Expert Answers: HIIT for Weight Loss, Joint Pain and More

We get the pros to answer your questions on high-intensity interval training for weight loss, easing joint pain, going deep on squats and more.

people on cardio equipment

Q1: Is HIIT the way to go for weight loss?

I’ve read that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is great for burning fat and losing weight — maybe even better than steady-state aerobic activity. Should I give it a try?

A. This is an ongoing — and often intense — debate, but experts increasingly seem to be siding with the HIIT approach. “At this point, there’s no longer an opinion when it comes to HIIT vs. steady-state aerobic activity; there’s only fact,” says Robert dos Remedios, director of speed, strength and conditioning at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., and author of Cardio Strength Training: Torch Fat, Build Muscle and Get Stronger Faster (Rodale, 2009). “The research shows not only superior fat loss with HIIT, but also superior aerobic and cardiovascular benefits. I see this with my athletes, as well.”

The ratio of the fat calories you burn during lower-intensity exercise is technically higher, but the number of calories you burn overall is lower — unless you exercise for a long, long time. Most people have a limited amount of time available for working out, so HIIT tends to be a more practical approach.

Fat loss, says Dos Remedios, is all about building muscle, increasing your metabolism, and creating an “afterburn” effect, where your body burns more calories for hours after exercise — a process known as excess post­exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. And you can only trigger EPOC when you’re going all out.

Q2: What will help me ease my joint pain?

Recently, I’ve been suffering from some severe joint pain, but I’m concerned about becoming dependent on NSAIDs like ibuprofen and aspirin. Are there any foods, herbs or vitamins that will help ease the pain?

A. There are plenty of health-promoting options that ease swelling. “Healthy fats are anti-inflammatory, especially the polyunsaturated fats that can be found in cold-water fish — salmon,cod and anchovies, for example — and raw nuts such as walnuts and almonds, and seeds like pumpkin and sunflower,” says Marie Winters, ND, a naturopathic physician at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at East Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia. “Thai basil, rosemary and the spices in curries (especially ginger, turmeric and cayenne) are also anti-inflammatory.”

Winters recommends checking out the supplement Zyflamend, which combines some of the spices above. She also suggests a digestive enzyme called Wobenzym, which helps mitigate joint inflammation when taken without food.

“There’s strong scientific evidence in favor of vitamin D3, willow bark and chondroitin sulfate for decreasing joint pain,” says Bryan P. Walsh, ND, a naturopath in Ellicott City, Md. “Another promising supplement is S-adenosylmethionine, or SAMe [pronounced ‘sam-EE’].” Work with your health practitioner to figure out appropriate dosages.

But before exploring these options, says Walsh, it’s important to determine why you’re suffering from joint pain in the first place. If it’s wear and tear, it could be osteoarthritis, and the above recommendations will likely be helpful. If, on the other hand, the pain is caused by rheumatoid arthritis (where the immune system attacks the joints), you might require a more detailed treatment program.

A poor diet or food intolerances can also cause a bodywide inflammatory reaction, says Walsh. He recommends doing an elimination diet (no gluten, dairy, soy, corn, sugar or artificial sweeteners) for three weeks, then see how you feel as you reintroduce each potentially inflammatory agent. (For a good elimination-diet protocol, see “The UltraSimple Slimdown” at ELmag.com/ultrasimple.)

Q3: How deep should I go on my squats?

When I’m doing weighted squats, how low can I go before I risk a knee injury? Is below parallel OK?

A. The simple answer to this frequently asked question is to go as low as you can. Properly executed deep squats (where the hips dip below the knees) do not increase knee ligament laxity or instability and can actually increase muscle recruitment, says Kelli Calabrese, MS, international master trainer for the worldwide Adventure Boot Camp chain, based in Orange County, Calif. The hamstrings, inner thighs, lower back, glutes and small stabilizer muscles surrounding the knees become more involved, and using more muscles can ultimately lead to increased performance.

But remember: Form always trumps depth. You should go only as low as you can while maintaining perfect form. Ask a personal trainer to offer a critique: If your knees or ankles cave inward or you lose the natural curve of your lumbar spine at any point, you need to address those issues (flexibility, strength, alignment) before you add more depth. When a squat is done properly, the knees track directly over the pinky toes, the spine stays neutral, and the hamstrings, lower back and adductors (inner thighs) stay engaged throughout the full range of motion.

If you’re striving to go deeper, says Calabrese, start gradually and back off if you’re feeling any pain.

Fitness Fix: IT Band Solutions

Is mysterious knee or hip pain curtailing your workouts? Tight iliotibial bands may be to blame.

Your iliotibial (IT) bands are thick lengths of connective tissue that run from each hip to the outside of the tibia (shin bone) just below the knee; they steady the femur and stabilize your knee joint. Every time you flex and extend your knee, they glide over a knob of knee bone called the lateral epicondyle and its neighboring bursa sac. When IT bands tighten up, however, they don’t so much glide as hiccup over that bump, causing pain on the outside of the knee that may radiate up to the hip.

This condition is known as iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), and its causes range from repetitive activity to various biomechanical abnormalities. Weakness of the muscles that attach to the IT bands — often the glutes, but also the hamstrings and quads — can contribute to the problem.

Treatment usually consists of foam rolling and massaging the IT bands and muscles that attach to them. “Strengthening the hips and glutes can also prevent undue biomechanical stress on the IT bands,” says Phil Malloy, PT, a physical therapist based in Chicago. In addition, he suggests having your gait analyzed to address specific areas of tightness and weakness.

A physical therapist can diagnose ITBS using specific tests, but most of us could stand to loosen up our IT bands. Try the following two exercises for three sets of 10 to 15 reps three times a week. Malloy says you should notice a difference in approximately four to six weeks.

IT Band Foam Roll 

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  • Lie on your side with the foam roller positioned perpendicular to your bottom leg, just below your hipbone. Position your upper leg in front of you for balance.
  • Using your hands for support, roll from the top of your outer thigh down to just above your knee, straightening your front leg as you go. Pause over any spots where the tissue feels especially tight or knotted, and hold for at least 10 seconds. Reverse the motion, rolling from your knee back up to your hip. Repeat on your other leg.

Side-Lying Clams

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  • Lie on one side, flexing your hips to 30 degrees and your knees to 90 degrees.
  • Keeping your heels touching and pelvis perfectly still (this is important!), lift your top knee slightly by contracting your glutes, then return to the start.
  • Repeat the movement slowly 10 to 15 times before switching sides.

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