertion, know that the stronger those sensations get, the closer you are to your goal. That if you have come this far in the set, you may as well reap the rewards of going all the way.

Although the encouragement of a personal trainer or a skilled training partner interjected at the right moments in a set will boost your motivation to continue to seek out MMF, with the above tactic you can learn to motivate yourself very well indeed.

3) Learn to get to MMF whilst maintaining optimal performance and safe behaviors

This is the most challenging part of all to master when you are training alone. It can be done, what it requires though is a focus on fatiguing the targeted muscles.

Make this your mantra

It’s all about achieving a physiologic state, and not about the number reps nor how heavy the weight.

If we switch our focus away from fatiguing the target muscles to a focus on getting more reps, more time under load or adding more weight we will begin to perform the exercise in an inferior manner, increasing risk/decreasing safety and diluting the stimulus of the exercise on the target muscles.

Do not get another rep by tensing up your whole body or holding your breath: the moment you do this is the moment you are losing control of the exercise. You are far better off stopping the exercise slightly short of MMF than pushing through in this manner.

The challenge to this is that when exercising close to MMF it is instinctual to do these things, for a period of time you will need to really focus on your behaviors as the set gets more challenging. You can unpick the instinctual behaviors as your confidence with general HIT performance and the specific exercises grows. The intensity part comes in time there is no need to rush to get there.

The next best thing to having a personal trainer or skilled training partner- is to educate yourself as to the proper performance aspects, and adhere to them as you exercise. If you can check you are doing this by filming your workouts when you start out (and from time to time as you move forward)- review your technique and behaviors throughout each exercise and look for areas you can improve. After all, we all can.



The Do-It-Yourself HIT for HEALTH course is designed to enable you to train yourself HIT style. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been into exercise, have exercised on and off haphazardly, or if you are an outright exercise pro, this course has been designed so that you can learn to apply HIT for a stronger, fitter, leaner and resiliently healthful body. And to do so with both short-term and long-term success, in mind.

This course is as close as it comes to having your own HIT personal trainer, and it addresses all the challenges we have mentioned in this article in detail as well as providing full progressive HIT routines for bodyweight, free weights and machines- so that you can exercise effectively no matter how much or little equipment you have access to.


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