It comes up all the time to the unfamiliar: “CrossFit is just HIIT, right?” Before I give you my take, let’s take a look at High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT.
What Is HIIT?
HIIT is a specialized and programmable form of interval training that combines alternating periods of intense anaerobic work with less-intense rest periods. These have been trending in the past decade because they work, but the truth is that HIIT is nothing new. In the 1930s, the Swedish were tired of losing to the Finns in cross-country competitions. A guy by the name of Gösta Holmér decided to put his athletes through workouts that incorporated brief amounts of fast-paced runs followed by a slower pace for long distances. He called it “speedplay” in his native language, which translates to “fartlek.” Anyone who has ever trained for an aerobic race over 5K has probably heard of fartleks because they are commonly-practiced methodology in those realms of exercise. Of course, this has been translated into the fitness world to transcend more than running technique; it builds athletes.
HIIT is a great way to burn a lot of fat, sculpt muscle, and build athletic efficacy in a short amount of time. Now the public is finding out that HIIT works! Fitness fads, such as the “Insanity” and “P90X” DVDs build upon this method, as well as the actors who starred in the movie “300,” who had to transform their bodies into Spartans in a short span of time. Along with the rapid evolution in social communication, it didn’t take long for the public to figure out the secrets of the professionals.
So, it “burns a lot of fat, sculpts muscles, builds athletic efficacy…” Sounds a lot like the benefits of CrossFit; therefore many people assume that CrossFit and HIIT must be the same thing. But let me explain why that is only a partially-correct answer.
“The Fran Example”
Yes, it’s true that CrossFit programming includes elements of HIIT training (Tabata intervals, for example). But to say that they are the same thing is a misnomer; HIIT is but a portion of the pie when you are talking about constant-variance through functional movements at high intensity across broad time and modal domains. I like to use the Fran example:
Fran is a set-structure of 21-15-9 thrusters followed by pull-ups for time. Most CrossFitters achieve this by breaking them up; one example is to do 3 sets of 7 reps for the 21, 3 sets of 5 reps for the 15, and 3 sets of 3 reps for the 9. It’s intense, it’s broken up into sets and reps with little rest and it’s done rapidly; so yes, that’s an interval workout.
But consider this: for a competitive CrossFitter, is Fran an “interval exercise?” Some of the elite have sub 2-minute Fran times, and they don’t break that up at all; it’s a continuous motion from 21 thrusters and pulls ups all the way down to the last 9. So Fran is only a “HIIT exercise” if you scale it down to one.
What I’m trying to say is, HIIT is not inclusive enough to be considered the exact same as CrossFit. You can do “Fight Gone Bad” — one of the more a more classic benchmark workouts — every single day, but is that “CrossFit”? Where’s the constant-variance? Where’s the broad modal and time domains? Where’s the unknown and unknowable?
Going Beyond HIIT
To “CrossFit” means you are building athletic efficacy through all physical domains. You touch upon metabolic conditioning, gymnastics and weightlifting modalities. You squat, you run, you flip tires, you muscle-up, you burpee, you snatch. The variance is just as much a part of CrossFit as the HIIT-portion is. CrossFit is also scalable; it believes that our needs in fitness vary by degree but not kind. Even the simple fact that you don’t know what you’re getting into until a couple hours before your WOD is part of being prepared for the unknown and the unknowable, unlike a 6-week workout routine where it is all planned out for you.
CrossFit even has guidelines for nutritional and competitive eating plans, mobility guides and specialty courses for a myriad of sport-specific skills like martial arts and football. All these elements are what make CrossFit programming so unique and different than just “working out.”
Many find that CrossFit is the holistic prescription for health and fitness, and it would be unfair to consider it exactly like HIIT. It doesn’t mean we don’t do it and it doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it’s simply much more profound than just high-intensity intervals.