A major part of the allure of high-intensity training, or HIT, is its promise that you can drastically reduce your workout time and still reap the same — or better — muscle-building benefits of longer routines.
While more traditional approaches to bodybuilding may have you lifting for an hour or more for 4-6 days per week, HIT calls for just 2-3 weekly workouts, each lasting around 30 minutes. Can such an abbreviated approach to training REALLY help you get strong and build muscle?
Let’s see what the evidence tells us.
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From the Trenches
Several in-the-gym experiments have been conducted over the years that show HIT can be used to produce big results in a short period of time. Among them are:
The Colorado Experiment
In the summer of 1973, Nautilus founder Arthur Jones and Dr. Elliot Plese undertook the so-called Colorado Experiment, during which Jones and bodybuilder Casey Viator trained three times per week, with each session lasting around 30 minutes. After a month, Viator had gained 63 pounds of muscle, while Jones had added 20 pounds.
Several years back, Tim Ferriss of 4-Hour Work Week decided that he wanted to revamp his physique. He took on a program of two HIT workouts per week and in four weeks and four total hours of training had gained 31 pounds of bodyweight while losing 3 pounds of fat.
The Boise Experiment
Just a couple years later, two lifting buddies from Idaho designed a program to improve their physiques, as well. Following a Heavy Duty-style routine which consisted of one workout every five days, “RonnieB” gained 25 pounds while “Big Andy” dropped 16 pounds of fat and increased all his lifts. The Boise Experiment lasted 60 days.
Dr. Ellington Darden, who originally coined “high-intensity training,” put aspiring bodybuilder Eddie Mueller through a SuperSlow routine for four weeks in an effort to produce new muscle mass. As Darden reported in “BIG”, Mueller gained 19 pounds of pretty solid mass in around eight hours of total training.
From the Labs
While those training “experiments” were fairly controlled, science offers even more rigorous studies that can help us determine the effectiveness of short workouts.
- Norwegian scientists compared the effectiveness of one set v. three sets for both upper-body and lower-body exercises in a 2007 study. They found that subjects experienced about twice the strength increases for lower-body movements when performing three sets as compared to just one set, but no significant differences for the upper-body movements.
- Multiple literature reviews, examining nearly 200 individual studies, have reported that multiple sets in general produce better strength gains than single sets. One of the reviews also found that muscle growth was better in the multiple-set groups.
- On the other hand, a 2011 study from England found no appreciable difference in results obtained from one set v. multiple sets per exercise.
- Likewise, research from 2001 at the Center for Research in Health Behavior found that all of the health benefits of weight lifting can be gained in two weekly sessions lasting 15-20 minutes.
The results are a mixed bag, then, but nearly ALL of the studies show that single-set training, conducted through short workouts, does produce muscle growth and strength increases.
Putting It to Use
At the very least, available evidence tells us that brief, intense workouts can indeed produce dramatic gains in lean mass over the short term. In order to keep progress coming from HIT, or any other training program for the long haul, though, you need to pay close attention to your nutrition and recovery, and make adjustments to your training as you progress.
Your primary goal should always be maintaining or enhancing your health, so make sure your doctor checks you out on a regular basis, and tell him about your workout plans.
If you’re healthy and motivated, HIT can help you build muscle without living in the gym.