HIIT vs bodybuilding: which will make you fitter, a physiotherapist explains the difference

Joining a gym can be daunting, especially when it comes to deciding what to do while you’re there. But if you’ve done any research, two popular training methods have probably caught your eye: HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and strength training.

Although both are legit options in the gym, they are very different in their results and styles. HIIT is an exercise routine that works with short intervals of high-intensity movement.

Actual exercise varies, but can often include bodyweight exercises, sprinting, cycling, and other similar movements. Strength training, on the other hand, involves using weights to improve your strength.

So the key question: who will make you fitter? “If you’re referring to aerobic capacity/cardiorespiratory fitness, HIIT is probably the best option for middle-aged and older adults. If you’re looking to build absolute strength, weight/resistance training would be the best option,” says Dr Luke Connolly, Lecturer in Physiotherapy at the University of Plymouth.

However, if you’re a complete exercise newbie, you might find that HIIT or strength training might sound like a pretty serious leap. “Consistent with physical activity guidelines, it is suggested that adults and older adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week,” says Connolly.

“The high-intensity nature of interval training can be somewhat uncomfortable at first, so absolute beginners are advised to get used to MICT before attempting HIIT.”

MICT stands for Medium Intensity Continuous Training. This includes activities like jogging, cycling, or pick-up sports like tennis, basketball, or squash, normally consisting of 30-60 minutes of exercise at a time.

HIIT workouts can be a great form of exercise © Peter Muller

This can be a good gateway for someone who isn’t quite ready for the more demanding exercises of HIIT or strength training. After that, it comes down to whether your goals are more aligned with strength or cardiorespiratory fitness.

However, HIIT and strength training are not one size fits all routines. HIIT simply refers to intensity and can include any number of exercises. For example, High Intensity Functional Training (HIFT) is a method that combines strength training exercises with cardio routines.

Weight training is therefore the best for improving strength, and HIIT works for overall cardiovascular health – but what if you just want results from a quick exercise, if you don’t have time for a 30 minute workout for example?

“Since HIIT is just as effective as MICT in improving cardiorespiratory fitness, this fast-paced workout would be the best choice for many. There is also evidence that HIIT can improve a number of markers of cardiometabolic health for populations overweight and obese,” says Connolly.

“However, we also have to consider the fun factor. Undoubtedly, HIIT is very intense and not for everyone, but there is evidence to suggest that HIIT elicits positive psychological responses with higher enjoyment and pleasure during protocols using shorter intervals (30 seconds versus 120 seconds).

The best exercise for you will depend on your strength training or cardiovascular fitness, how much time you have available, and your experience in the gym. However, there is a lot of flexibility available and the best option will be a combination that works for you.

“The primary goal is to ensure continued adherence to physical activity and exercise, and preferences may change over time as goals also change. It’s also helpful to remember that the High intensity interval exercise can be found in a number of sports Once you get used to HIIT you may want to add a skill/team element to your training, such as football or badminton .” said Connolly.

About our expert, Luke Connolly

Luke is a Lecturer in Physiotherapy at the University of Plymouth. He studies the effect of exercise and nutrition on disease.

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