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High Intensity Weight Training Routines (HIT)

Shoulder and arms of a HIT trainerHigh Intensity Weight Training takes a different approach to the high rep workouts that were popular before, and still popular today. Here we look at some of the history of HIT, reasons to try it, research concerning its limitations, a few HIT cycles and then Dorian Yates’ HIT routine. This introduction is by no means an exhaustive review of High Intensity Weight Training. Note:  Do not confuse HIT with HIIT. HIIT, with two I’s, is High Intensity Interval Training, and is primarily a cardio workout, although elements of bodyweight resistance training is often incorporated. Read more about HIIT in our article on Metabolic Conditioning.

HIT was made famous by Mike Menzter and Arthur Jones in the 1970s. He was an inventor who founded Nautilus weight training equipment. Critics of the system suggest that the promotion of HIT was a clever piece of marketing to promote Nautilus.

In short, HIT focuses on training to muscular failure. You lift very heavy weights for fewer repetitions and aim to fail at the end of each set.

A good weights gym is needed for HIT workouts, simply because some of the exercises, specifically hyperextensions, pressdowns, seated calf raises and leg extensions all require apparatus. As good as free weights are, some exercises require machines or specialist benches.


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As HITman mentions below, practitioners of HIT rarely if ever perform sets of single lifts. The general prescription is 1-3 sets per exercise/muscle, 6-10 reps or 8-12 reps per set, and a maximum of 12 total sets per workout.

Why Do HIT?

HIT methods were developed to increase strength. Weight Lifters use these methods for their training, as the goal is to lift the maximum weight possible. The main purpose of the HIT method is ensuring that you train to failure, i.e. that the last rep you do you fail on, meaning that you cannot complete another, no matter how hard you try.

Sometimes you reach the last set and manage to complete it. Rather than attempting another one at a heavier weight at this point, you should just ensure you push yourself further in your next weight training session.

However, there is a lot of debate over whether it is best to complete extra sets until failure is reached. Some research suggests that training to failure too much can impede muscular development. Some people would add an extra set to the end and keep going until they fail.

Experience shows that this is usually the next set anyway, unless you have suddenly made vast improvements, or you have made a mistake on your training plan and have been lifting too light a weight!


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HIT is sometimes just used to get over a training plateau. When this happens it is advisable a change your workout and one way to really give your workout a change is to adopt a high intensity training routine (also know as HIT).

High Intensity Training Warning

HIT hurts. Here are some general pointers on HIT training:

  • A proper HIT workout will leave you exhausted to the point that you will most likely want to lie down afterwards
  • If you are training HIT full on then your body will need a proper rest after 6 weeks of training
  • HIT routines need to be split and you can only train once per day, 3 times per week (maybe 4 if your are already well conditioned to training)
  • HIT sessions are generally short, from 20 minutes to 40 minutes.
  • HIT is not for the weak minded. It takes as much mental preparation than anything else. You may start to dislike the thought of training
  • As HIT is so intensive you need to do nothing else but HIT during your 6 week cycle (or any other length cycle). So no cardio, kickboxing, football or running. Just HIT, eat, sleep, eat, HIT etc.

High-intensity Resistance Training Reduces Body Fat

Research carried out by the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas investigated the effect of high intensity weight training and intensive endurance training on body fat and resting metabolic rate.

The study looked at the effects of either 12 weeks of high-intensity endurance or resistance training on resting metabolic rate were investigated in 47 males aged 18-35 years.

During the study subjects were randomly assigned to either a control group (i.e. no exercise), weight training resistance-trained (RT) or endurance-trained (ET) group.

After training, both exercise groups showed a significant reduction in relative total body fat either by reducing their total fat weight and maintaining fat- free weight (ET) or by reducing their total fat weight and increasing fat- free weight (RT).

Resting metabolic rate did not significantly change after either training regimen although a small decline in energy intake was observed along with an increase in energy expenditure [ET, 2.721 MJ (650 kcal) per training day]. This research seems to suggest that one a basic level exercise does not significantly raise metabolism enough to really burn more calories. But the act of exercising itself is enough to burn more calories.

These results also suggest that both endurance and resistance training may help to prevent a reduction in resting metabolic rate normally observed during extended periods of negative energy balance (energy intake less than expenditure) by either preserving or increasing a person’s fat-free weight.


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Weight training has for a long time been shown to help reduce body fat, and many people believe that it is attributable to an increase in metabolism, which helps to reduce body fat further – however this research reveals that it can only prevent metabolic rate declining, and not actually increase it.

One again some research into weight loss and exercise seems to conclude that they real key to losing weight is to follow a healthy lifestyle and take regular exercise. They actually type of exercise does not make a huge difference in metabolic rate and therefore daily calories needs.

If you are looking to lose weight (or more specifically to lose total body fat) then you should change your eating habits permanently (go on a lifelong diet) and also learn to exercise on the regular basis. There appears to be no “best way to exercise” though. Personal experience suggests that following a range of activities, such as weight training, cardio workouts, HIIT and sports can help your to manage your weight well. Take a look at out fitness section to find many articles which provide a range of different fitness workouts, from bodyweight circuits through to plyometric training and resistance training.

Weight Training To Failure Makes You Weaker

weight training for fast muscle growthTraining to failure is still a very popular way for many to do weight training. The idea is that only by reaching momentary muscular failure you become stronger. Failure in this respect means that you are exhausted to the point that you can no longer lift the weight.

This has always been open to debate, but now research has shown that people who train to failure all the time are limiting their strength gains. The best way to train is to stop each exercise set before you reach failure, to almost fail. Going “beyond failure” as popularized by Mike Mentzer and other HIT bodybuilders will only make you weaker.

In June 2010 the National Strength and Conditioning Association stated;

“Failure training performed too frequently can result in reductions in the resting concentration of testosterone and contribute to the overtraining syndrome. The research suggests the greatest effectiveness when failure training is practised consistently over 6-week cycles, interspersed with exclusive nonfailure training cycles over equal periods. Coaches should consider athletes’ training status and goals and the point in a yearly training cycle to determine whether sets are to be performed to failure or ended short of reaching failure.” Dr. Jeffrey Willardson.


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This supports the periodization training method that many athletes follow. Periodization follows cycles of high intensity and heavy work with cycles of lower intensity endurance training. The main purpose to this form of training is to avoid adaptation, where you become more efficient and performing a particular type of exercise, and so gain less from it.

Our bodies want to just maintain their current level of fitness, so development tends to decline the longer we do something. Increasing intensity sparks new growth but prolonged intensity then leads to overtraining and a reversal of fitness and muscle development.

Middle Intensity Training is Best

In similar research it was determined that for the best strength improvements you should train at a middle intensity, between working to failure and endurance training.

“short-term resistance training using moderate volumes of high relative intensity tended to produce higher enhancements in weightlifting performance compared with low and high volumes of high relative training intensities of equal total volume in experienced, trained young weightlifters. Therefore, for the present population of weightlifters, it may be beneficial to use the MIG* training protocol to improve the weightlifting program at least in a short-term (10 weeks) cycle of training.” González-Badillo et al, 2006.

*MIG refers simply to the moderate-intensity exercise group in the study.

One of the problems with this type of research is that it never takes into account the genetics of the individual. Some people may just respond better to a high intensity method. The normal optimum response may be volume training but generally bodybuilders do have slightly freaky genetics.

Many bodybuilding professionals have adopted a high intensity training method, with Mike Mentzer being one of the first to make HIT popular and then more recently Dorian Yates. However, they still have many years of volume training under their weight lifting belts before starting a high intensity protocol.

The facts about weight training seem to have not changed a great deal:

  1. For muscle size, volume training is best – i.e. bodybuilders methods
  2. For power and functional strength, high intensity training periodized with cardio training to increase VO2 is best
  3. For pure strength training moderate intensity with periods of high intensity works best

See Are You Training for Muscular Strength, Size, or Power? and Weight Training Intensity or Volume for Bigger Muscles? for some older discussions on this topic.

How you lift weights should depend entirely on your goals. It is still my belief that many of the pro-bodybuilders that have followed a HIT method do massive warm-ups which are not mentioned in the discussions on their methods. One persons warm-up is another’s first work set.

4 Week HIT Cycle

If you just only have time to do one big workout each week, then this HIT* routine (high intensity training) is a good place to start. The workout is split over a 4 week period, with the third week being a repeat of the first week. You still need to fit in a second session, but this is a quick session, which can easily be completed in 20 minutes, assuming you have some dumbbells at home.

Week 1:

Saturday:

  1. Shoulder press
  2. Pull ups
  3. Bench press
  4. Bent-over row

Monday & Thursday:

  1. Bicep Curls
  2. Tricep extensions

Week 2:

Saturday:

  1. Deadlifts
  2. Pec flyes

Monday & Thursday:

  1. Bicep Curls
  2. Tricep extensions

Week 3: (same as week 1)

Week 4:

Saturday:

  1. Squats
  2. Upright row

Monday & Thursday:

  1. Bicep Curls
  2. Tricep extensions

This is a really good beginners HIT-style training programme. There is one big session per week and the recovery-time per muscle groups is proportional to their size.

The big full-body compounds are spaced two weeks apart. Shoulders, chest, lats and upper-back get a full week of recovery from the systemic-damage of the big compounds and two-weeks since they were hit with the same exercise.

In between you are giving the smaller muscle groups three days recovery. The week-day sessions are also very small (half-hour maybe) so they are less impact on your evening.

Typical HIT 3 Day Split

Triceps and Delts Day

  • Incline Barbell Press – 3 sets – 10, 8, 6 reps
  • Flat Flye – 1 set – 8 reps
  • Shoulder press – 2 sets – 8, 6 reps
  • Side raises – 1 set – 8 reps
  • Pressdowns – 2 sets – 8, 6 reps

Thighs and Calves Day

  • Barbell Squats – 3 sets – 10, 8, 6 reps
  • Leg extensions – 1 set – 8 reps
  • Leg curls- 3 sets – 10, 8, 6 reps
  • Standing calf raises – 1 set – 8 reps
  • Seated calf raises (requires use of a specialist seated calf machine) – 3 sets – 10, 8, 6 reps

Back and Biceps Day

  • Hyperextentions (use hyperextension bench for this)- 3 sets – 10, 8, 6 reps
  • Bent Over Barbell row – 3 sets – 10, 8, 6 reps
  • Pulldowns or narrow grip chin ups – 1 set – 8 reps
  • Barbell curls superseted with incline hammer curls – 2 sets – 8, 6 reps
  • Barbell shrugs – 2 sets – 8, 6 reps

Dorian Yates HIT Workouts

Dorian Yates is a British bodybuilding champion. He was born in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands in 1962. At the age of 30 in 1992 he became a World bodybuilding champion when he won Mr. Olympia. He then won a further 5 times in a row until 1997 when he also retired.

Dorian Yates has adopted and adapted the HIT principal. With HIT training the number of work reps is reduced to the bare minimum, with more weight and more intensity applied.

With the more traditional high rep approach to bodybuilding people either work a set number of reps and sets on an exercise or stop at initial failure. With HIT the aim is to fail sooner, but to put vastly more effort in to trying to work through the point of failure, i.e. it is more intense.

HIT Debate

The HIT method is still being debated. Those that use it feel very strongly that the research done by Mentzer, and subsequent research, provides proof that the system works better at building muscle. In a nutshell, with HIT training, you lift fewer reps, and in doing so you give your body more time to recover, and can actually train more often.

The research done by Mentzer showed that about 95% of muscular gains are made in the first work set, and that working to failure is the best way to generate new muscle growth. Performing the following sets does not lead to much additional muscle growth, and can potentially lead to overtraining.

Dorian Yates used the 1 set method for compound exercises. For all the big movements he would perform just one set, usually less than 8 reps. Compare this to Arnold Schwarzenegger who reportedly spent about 6 hours some days in the gym pumping iron.

Dorian is a great believer that no training system is universally applicable to all and that any system should be modified to one’s personal characteristics. We are all different and all respond to different levels of intensity in different ways.

Dorian Yate’s Stats at his Peak in 1994

  • Height: 5′ 10″ (1.78m)
  • Competitive weight: 240 lbs
  • Off-season weight: 300 lbs
  • Chest 53″
  • Arms 20″
  • Waist 44″
  • Yhigh 30″
  • Calf 20″

Dorian Yates’ Weekly HIT Workout Training Plan

Note that for each exercise only the last set is the work set. The first set, or in some cases the first two, are warm up sets. The first warm up set should be done with a weight 50% of the work set. The second warm up set should be done with a weight 70% of the work set.

DAY
BODYPART EXERCISE SETS REPS
1
Delts Seated dumbbell presses 1 12
1 10
1 6 – 8
Dumbbell lateral raises 1 10
1 6 – 8
One-arm cable lateral raises 1 8 – 10
Traps Dumbbell shrugs 1 12
Triceps Cable pressdowns 1 12
1 10
1 6 – 8
Lying EZ-bar extensions 1 10
1 6 – 8
One-arm Nautilus extensions 1 10
1 6 – 8
Abs Roman-chair situps 1 20
Crunches 1 20
Reverse crunches 1 20
2
Back Hammer Strength pulldowns (reverse grip) 1 12
1 10
1 6 – 8
or Nautilus pullovers (alternate each workout) 1 12
1 10
1 6 – 8
Barbell rows 1 10
1 6 – 8
One-arm hammer rows 1 6 – 8
Seated cable rows (overhand grip) 1 6 – 8
Rear delts Rear-delt Hammer Strength flyes 1 6 – 8
Bent-over lateral raises 1 6 – 8
Back extensions 1 6 – 8
Deadlifts 1 8
1 6 – 8
3
Total Rest
4
Chest Incline barbell presses 1 12
1 10
1 6 – 8
Machine seated presses 1 10
1 6 – 8
Incline dumbbell flyes 1 10
1 6 – 8
Cable crossovers 1 8 – 10
Biceps Incline dumbbell curls 1 10
1 6 – 8
Standing EZ-bar curls 1 10
1 6 – 8
Preacher machine curls 1 6 – 8
Abs Roman-chair situps 1 20
Crunches 2 20
Reverse crunches 2 20
5
Total Rest
6
Quadriceps Leg extensions 1 15
1 12
1 10 – 12
Leg presses 1 12
1 12
1 10 – 12
Hack squats 1 12
1 8 – 12
Hamstrings Lying leg curls 1 8 – 10
1 8 – 10
Stiff-leg deadlifts 1 10
Single-leg curls 1 8 – 10
Calves Standing calf raises 1 10 – 12
1 10 – 12
Seated calf raises 1 10 – 12
7
Total Rest

Keep a Weight Training Log

If the final set is too easy, just increase the weights of each set in the next session. Remember that it is important to keep a good training log if you are planning this sort of training, as it is difficult to remember where you fail and what is easy otherwise.

Keep notes on how easy or difficult each final lift was, this way you can prepare before for the next workout. The warm up set should be about half of the final lift, and the first work set should be about 75% of the final set. But really you need to find a routine that you enjoy and that is giving you results.

Some people prefer to warm up with much lighter weights and perform a couple of sets of 20 to ensure good blood flow, others ignore the warm up sets completely and start with a slightly easier 10 rep set.

Mike Mentzer developed his training methods, to eventually reduce both reps and numbers of exercises. Compare an early Mike Mentzer HIT workout to the one here.

If you plan to start a H.I.T. routines you really need to plan and split your routine to ensure you work your whole body (or the areas that require most work) over the week, and that you do not overwork the same groups which can have detrimental effects and increase the risk of injury. For more on split routines read Standard Push & Pull Split Routine.

References

The effects of either high-intensity resistance or endurance training on resting metabolic rate.” By Broeder CE, Burrhus KA, Svanevik LS, Wilmore JH. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992 Apr;55(4):802-10. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1550062. Originally published on Sep 10, 2007. Republished Aug 13, 2011.

Training to Failure and Beyond in Mainstream Resistance Exercise Programs“. Willardson, Jeffrey M PhD, CSCS; Norton, Layne; Wilson, Gabriel MS, CSCS. Strength & Conditioning Journal:June 2010 – Volume 32 – Issue 3 – pp 21-29 doi:  10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181cc2a3a

Moderate Volume of High Relative Training Intensity Produces Greater Strength Gains Compared With Low and High Volumes in Competitive Weightlifters”. González-Badillo, Juan José; Izquierdo, Mikel; Gorostiaga, Esteban M. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association (J Strength Cond Res) Vol. 20 Issue 1 Pg. 73-81 (Feb 2006) ISSN: 1064-8011 [Print] United States.

Dorian’s training philosophy on hos personal website – www.dorianyates.net

“The age of intensity: Dorian Yates dominated bodybuilding in the 1990s —these are the training philosophies and particulars that set him apart and propelled his rule” by Julian Schmidt for Flex Magazine, May 2008 Issue.

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  4 comments for “High Intensity Weight Training Routines (HIT)

  1. HITman
    August 12, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Unfortunately this is a misleading article. The methods described are not HIT. Practitioners of HIT rarely if ever perform sets of single lifts. The general prescription is 1-3 sets per exercise/muscle, 6-10 reps or 8-12 reps per set, and a maximum of 12 total sets per workout.

  2. MotleyHealth
    August 13, 2009 at 6:48 am

    Oh yes, thanks for that HITman. This article is in desperate need of a major update.

  3. September 21, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Training to failure is only a problem if you do not reduce the volume of training to compensate for the increase in intensity, something the NSCA still doesn’t get.

  4. MotleyHealth
    September 21, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Yeah, I do get the impression that these studies are always trying to drive home an idea. It does say “Failure training performed too frequently” but then you could just as easily say that moderate or volume training performed too frequently would result in overtraining.

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