Is HIIT Too Much? How about PHA?

Peripheral Heart Action training

The fitness industry can be a confusing place, especially if you are just starting out. We are chock full of acronyms, and terminology that is new and ever-evolving. Below we’d like to de-mystify a couple of the terms, and explain why one option might be better for you as an individual.

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)

This type of workout is designed to be a very efficient way to burn lots of calories by using short but very intense bursts of cardio-respiratory activities.  Your workout might have a warm-up, followed by a lifting exercise like a squat, and then an exercise that is designed to be hard, intense, and exhausting, like a set of burpees. You might put the burpees in for 1 minute, then return to a lifting exercise, and then another set of burpees, or another high intensity exercise like jumping rope, or squat jumps. The idea here is that those short bursts are very high intensity, so the overall workout feels very hard.

Another way to do HIIT, though, is as a part of a cardio-respiratory plan, like in a spin class. In this instance, the intervals are worked into the whole cardio workout. A warm-up might be followed by a steady state hill climb, then followed by a period of high intensity intervals where you are going full power for a period of time (let’s say 15 seconds), and then recovering for 15 seconds.  In both types of workouts, high intensity intervals are used to increase the effort of the overall workout. This will glean two main results: a higher fitness level faster than conventional workouts, and a higher overall caloric burn.

Is HIIT for you?

HIIT has its place in programming workouts, but it’s not for everybody. For example, if you are just beginning a workout program, you need to work on your aerobic base before getting crazy! If you are out of shape, it’s been a long time since you exercised, or if you are recovering from an injury or have a disability, this may not even be possible for you. In addition, more than 2-3 HIIT workouts in a week are a prescription for overuse injuries and over-training. Working with such intense effort puts a lot of strain on the body, the joints, and the mind. It’s very uncomfortable to work at that high of an intensity, and it may be hard to wrap your mind around getting in for a workout that can seem torturous.

Enter PHA…

PHA, or Peripheral Heart Action training, was originally developed by Dr. Arthur Steinhaus in the 1940s. His plan was to do exercises in a certain order to keep the blood circulating, thereby increasing your overall metabolism.  It’s essentially a type of circuit training, and was made popular by Mr. Universe, Bob Gajda in the ’70s. You perform five to six exercises, one exercise right after the other, with no rests in between. The workout alternates between upper and lower body to keep the blood circulating. As a trainer, I’ve noticed that it can be a challenge to work non-stop with no breaks – for a lot of reasons. Put on your earphones, don’t look up or chat with friends while you are doing your workout, and keep it moving.

As with a lot of trends in the fitness industry, they can take a while to become popular, fall out of fashion, and then be recognized anew as something of value. In this instance, recent research into Peripheral Heart Action, done by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, showed that it could be a valid substitute for HIIT. In the study, the participants were assigned to either a HIIT or a PHA group. Over a 3 month span, the groups workout three times a week, with a day of rest in between.

HIIT group workout:  Warm-up for 5 minutes, followed by 1 minute of intense cardio, 2 minutes of recovery, repeated 5 times, with a 5-minute cool-down.

PHA group workout:  15 each of chest press, leg extension, lat pulldown, hamstring curl, overhead press, calf raises, performed with no rest in between the movements.  A rest of 1 minute was allowed before completing the circuit 4 more times.

The results were interesting: the PHA group had improved more than the HIIT group with regard to aerobic capacity, even though the HIIT workout was cardio-based, and the PHA group did strength-based exercises. They surmised this was because of the alternating between upper and lower extremities, increasing blood flow, with the end result an increase in metabolism at a cellular level. Consider that this could be a great alternative for losing weight if high intensity workouts are not in your wheelhouse.

Other Benefits Noted With Peripheral Heart Action

This training increased maximal oxygen uptake (Vo2 max) by 8 percent. Participants also saw strength gains in the muscle groups worked, as well as a reduction in lactic acid buildup, presumably from alternating upper and lower body, which reduced fatigue.

Sample PHA workout for you:

  • Wall squats, 15
  • Push-ups, 15 (wall, knees, toes)
  • Lunges, alternating, 30
  • Lat pulldown, challenging weight, 15
  • Side lunges, 30
  • Overhead press, challenging weight, 15
  • Rest 60 seconds
  • Repeat 4 more times

Set your equipment up in advance, and move efficiently through the exercises.  The only rest you’re getting is the one minute in between the segments. For a well-rounded workout, I’d add foam roller and stretching to the end of this workout. Clearly, the above is but one option in a myriad of possibilities for creating a fun and effective workout.

If you’d like to discuss if High Intensity Interval Training or Peripheral Heart Action training are right for you, meet with me for a free fitness consultation!

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Written by Melissa Abramovich, ACE CPT, NASM CGT, AAHFRP Medical Exercise Specialist at Elite Sports Club-River Glen

Melissa Abramovich went into Personal Training and Group Exercise instruction after successfully losing 140 pounds through healthy diet and exercise. Her desire to help others drove her forward into a career helping others to make healthier choices. She is an ACE certified personal trainer and now also a Medical Exercise Specialist (AAHFRP), helping clients with a myriad of health issues at Elite Sports Clubs. She holds a Bachelor’s degree, and many group exercise related certifications as well.

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