What is High Intensity Functional Training?

By on January 8, 2021

High intensity functional training is a new term for something that has been around for a while. It is also used in a fairly vague and nebulous manner. So, what is high intensity functional training?

High intensity functional training

High intensity functional training (HIFT) employs functional exercises performed rapidly, often in a circuit-like manner, and with minimal rest periods.

As a form of functional training, there is a preference for movements that actively engage the whole body in useful movements. These movements encourage stability, explosiveness, coordination, and endurance. This type of training should offer superior transference to real-world activities.

See also: What is Functional Training? Training for Athletes and for Life

In this post, I’ll disseminate the concept a little more, compare it to other forms of training, and discuss its merits or lack thereof.

High Intensity Functional Training: The Good

In a recent post, I shared an easy functional training workout for beginners. There, I talked about the challenge people face who want to train functionally but cannot currently perform even a single push up. I also expressed how beneficial a functional routine would be for that person. If someone can learn the necessary control and strength to perform movements like the push up, then they will not only tone muscle and burn calories, but also unlock more difficult training options. Not to mention preventing injury and aiding performance in a whole host of sports and tasks!

What is high intensity functional training

The best approach here, would be to write a routine filled with relatively easy movements that nevertheless require some core stability, endurance, and coordination.

A very simple example might be a star jump, which requires a certain amount of explosiveness along with coordinated movement of all four limbs.

Another option would be an incline push up, or even push up against a wall.

Performed for time, this would build work capacity and a stable foundation of strong, confident movement. This foundation could then “unlock” countless other training opportunities. In short, it makes a person more athletic.

In short, it makes a person more athletic.

This is essentially what high intensity functional training is good for. By selecting exercises like this and completing them back-to-back with a moderate-to-high level of intensity, you can create workouts that are fun, varied, challenging, and educational. These workouts teach the individual to move the entire body as a single unit, with intent. And we can introduce other movements to develop things like hip stability, single-leg strength, anti-flexion, you name it!

We can introduce battle ropes, gymnastic rings, medicine balls, sandbags… you name it!

High Intensity Functional Training for Endurance and Work Capacity

Because these exercises are performed for higher-rep ranges, they will help the individual to move powerfully and confidently for longer. In the real world, this is more useful than being able to move something extremely heavy just once.

Functional training with battle ropes

Because the whole body is being used in high intensity functional training, the heart has to supply lots of different muscle groups with fuel over an extended period. In other words, your heart rate will increase and you’ll improve general fitness and body composition.

In these ways, high intensity functional training has many of the same benefits of playing a sport – but with the addition of focused repetitions to bring about specific adaptations (more strength and size in particular muscle groups).

High intensity functional training has many of the same benefits of playing a sport.

And, of course, at a more advanced level, high intensity functional training can involve more challenging movements performed under grueling conditions. This has a lot of potential for training actual athletes. And for “SuperFunctional Training” (teaching you to be more awesome than you need to be for your actual lifestyle).

High Intensity Functional Training: The Bad

The problem is that high intensity functional training is a very vague term and may lead to some bad programming depending on the interpretation.

High intensity functional training has a lot in common with CrossFit on the surface. In CrossFit, trainees are asked to perform movements like snatches and muscle ups for high reps to time (AMRAP: As Many Reps As Possible). They may also be asked to go for long runs prior and immediately following these exercises.

Improving Proprioception

This can introduce a serious risk of injury. Movements like the snatch are not well suited to high repetition as they are highly technical with a high risk of injury. Perform 30 reps and you will be fatigued half-way through and much more likely to put your back out. Especially if you just got done running a 10 minute mile.

The same issue can rear it’s head in high intensity functional training. It’s important that exercise selection is considered carefully then, to avoid the use of dangerous and neurologically-intensive movements while fatigued.

High Intensity Functional Training vs High Intensity Interval Training

The other issue comes when considering the role of high intensity functional training versus high intensity interval training (HIIT).

HIIT involves rapidly switching from high intensity activity to recovery periods (active or otherwise). So, you might sprint for one minute and walk for 30 seconds, before repeating. Or you might do a Tabata workout with kettlebells; performing 20 seconds of kettlebell swings followed by 10 seconds of rest for a total of eight rounds.

Bodyweight row with sticks

The goal of successful interval training is to switch between the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. This forces the body to utilize energy that’s freely available in the blood and in the muscles, thereby encouraging an extended period of fat burning (the “afterburn effect”).

This also helps to improve mitochondrial function, which enhances energy efficiency and even longevity.

But this only works when the “intense” period is sufficient to force a switch to predominantly anaerobic systems. In other words, you need to sprint and not just jog during the high intensity period. This is missing from a lot of poorly designed HIIT sessions, meaning that they aren’t truly HIIT at all (which is not to say they’re useless).

Kettlebell swing

This also means that you likely won’t get the same HIIT benefits from HIFT – that’s not the point here. So, don’t get confused by the similar names!

HIFT has a lot more in common with a regular circuit or metabolic conditioning. If there is “insufficient recovery” involved it will still improve cardiovascular fitness, fat burning, and more. But it’s not HIIT unless very specific criteria are met.

Closing Comments

So, that’s high intensity functional training! Used correctly, this has the potential to be a gauntlet of functional, complex movements performed back to back. It can burn calories, strengthen muscle, and increase athleticism. It’s just a shame that the term is a little vague and has such potential for misinterpretation and confusion.

What do you think about high intensity functional training? Let me hear it in the comments!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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