Why Isn’t High Intensity Training More Popular?

I am an enthusiastic supporter of High-Intensity Training. I’ve done many posts on the topic, but the one post I haven’t done is why it isn’t more popular. I am a believer that good ideas spread and gain popularity. Poor ideas might be faddish for a while, but over time they fade away. HIT has been around since the 1970s. It hasn’t faded away, but it doesn’t seem to be gaining any ground on traditional weightlifting programs.

I’ve recently been thinking about why is this the case. HIT is sold as being more effective, efficient, and safe than traditional weight lifting. But do most people who start a fitness plan care about all those attributes? I don’t believe so.

I would say the majority of those beginning a traditional weight training program are young and mostly male. They might be time rich, so efficiency is not a priority. And because they are young and still invincible, safety is dismissed. As for effectiveness, almost all fitness programs can be effective in the short term, especially for beginners.

If you are a young lifter looking to gain muscle and seeking role models, there will be far more examples using traditional weight lifting than HIT. Hell, I didn’t even know what HIT was until 15 years after I first started lifting.

Attribution Bias

This is something I said in the Dorian Yates on Squatting post.

Most of the easiest gains come in the first year of training. Some would say in the first six months. Very very few lifters start with HIT. The young lifter associates their gains to their workout protocol and not the fact they are a beginner. This sets off a culture built on attribution bias. “I made the most gains with the squat” instead of “I made the most gains when I was a beginner”.

Because the vast majority of new lifters use traditional weight lifting programs to make those early and easiest gains, they develop a strong loyalty to those methods.

Volume Mindset

There is a deeply ingrained belief in our collective fitness conscious that more is better. If a 10K is healthy then a marathon is more healthy. Squat more. Do more reps. Workout longer. Exercise more times per week. We have industries built around keeping the message that more exercise is better.

High-Intensity Training challenges the volume mindset. But like religion and politics, most people are unwilling to listen, test, or try it for themselves. They laugh at it. They’ll recall the times they most the progress as the ones where they did the most. They won’t question if they did too much or if what they were doing was sustainable or lead to an injury.

Overcoming the volume mindset is hard enough with an older adult, but next to impossible with the younger lifter.


Photo by US Navy 

Coaches and Team Strength Trainers

Let us imagine that you offered me a nice paying job as a strength coach for a college sports team. Would I remake the program with the HIT principles I believe in so deeply? Nope. Why not? Let us explore the incentives.

If I switch the program to HIT and the team performs as well as before or even slightly better, there is no or very little upside for me. If however, the team does worse they will look for blame. What changed? Fire the radical strength coach. In the event the team sucks and I use a similar strength program that other schools are using then I’m less likely to be faulted.

I see the safety benefits of HIT as becoming more pronounced over the years. They matter more to the average 30+ year-old than the 20-year-old gifted collegiate athlete. Young athletes bounce back quickly, so the safety advantage I believe HIT has is far less visible with that group. So there is little incentive to shake things up.

These coaches and strength trainers serve as additional confirmation that traditional lifting is the better path, which may or may not be true.

Can Be Expensive

Hiring a HIT trainer in a HIT gym is not a trivial cost. Getting a membership to a regular gym and figuring out something on your own is cheaper. Now you can do HIT at a regular gym, but having a few sessions with an experienced HIT trainer is super valuable for understanding how to generate intensity.

Young lifters tend to be time rich and have less money. Hiring a HIT trainer is probably not the best use of their money. The benefits of a HIT trainer increase as one becomes busier and is earning more money.

Note that HIT doesn’t have to be expensive. You can get Body By Science, Hillfit, and/or The New High-Intensity Training for not much money. Add in a few YouTube videos and you can start on a budget.

Can Be Boring

HIT can be boring. It was for me when I first started. From the February 2010 post Is Slow Motion Weight Training Superior?

What I did learn was that slow training is boring. Apparently, I am not alone. That study that the slow motion group throws around has a back story. Even though the group had a 50% strength gain, the lead researcher discovered that only 1 out of the 147 people in the study continued training. Most felt it was too tedious.

It took a year and a session at Ideal Exercise for it to click with me. I doubt I would have been this patient in my 20s. I would have given up and moved onto something else. If being bored keeps a young man from gaining his first 10, 20, or 30 pounds of muscle then it isn’t a good program.

Wrapping It Up

There are more reasons why HIT is not that popular, but those are the most important. And although I am a fan of HIT, I completely understand why it will never be as popular as traditional lifting. I’m OK with that. It’s not my battle.

Part 2


Add yours

  1. For me, too boring and mentally taxing.
    And, as an older lifter, I don’t need optimum results.
    I’m fine getting a good workout that lets me feel refreshed afterword.
    Also, I can go relatively slowly (75% HIT?), and get most of the safety benefits of HIT.

  2. @Jim – As soon as I read your comment I realized I left out an important reason, which is the differing definitions of HIT. The 1-set to failure always is a narrow definition that I’ve personally abandoned.

  3. Enjoyment of training is more important than results in the long term.

    Simply look at how many people continue to train despite poor or no measurable results – biomarkers, body composition, relative strength.

    The experience of training is huge.

    The fact that they are “exercising” allays guilt, and doing something “enjoyable” is more important.

  4. A couple of reasons I moved away from HIT. I saw a couple of studies quoted by Alan Aragon and/or Brad Schoenfeld that concluded that multiple sets would be more effective than single HIT set. Also, from my own experience with coaching online from Drew Baye I came to think that getting the required intensity was very difficult without an in-person coach, and so maintaining a focus on good form and moderately raising the volume was a better approach. Finally, I have come to value exercise with a higher skill demand (calisthenics /gymnastics) to maintain brain plasticity as I age. And because it’s fun! I don’t think that banging out sets of bicep curls with poor form, or Crossfit, are the answer though.

  5. Stuart Gilbert

    May 19, 2015 — 2:43 am

    I suspect that there are three main reasons;
    1) People don’t like the discomfort associated with high intensity training. Years of observations at Glitter type gyms have brought me to this conclusion.
    2) There really are very few success stories in the media from HIT, compared to traditional training. Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer being the exceptions. People will therefore naturally ask, “Where is the proof?”
    3) Tradition is hard to dismiss, even with the growing area of sports science, people will go with what they know, and a traditional mind set is that more is better. Even sports science starts from the wrong perspective. An example being, one study may set out to determine if 10 intervals are more effective than a steady state session. Following studies may try to determine if less intervals are equally effective. Why not start with the least number of intervals ( ie one ) and if that doesn’t work, then increase from there. Surely that would be a more logical approach?

  6. I started lifting weights around 1982 which was when HITT really started gaining traction, tried it back then but never went back to it.

    I do a traditional volume work out because I like the physical sensation of lifting the weight. I’m 52 and the list of things I enjoy doing seems to get shorter every year; lifting the weight still feels really good to me, so I do it as much as possible.

    I’m too old to care how I look naked, I just want to do the things I enjoy in life, and repeatedly lifting substantial weights is one of them. If I could only lift weights for 30 minutes per week I would be deeply depressed.

  7. Seems like soreness and boredom are a losing combination, despite the end results promised. Weight training even under a globo-gym rep scheme is pretty boring as it is, and HIT makes the movement slower! You’ve got to have some passion for your end goal to go through that.

    Soreness is probably the leading factor, though. Running on a treadmill is pretty boring, but once you adapt to the exercise, you don’t get that sore from a 20 or 30 minute jog, but you still get the endorphins of having done something.

    This attitude is pervasive: as a squash player, I know I should do a lot of drills to make my shots more accurate in games, but it’s terribly boring to do that by yourself, and even more difficult when someone shows up looking for a game. The guys who are disciplined enough to do all those drills are the pros and those looking to climb that ladder.

  8. @All – Thanks for the comments. I now realize one of the biggest problems with HIT is the 1-set to failure definition, which is something I quit doing a while back.

    Maybe what I am doing now is not even HIT? I still use the same exercise choices and slower movements + static holds. But with higher volume and lower intensity. Is that still HIT?

  9. @MAS
    As you know, on the nutrition side, many in the Paleo world now talk about being “Paleo-ish” (i.e., mostly Paleo, but let’s not spend an hour going into the details).
    Similarly, maybe your workout is HIT-ish?

  10. @MAS, I believe the classical definition of HIT was simply that one trains to failure, using low volume and infrequent sessions. See the “Hit Manifesto”.

  11. I do reps very slow and with pauses, is that HITT? I thought it was traditional weight training, but without cheating.

  12. “I still use the same exercise choices and slower movements + static holds. But with higher volume and lower intensity.”

    That’s what I do and I refer to it is a “bodybuilding style workout,” as opposed to a “powerlifting style workout.” To me they are both “traditional” types of weight training.

  13. I now realize that for me it’s not about “strength” per se and certainly not about muscle size.

    It’s all about increasing my “anti-fragility”

    Is HIT better at increasing anti-fragility than, for example, Olympic Weight Lifting?

  14. HIT/Heavy Duty has served me well since 1978, as it has all I have trained (100’s of trainees), Once someone learns to pit out 100%, it becomes a mindset, nothing else will do! For efficiency you can’t beat HIT/HD.

  15. @rob – I disagree. If I do the Body By Science Big 5 or the Hillfit, but just not to failure that is closer to HIT than not. I wouldn’t consider that a bodybuilding workout. My reps are slower and although my volume is higher than the HIT definition, it is far less than bodybuilding.

    I’m starting to think this calls for another post to sort out when HIT stops being HIT.

  16. One word: PAIN. HIT done right is deeply painful. After doing it for years I’m kinda used to it but still, it fucking hurts. And that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

  17. For anyone interested I found a cool article how to train without injuring yourself, if you want to train lifting heavy. http://breakingmuscle.com/hypertrophy/the-secrets-to-pain-free-hypertrophy-training

  18. @MikeTO – “…our primary strength work is going to be based around the bench press, squat, and deadlift.” Jump squats too. Photo shows guy doing barbell back squat and deadlift with running shoes. I’ll pass.

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