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HIIT Classes: are they making your knee pain worse? Probably.




I run a small number of classes each week for Cycle Beats in Acomb and every time I spot someone new in one of my classes I’ll check in - ‘do you have any injuries that I need to know about?’. The most common complaint is a dodgy, painful knee.


Sometimes this knee pain stems from a specific event but often there’s no clear cause and the individual is at a loss as to what has caused it. They exercise regularly, attending HIIT and other high intensity classes and they claim to do lots of walking. So what’s causing it and why isn’t it going away?


HIIT classes are super popular these days. HIIT, Body Pump, all the other big franchise classes that basically consist of getting as sweaty as possible and not being able to walk down the stairs once you’ve finished. I’m not bashing every single class - there are lots of good instructors, Cycle Beats instructors included. But more often than not, it’s fast paced, minimal rest, lots of jumping and squatting and either mindlessly copying an instructor or being left to your own devices and hoping you’re doing things properly.


There are two aspects of HIIT or fast paced, poorly planned exercise classes that I think contribute to either causing or maintaining knee pain.


Firstly, the sheer volume of training. This covers both the number of sessions people will do in a week AND the volume of exercises in each session. I’ve had clients who would attend classes upwards of 5x a week, sometimes back to back, often with less than 24 hours rest in between. It’s great that these people are so active and enthusiastic about exercise but if they do the same kind of workout each time then the training volume and reps get unnecessarily high, really fast. If you do jump squats or jump lunges in every session, that could see you doing upwards of 400 jump squats in a week. If you’ve already got a dodgy knee or your form is off just because you’re tired - this is gonna cause you some problems.


The average gym class goer is unlikely to be able to maintain high quality jump squats for more than 20 seconds. I’ll go out on a limb to say that a lot of ‘HIIT’ style classes run their work periods for 20-40 seconds. So once you’ve gone past 20 seconds and rep quality has gone to shit, what’s happening? It’s certainly nothing good. Repeat that 5x a session, 2-5x a week and your knee will be knackered in a year. It’s a wholly unsustainable way of training that is inappropriate for the majority of those who take part. But people love feeling like they’ve left their soul in the gym studio, so who cares, right?


The second issue I see with this kind of training comes down to the exercise selection. When you are in a class setting with maybe just a barbell and some battle ropes for equipment - it’s pretty difficult to target your posterior chain. That means you end up with a whole load of pushing and squatting movements and little to no pulling or posterior chain exercises. So instead of having a balance of squats and deadlifts through the week - the knee just gets overloaded with poor quality, high speed squats and jumps and doesn’t get the respite it needs to recover and grow.


I used to deliver (I didn’t plan sessions) a HIIT style class for another instructor when I first qualified. This class was aimed at over 40s and almost everyone who attended had a dodgy knee that was causing them pain. But when they asked for help with this, they were either told it’s just because they’re overweight or that nothing can be done about that. Yet in those sessions there was nothing but high rep squats, lunges, jumps - everything that could possibly load the knee up - and no deadlifts, bridges or pulling movements. So not only was there a reluctance to actually do some coaching and address the issues, but the sessions were making injuries worse!


This kind of lazy coaching and maximum sweat approach to exercise is the reason so many people fall out of love with it. Obviously there will always be a few outliers whose bodies can maintain this kind of training with little issue. But for the average man/woman who is at the beginning of their fitness journey, returning from an injury or just getting back into things - it shouldn’t be their main source of exercise.


So how can you differentiate between a good exercise class and a bad one?


  • Does the instructor ask about injuries and are they happy to accomodate for them?

  • A class instructor should be able to quickly modify an exercise for someone with an injury and it shouldn’t be a big deal either.


  • Are you pushed til you feel like you’re going to either puke or pass out every session?

  • Effort levels are different for each individual, as is their understanding of how much their body can handle before it says ‘no thank you’ and you puke your guts up. If you come away from every session feeling that way you’re unlikely to be able to recover effectively and it can also create a feeling of dread associated with the exercise. It should be a joy to move your body. Not a punishment!


  • Do you perform a range of different exercises that involve pushing, pulling, squatting and some form of glute or hamstring specific exercises?

  • A good exercise class will have a balanced exercise selection that targets your whole body and doesn’t work you to absolute exhaustion in just one movement.

That means well coached squats and deadlifts, press ups and pulling movements and a variety of core exercises.


  • Does the instructor correct your form in a helpful manner and offer regressions/progressions to make a movement more appropriate?

  • This also extends to telling you you’ve got too much weight on your bar and stopping you performing poor quality reps. Ego shouldn’t get in the way of quality movement.


  • What is the ratio of instructor to attendee?

  • Ideally no more than 1:12 to ensure that the instructor can effectively keep an eye on everyone and provide effective coaching.


  • Are you making progress?

  • If you’re using the same weights, doing the same exercises every single session and either not making progress or not being given the opportunity to, you’ll never get stronger. Real training should incorporate progressive overload - heavier weights or higher reps. You should make progress.


Of course I’m not going to finish without saying that classes should ideally only form a small portion of your weekly exercise and that strength training is always a better option long term to maintain a strong, healthy body. So while you’re at it, seek out a good coach and even if you don’t train with them long term - go learn how to lift properly! Chances are your knee pain will go away and you’ll make more progress too.


If you’re in York and looking for somewhere that offers a range of good quality exercises classes with good instructors, get yourself down to Cycle Beats. Classes are never so large you get lost in the crowd and it’s a great community. If you want 1-2-1 coaching and help getting rid of your ‘dodgy knee’ you’ve had for two years, drop me an email at ruthellenwhite532@gmail.com or enquire via my website www.ruthellencoaching.com and we’ll get you back to full strength in no time! Cycle Beats classes can be booked here - https://www.cyclebeatsyork.co.uk.



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