High-Intensity Training No Better Than Conventional Training

Laird Harrison

June 02, 2015

SAN DIEGO — High-intensity interval training and steady-state training have similar effects on aerobic and anaerobic fitness, new research suggests.

"The high-intensity interval groups were not necessarily better," said Courtney Farland, MS, from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, here at the American College of Sports Medicine 62nd Annual Meeting.

High-intensity interval training has gained popularity recently because of the promise that participants can achieve greater fitness in less time. But few studies have directly compared it with other exercise programs or examined how enjoyable it is.

Farland and her colleagues randomly assigned 55 untrained college students — 17 men and 38 women — to steady-state cycling or to one of two high-intensity interval training protocols.

The 19 students assigned to the steady-state protocol completed 20 minutes of cycling at 90% of ventilatory threshold.

The 15 students assigned to the Meyer protocol completed 20 minutes of cycling in 13 sets, each of which consisted of 30 seconds at 100% of maximal oxygen consumption followed by 60 seconds of recovery.

The 21 students assigned to the Tabata protocol completed 4 minutes of exercise in eight sets, each of which consisted of 20 seconds at 170% maximal oxygen consumption followed by 10 seconds recovery.

Average age, height, and weight were similar in the three groups.

Each student trained three times a week for 8 weeks. All students warmed up for 5 minutes before their training protocol and cooled down for 5 minutes afterward.

An incremental test in which the workload increased in increments of 25 W/min was conducted to assess the maximum oxygen consumption of each student. In addition, peak and average anaerobic power output were measured with Wingate tests, during which subjects pedaled as fast as they could.

There were significant improvements on all measures of exercise capacity in all three groups. However, even when all measures were combined, the differences among the three groups were not significant.

There were no differences in fitness changes between the men and women in the study.

Table. Improvements in Exercise Capacity

Measure Steady-State Protocol Meyer Protocol Tabata Protocol
Maximum oxygen consumption, mL/kg 19 18 18
Peak aerobic work, W/kg 17 14 24
Peak anaerobic output, W/kg 8 5 9
Average anaerobic output, W/kg 4 6 7


The Tabata protocol required less time to achieve the results, but the students needed more time to recover from their intense exercise, potentially canceling the benefit, Farland reported.

"Those students were not ready to go to class after that protocol," she said. "A lot of them spent some time on the floor with a juice box and some Jolly Ranchers."

Ratings on the Exercise Enjoyment Scale indicated that the students liked the exercise less and less as the study wore on. They liked the Tabata protocol least of the three, and the steady-state protocol most.

"We're hoping to develop some exercise regimens that are more enjoyable because that's the only way we're going to keep the population exercising," said Farland.

After her presentation, some people in the audience asked Farland to explain why high-intensity interval training didn't produce better results. "There's some work that shows interval training tends to elicit a greater change in maximum oxygen consumption than cardiovascular exercise, which you did not show," one said.

If you can get the same adaptation with a fraction of the time, a lot of people would consider it a success.

"It surprised us all, to be honest," said Farland. "We think it was because our subjects worked really hard, regardless of which group they were in."

Even if high-intensity interval training is only equal to and not superior to more conventional workouts, some people might still prefer the high-intensity training, said session moderator William Lunn, PhD, from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

"If you can get the same adaptation with a fraction of the time, a lot of people would consider it a success," he told Medscape Medical News.

This study "does add some credence to the idea that these novel quick-burst exercise bouts are as beneficial as the traditional aerobic exercise protocols," said Thomas Kaminski, PhD, from the University of Delaware in Newark.

But, he added, "I'm a traditionalist and enjoy the peace and quiet afforded during my daily 45 to 60 min aerobic bouts!"

Ms Farland, Dr Lunn, and Dr Kaminski have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) 62nd Annual Meeting: Abstract 544. Presented May 27, 2015.


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