New trend has fitness buffs working harder in shorter bursts

Special to the Sunday News
January 12. 2013 10:23PM
Donna Langley of Auburn works the battling ropes during a circuit of a TRX Class at Gold's Gym in Manchester on Wednesday. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

For a while there, it was a kinder, gentler scene in the fitness studio. People posed as downward dogs, tai chi'd their way to a flexible calm and lolled through core-plucking hours of Pilates - often to what sounded like an all-Enya soundtrack.

But times have changed.

More workouts these days are power-packed sessions bursting with short, quick exercises in hefting, pulling and strengthening. And while there is nothing wrong with the slower, gentler routines - many people stay fit and lose weight with them - there is a growing shift in the Granite State toward the high-intensity workout.

Part of the reason for that, said Dan Tirabassi, personal trainer at Granite State Kettlebells, is the amount of scientifically researched information available on the effectiveness of workouts that involve short, fast, powerful movements.

Peter Sebert, healthy-lifestyles coordinator at the Keene YMCA, also points out that the increased popularity in CrossFit and Challenge Race competitions, both of which are essentially high-intensity, hyper-challenging, obstacle-based fitness events that have popped up all over the country.

"These have gotten a lot of people to look for the really unique and high-intensity ways to train," Sebert said. "We used to have boxing and wrestling and martial arts. But human nature is to see how far we can push things."

TRX, P90X and HIIT

One such high-intensity way to train is through TRX Suspension workouts, a Navy SEALs creation that uses a suspension apparatus - basically nylon straps with handles slung over a door or other stationary object will use a person's body weight to develop strength, balance, flexibility and core stability.

Another increasingly popular workout is HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), which is a form of cardio training composed of a high-intensity burst of activity followed by a low- to moderate-intensity period and a short recovery interval, with the cycle repeated throughout the duration of the workout. The idea is that the intensity of the first part of the cycle keeps the body burning fat longer than sustained periods of activity. Plus, HIIT workouts are very short - usually only about 20 to 30 minutes.

A subset of HIIT is Tabata, which offers a similar experience, except it's done in four minutes.

P90X also has found its way into local gyms. Popularized as a home-based workout system, it's now available around the state at facilities offering the intensive components of the program.

Developed by trainer Tony Horton for the company Beachbody and advertised as an extreme, 90-day fitness program, P90X integrates cardio workouts with weight and resistance training, yoga and plyometrics (fast, powerful movements), as well as stretching routines. The at-home workout also includes a three-phase eating program with the names Fat Shredder, Energy Booster and Endurance Maximizer.

According to the P90X website, the program works because of muscle confusion, the notion being that by mixing a variety of different workouts and routines, the program challenges the body's muscles in a fashion that forces them to grow. This, muscle-confusion proponents say, not only keeps variety in the workout also produces better and faster results.

Kettlebell and CrossFit

Kettlebell-workout participants use cast iron weights ranging in size from 5 pounds to well over 100 pounds to complete a series of exercises that includes squats, lunges, pulling and hinging, among others.

"The Kettlebell is a main tool, but we don't use it every day for everything," Tirabassi said. "But we practice all of the basic movements - movements that people do at some point naturally in their day-to-day lives.

"We put those in different variable-type routines just to make it fun and exciting. That's how we would do it, and that's how most kettlebell gyms would do it."

Then there's CrossFit, a program based on the workouts used to train military and law-enforcement officers.

"This is really a new development in fitness, where people are actually in competition and becoming professional fitness athletes," said Sebert. "And their competition is to work out."

And they don't know exactly what's coming.

Upon arriving to compete in an event, professional CrossFit athletes are instructed to, say, do a 5K run, swim a mile, perform all sorts of Olympic power lifts, and do as many pull-ups as they can. Sometimes all of this is done on an obstacle course.

"And they never know until they are right there what the events are going to be," Sebert said. "So they just have to be so fit and ready to handle anything."

Some gyms cater only to people competing in those kinds of events while others offer classes modeled after those workouts as a way to provide a variety of effective options, Sebert said.

Choose the right workout

As with any strenuous workout - but especially with such high-intensity activity - caution is advised. These workouts are not for everybody. With that in mind, many gyms do adjust workouts to meet the fitness level of the people attempting the exercise.

"Making sure you are comfortable with the routine that you are getting is important," said Catherine Fabbri, a physical therapist and athletic trainer with Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Keene. "And if it's on your own and you're doing it in your own home, make sure you are paying attention to form. Form is also really important in the classes."

Trainers interviewed for this story all recommended starting at a certain level of fitness before attempting these classes. Sebert recommended that for every month a person has been away from fitness, he or she should take that long to work up to programs like these.

"We have to be honest with ourselves," he said.

It's also important, said Maria Oberlander, another physical therapist at Cheshire Medical, to make sure the trainer or instructor of the class is certified.

Determining that, she said, usually is just a matter of asking or looking for certifications on the wall.

"Ask as many questions as possible," she said.

And, most important, she said: Stop if it hurts.

"If something doesn't feel good, chances are your form isn't correct," Oberlander said. "And it's important to call your instructor's attention to help you. And also recognizing your own limits. If something is too intense for you, ask for an alternative - or you yourself pull back a little bit."

Ideally, results will be fast and noticeable. But any exercise is better than no exercise, the experts point out. The most effective workout is the one you actually do.

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