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Risks of High-Intensity Training Programs


Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Whether you’re looking to get in shape, lose weight, or take your fitness to the next level, the options for structured exercise programs are practically endless. Popular high-intensity workout programs, such as CrossFit™ and P90X®, are based on the concept of plyometrics – rapid and varied muscle movements in short, quick bursts. These programs also incorporate Olympic-style weight lifting, cardiovascular routines, gymnastics, and strength training.

Aaron Mares, MD, is a primary care sports medicine physician at UPMC Sports Medicine. He explains that while high-intensity programs may be effective and beneficial for certain individuals with a high level of fitness expertise, they sometimes can pose risks, especially to those who are unprepared, have a prior injury, or are just returning to optimal fitness.

Here are four points to consider if you’re thinking about trying a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program:

1. Increased Risk of Joint Injury – Because the body is put through more stress and movement than it can sometimes handle, high-intensity workout programs tend to increase your chance of injury.

“With these regimens, individuals are exposed to a workout that has both static and dynamic components,” says Dr. Mares. “We most commonly see shoulder and hip labral tears. Overuse injuries are also common when individuals working out push themselves too much, too hard, for too long.”

2. Lack of Published Data – Anecdotally, many individuals have found success using HIIT programs, often losing weight and reaching maximum personal fitness. However, there is very little published data that demonstrates if they are more or less effective than regular cardiovascular exercises or strength training.

3. Can be Unfocused – One of the hallmarks of HIIT programs is muscle confusion and widely-varied workouts. Day to day, each exercise may go from one extreme to the other and cover different areas of the body. While they may help promote fat and calorie burning, it can also feel haphazard and unfocused at times, making it difficult to get into any sort of rhythm or routine.

4. Can be Costly – While some high-intensity exercise routines can be done at home for free, others require specialized equipment such as weights, a pull-up bar, a medicine ball, and other related items that can put a dent in the wallet. In addition, most members find it beneficial to join their local workout program community to gain access to a wide variety of equipment and enroll in group classes.

As an alternative to high-intensity interval training, Dr. Mares recommends traditional cross-training exercises such as pushups, sit-ups, crunches, sprints, weight lifting, and others that are appropriate to your ability and fitness level. He also stresses the importance of consulting your doctor before embarking on any strenuous workout regimen.

“Men over the age of 45, females over 55, individuals with a known medical condition (such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes), or those with a history of smoking should see a physician prior to starting an exercise program,” suggests Dr. Mares. “Also, any individual with a prior musculoskeletal injury may want to consider an orthopaedic evaluation prior to starting these types of programs.”

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