With the recent trend in HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) Workouts, we put three popular programs to the test
I’m a bit of a fitness junkie and I’ve been an athlete in one form or another for most of my life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always been in the best shape (I have a well-documented love of wine, chocolate, Mexican food, and pretty much every other kind of food, after all!). As I enter my – gulp – mid-30s, I’ve also started to notice that my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Sigh.
At the start of this year (a birthday in early January gives me extra pause for reflection), I decided it was time to lose some weight. I’ve never paid much mind to scales (I prefer to judge by how tight my pants fit), but seeing a burgeoning muffintop in the mirror every time I donned a bathing suit was the clincher.
Over the course of this year I’m happy to say that I’ve gotten into better shape, and it’s been through three different programs that emphasize functional training and efficiency: the Kayla Itsines “Bikini Body Guide” (BBG) Workout, F45 Training and Ritual. While there’s a lot of overlap between these programs in terms of what exercises you do, they’re also very different. Read on for my likes and dislikes to see which one might work for you, mama!
Kayla Itsines BBG
I’ve long been a runner, but I also know that you need to constantly challenge yourself and change up workouts if you want to maintain aerobic fitness and muscle tone. For about a year I’d been hearing about Kayla Itsines and following her meteoric rise on Instagram, and I was intrigued.
For those who don’t know about Kayla Itsines, she’s an Australian fitness trainer who developed an at-home workout that she started distributing as a simple PDF; it caught on like wildfire as women around the world experienced amazing results (the idea is that your body will look fabulous in a bikini, and Itsines encourages you to take selfies in your bathing suit to track your progress). She is particularly known for producing great abs.
While I chafed at the idea of finding validation in how I looked in a bikini, at the same time that was precisely why I wanted to lose weight, so I couldn’t really throw stones from my glass house. Plus, seeing those thousands of Instagram “transformation” selfies from all over the world had me quite curious.
I was put off by the idea of downloading a PDF to follow, but late last year Itsines finally released her program on an app called “Sweat” that not only takes you through her weekly workouts (including three interval-based strength exercises, along with other timed cardio workouts), but also provides in-depth daily recipes to help you eat right. At US$19.99 per month, it was a hell of a lot cheaper than the gym, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try.
How it works:
The BBG workout is spread out over 12 weeks (there’s also a second 12-week program, then you cycle back to the beginning again), with each month getting progressively harder. Each week you do three “Resistance” workouts (Arms, Abs, and Legs) that last for 28 minutes each (initially four sets at 7 minutes each, but eventually two 14-minute sets).
These are TOUGH, mama. Itsines cycles through dozens of exercises, but among her faves are burpees, mountain climbers, squats, push-ups, leg lifts, and various lunges (you do four exercises at a time, cycling through the prescribed number of reps as fast as you can within 7 minutes). She’s a big fan of jumping, which can be hard when you’ve got bad knees like I do (after much consideration, I think the Tuck Jump is my least favorite of all the exercises). Here’s what I wrote during the first week of exercises:
I am SO. SORE. I could barely walk (let alone run) and it hurt to laugh, sit down and get out of bed. By the third workout though (legs), I felt more energized. I’m surprised that arms and abs were the most difficult for me (mountain climber + pushup = THE WORST!).
While the workouts can purportedly be done at home, you need to have a decent amount of equipment on hand, including dumbbells, a jump rope, a bench for jumps, and a medicine ball (I used weights instead, which never seemed to work quite right). During the first 8 weeks of BBG I was able to work out in my condo’s gym, but I then moved to a condo without a gym and the workouts became a bit trickier (somehow working out at home just never felt quite as effective, to say nothing of the fact that my dog was usually trying to lick my sweaty legs the whole time).
You are also meant to do 3-4 “LISS” (low intensity steady state) sessions per week of 30-45 minutes each. This is not super intense cardio, but rather a brisk walk, riding your bike, swimming laps, or a comfortable jog. Itsines says this is actually more effective for burning fat. During weeks 9-12 an additional 15-minute HIIT session is introduced, where you do 30 seconds of intense exercise (I usually ran or swam laps) alternating with 30 seconds at a slower pace. HIIT intervals are bearable on a treadmill, but as I didn’t have one I found it hard to truly push myself, and by the second time I was working through the program I had started omitting the HIIT component.
On top of all this, the app also throws in optional “challenges” – do 1000 reps of ab exercises, or 600 leg exercises, for instance – that basically equate to an additional day of Resistance training. Because I’m competitive I would always do them, but I sometimes kind of resented the additional time commitment. After 8 months of doing the program pretty faithfully (January to August), it felt like too much of a drag on my time and I found myself dreading the sessions (or even worse, ignoring them), rather than looking forward to my workouts. Which is why I wanted to try out F45 and Ritual (more on both of them below!).
What I liked:
The app gives detailed, step-by-step illustrations of each exercise you’re meant to do, and the running clock makes it easy to do the workouts with your phone nearby. I liked being able to look through each of the workouts beforehand so I could pick and choose which one I wanted to do (for instance if my knee was sore one day, I could check to see if that week’s legs workout involved lots of jumping and might choose to postpone).
There’s a lot of flexibility built into the workouts in that you can generally do them wherever, whenever. I often did the ab exercises at 10pm in front of the TV with my husband. From weeks 10-12 I was actually on vacation in France and Italy, but was able to do about 90% of the exercises in public parks (the only thing I was missing were dumbbells – I used wine bottles instead of weights when I needed to do side raises!).
I also love the healthy recipes included in the app – she gives you detailed daily meals plans (including breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack) that even include grocery shopping lists. You really have no excuse not to eat healthy, particularly as the recipes are wholesome and actually quite varied, with everything from pasta, to homemade burgers, to salads and fruit smoothies.
And yes, when I went through the first time around, I really liked the results. By the end of week 2 my legs and love handles felt just a little bit firmer; after four weeks I saw some definition in my abs; and at 10 weeks (pictured above) I’d lost inches on my thighs and waist, and both my arms and abs were nicely toned. Unfortunately weeks 11 and 12 were a bit of a lost cause for me due to the aforementioned vacation in France and Italy, when I gorged on wine, baguettes, cheese, pasta, gelato, and every other delicious food (not that I would exchange a second of that). Even though I dedicatedly stuck to the workouts, clearly diet is an important driver for results (duh), and I feel like I spent months working off the weight that I’d gained during vacation.
What I didn’t like:
It can be hard to feel like you’re effectively doing the workouts at home if you don’t have every single piece of equipment called for. It can also be exceedingly difficult to motivate yourself; I knew going in that I really liked gym classes where trainers are there to cheer you on, and found myself really missing that. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if I’d paired up with a buddy? BBG has a devout online community, but I never really got into it.
Ultimately I found myself getting really stressed out about when I would fit in a workout. I’d take my dog for walks around the neighborhood at night to satisfy the LISS requirement, and would end up circling the block (much to his confusion) because I needed to hit the 40-minute time guideline. While I guess theoretically you could fit all of the workouts into four days of the week, with a toddler and a busy job I struggled to do that effectively.
Does it work?
Resoundingly, YES. I was delighted with the progress I saw between weeks 4, 8 and 10. While I think diet played a role in the results tailing off after that, I might have also just stopped pushing myself quite as hard. Instagram is filled with photos of women who see amazing results over the course of a year or six months, so clearly it’s possible, but for me the most dramatic change was during the first 10 weeks. If you’re looking to kickstart your workouts, or lose weight in a healthy and effective manner, the 12-week BBG program is great. I personally had trouble keeping up my intensity and focus after a few months, however.
Describing itself as “the most innovative, challenging and systemised team training workout in the world,” F45 (the F stands for “Functional”, the 45 is how long a typical workout lasts) started in Australia — apparently those Aussies know a thing or two about fitness. It is 16 unique workouts (with names like Romans, Athletica, and Hollywood), comprising 1,000 different exercises in all, each finely tuned to achieve maximum results.
As with Kayla Itsines, you work your way through various exercises for intervals ranging from 20-45 seconds. There’s a whole lot more variety, though, as you’ll sometimes work your way through up to 27 different stations, ranging from an exercise bike, to pull-ups, to a rowing machine, to shuttle sprints. Everything is done on a strict timer (if you’re late for that 12pm class, too bad!), with videos of each exercise playing on a high-def video screen throughout the workout. Two trainers are there to make sure you’re doing your exercise properly, and of course to keep you motivated.
There are currently four F45 studios in Singapore (Novena, South Buona Vista, Tanjong Katong and Amoy Street), with an additional 10 opening soon – clearly the F45 trend has taken Singapore by storm. If Kayla Itsines is streamlined so you can do it at home, F45 is at the opposite end of the spectrum – each studio is loaded with so many fitness goodies (OMG those weighted ropes!) that it would take years to try them all out.
What I liked
I tried four different workouts during my 2-week trial, and liked that there’s variation between cardio and strength workouts. Every single one left me friggin’ exhausted, though! It’s easy to book, either online or through F45’s own app.
As aforementioned, I really like the range in equipment – it would take a really long time to get bored doing F45 because there’s so much variation, and you never know exactly which exercises you’ll be doing (even the trainers don’t know – workouts are newly generated from a central computer each day).
I also enjoyed the sense of camraderie that quickly forms with the other people in the class, basically it’s like, “We’re all in this drudgery together!” and you feel a tremendous sense of relief and accomplishment once the class is over. The trainers were all really enthusiastic and supportive, which can truly make or break a workout. F45 also has a cool feature where you can wear a special heart rate monitor that projects how hard you’re working onto the screen so you can see how you stack up against everyone else in the class. This obviously gets the competitive juices flowing and keeps you honest. They’ve also recently introduced a new workout called “3-peat” where you compete to meet targets at various stations and get a final score when you’re done, which you can revisit 3 months down the road. This interactivity and responsiveness is very cool and unique among many other gym classes, I think.
Finally, while there’s some variation in how hard you push yourself, it’s hard not to get a really good workout if you’re exercising for a full 45 minutes (or close to an hour, in the case of Hollywood!).
What I didn’t like
In comparison to the other HIIT workouts in this article (BBG and Ritual), F45 takes up a lot more time. Perhaps this means you’re burning twice as many calories and getting twice as strong – I haven’t done it long enough to know. It is definitely a really good workout, but it also requires a bigger time commitment. (The program recommends doing at least three classes per week to achieve optimum results.)
Classes are also offered on a more limited schedule (around six sessions per day on weekdays, and just two on Saturdays). Currently the closest studio to me is a 15-minute drive away, and given the tight timeline that classes run on, I was perpetually nervous about being late.
Does it work?
Absolutely! After two weeks I was noticeably stronger and had more definition in my arms and abs. I’ve done my fair share of gym classes over the years (Total Body Conditioning, Body Combat, Spinning, Pilates, Zumba, etc.) but I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything as well-rounded and comprehensive. If you can make the commitment to F45, mama, you will definitely reap the rewards.
How much does it cost?
F45 offers a huge range of membership options and prices vary by location. At South Buona Vista where I did my trial, prices range from $75 per week for a weekly membership, to $288 for a monthly membership. You can also pay $40 per class a la carte, or $350 for a block of 10 classes that can be done at any of the different studios.
Billing itself as “The 30-Minute Gym,” Ritual was established in 2013 by Singaporean trainer Ian Tan, who developed an ultra-efficient workout training both his business partner, Brad Robinson, and TV personality Oli Pettigrew (who details his amazing 6-week transformation while preparing for a Men’s Health cover shoot here). The original location is at Boat Quay, while a new location opened up in Holland Village this September.
Ritual’s workouts are super-short: just 20 minutes in total, with about 12 minutes of work time. But they are also super-efficient; Tan’s “Progressive Sequence Training” program combines strength and conditioning, progressive overload, HIIT, and functional training so you’re doing intervals of exercises like burpees, kettlebell swings, pull-ups, push-ups, squats, and lunges. It’s all very similar to Kayla Itsines, with a few more pieces of equipment – including medicine balls, kettlebells, dumbbells, pull-up rings, and TRX suspension training bands – thrown in. Plus heaps of recent research have convinced me that short workouts really can be effective.
Most days I have found myself gasping for air by the end of the workout. And in just under a month, I’ve also noticed much more definition in my arms and abs, and better flexibility in my legs. It’s kind of amazing. The benefit of HIIT is that it can keep metabolic rates elevated for up to 48 hours afterwards – so it’s worth it to go hard for that limited period of time because it’s over before you know it anyway.
Each day a team of trainers devises a different interval workout (at three different ability levels), with 30-minute sessions offered throughout the day from 6:30am-8:30pm on weekdays and 10am-6pm on both Saturdays and Sundays. One trainer will supervise up to 6 people, with a max of 10 people (and two trainers) per session. The flexible schedule is so rad! There’s also a handy app that lets you book sessions instantly; I can leave a meeting at 11 and book in for an 11:30 session en route.
Convenience and efficiency really figure into every aspect of Ritual; there’s no need to schlep a gym bag along, because they provide workout clothes and workouts are done barefoot so there’s no need for sneakers (they also have really nice showers). When you’re all done, you can grab a meal replacement shake at the “Fuel Bar” outside (I highly recommend the “King Kong” with chocolate protein powder, bananas, almonds, cinnamon, and spinach thrown in!). If you’ve ever rushed to a gym class during your lunch hour, you know how hectic it can be trying to work out, shower, and grab lunch within that tight timeframe – at Ritual you can do it all in 30 minutes (hence their tagline). Again, kind of amazing.
What I liked
I really can’t overstate the convenience factor here – it’s almost addictive. Each day I find myself eager to find out what that day’s workout will be, because chances are it will be totally different from the day before (by far the hardest session I’ve done involved four sets of burpees – totally brutal). But seriously, just when a workout seems to be killing you, it’s over. They are so short you simply don’t have time to give up and quit – it’s pretty inspiring.
The staff is really friendly, greeting me by name and closely monitoring my progress and form to make sure I’m doing the various exercises correctly. A few of the trainers are really awesome motivators, too (some are a bit more low-key).
Depending on the day, the music can be outstanding. Tuesdays and Fridays are my fave because they’re old-school rap days, with everything from Outkast to Wu Tang Clan to A Tribe Called Quest. On other days you’re more apt to hear rock or electronic music.
In comparison to most other gyms where you have to work around a limiting schedule, or fight off other people to reserve a spot, you can pretty much always find an open slot at Ritual. The scheduling flexibility is like a breath of fresh air.
What I didn’t like
With everyone wearing matching outfits (I generally seem to be the only person in a class wearing my own clothes – what can I say? I like wearing tank tops), and the mystical logo on all the walls, it can feel a little culty at times. I don’t mind, though, and have to admit that the inspirational sayings (for instance, “2.08% of your day is basically nothing”) sometimes actually put a smile on my face during the workouts.
As aforementioned, there’s great variation in the enthusiasm of the trainers. Some of them clap and pump you up and encourage you to push harder or achieve a certain number of reps, while others seem to barely notice and are merely there to man the timer and let you know when it’s time to move on to the next exercise. I wouldn’t say this detracts from the overall setup, just that certain trainers can really elevate a session to the next level (and unfortunately there’s no set schedule where you can see which trainers are working when).
While overall I really like the sleek, minimalist studio, I kind of wish that it had mirrors. My understanding is that they purposefully don’t have mirrors because you’re not meant to focus on aesthetics or visual results (and I totally love that), however sometimes I wish I could check my form on exercises like kettleball swings or pull-ups.
Finally, a word of warning to the shy: the locker room is unisex. Don’t worry, mama, there are private changing cubicles and spacious shower stalls, but the bathroom is shared. And it just feels strange to pull clothes out of my locker while standing next to a dude.
Does it work?
So far, so good. I’ve been doing Ritual for nearly a month and have noticed an increase in muscle tone and flexibility. I’ve also rediscovered a willingness to work out every day that I seemed to lose at some point with BBG (when I had started to dread and avoid the workouts). It’s just so easy and convenient – I live close by to the Holland Village studio – that I feel like I’m always able to squeeze in a workout without much fuss.
How much does it cost?
Yearly memberships (which you can pay on a monthly basis) are $329/month for a standard membership or $199/month for an off-peak membership (limited to 8:30am-11:30am and 2pm-5pm). You can also get 10-class packages or pay by the session, or sign up for a 1- or 2-week trial to get a better idea of how it works.
So that’s where I’m at right now. Check in with me in a few months to see how my HIIT journey is going, mama!