Can't Do HIIT? Try PHA Training to Burn Fat and Calories

Woman working out with kettle bell
Jovo Jovanovic/Stocksy United

If you pay any kind of attention to the latest fitness trends, you may think that high intensity interval training is the only way to exercise. And HIIT does have plenty of benefits, from working all the body's energy systems to burning more calories and building endurance. HIIT workouts are short, intense and can be very effective at burning fat.

But, there are some drawbacks to HIIT training. First, you can't do more than two or three high intensity workouts a week or you risk injury and overtraining.

Working at such a high intensity puts a lot of stress on the body, the joints and, especially, the mind. It's very uncomfortable to work at that level of intensity so you really do have to have a mind over matter attitude with these kinds of workouts.

And, what if you can't do this kind of training? What if you're new to exercise or you have joint problems that preclude high intensity and high impact exercise? Perhaps you have high blood pressure, a chronic injury or just really don't like getting so far out of your comfort zone. How can you get the benefits of HIIT without pushing so hard? One study says you absolutely can with a type of workout called peripheral heart action training or PHA.

What Is PHA?

Peripheral heart action training sounds like something you might do in a doctor's office, but it's actually a form of training developed by Dr. Arthur Steinhaus in the 1940s. The idea behind PHA training is to elevate your metabolism by doing exercises in a certain order so that your blood keeps circulating throughout your body.

PHA is basically a type of circuit training that eventually became popular in the 1960s when Mr. Universe, Bob Gajda, started using this kind of training. The idea is that you do five to six exercises, one after the other, with no rests in between just like a typical circuit training workout. The difference is that you alternate between an upper body exercise and a lower body exercise.

That's what keeps the blood circulating during the entire workout.

As with many of the trends that come and go, they often start decades in the past only to come back around and become popular again. What's put PHA on the map is the fact that scientists had never really studied the effects of PHA training until recently when several experts decided to explore the idea that PHA training could be a valid substitute for high intensity interval training.

PHA vs. HIIT

In the study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, participants were randomly assigned to either a high intensity interval group or a PHA group. The study followed the groups over 3 months, with each group working out three times a week with a rest day in between.

The HIIT group's workout looked like this: A 5-minute warm-up on a cycle ergometer and then they went all out as hard as they could for 1 minute, followed by a 2-minute recovery interval. They repeated this five times and then did a 5-minute cooldown.

The PHA group did strength exercises in the following order: Chest press, leg extension, lat pulldown, hamstring curl, overhead press and calf raises. They did 15 reps of each move with no rest in between, then rested for 1 minute before repeating that circuit four more times.

The findings? Interestingly, the experts found that maximal aerobic capacity improved more with PHA than with the HIIT workouts, even though they weren't doing traditional cardio exercise. The authors of the study theorized that alternating from upper to lower body exercises increased blood flow to the extremities—the arms, hands, legs, and feet which can improve your metabolism at the cellular level. They also suggest that this type of training might be a great way to lose weight and fight obesity in people who can't or don't want to do high intensity interval training.

Overall, PHA training increased V02 Max by 8.0 percent, whereas there was an 18.7 percent increase in the HIIT group.

It also increased strength in the muscles worked, the chest, back, shoulders, legs, and calves. Not only that, but the fact that you're alternating between upper and lower body reduces lactic acid, which often causes fatigue, giving you more energy throughout your workout.

Creating Your PHA Workout

While the study had participants doing classic machine exercises at the gym, you can easily create your own PHA workout at home using anything from resistance bands and dumbbells to barbells and kettlebells.

If you're a beginner, this kind of workout will likely be more intense than a typical circuit training workout so you'll want to start out with lighter weights, fewer circuits, and simpler exercises so you don't overdo it.

To make your own PHA workout:

  • Choose six exercises, three for the lower body and three for the upper body. More advanced exercisers should choose compound exercises to add more intensity. For example, pushups, squats, dumbbell rows, lunges, biceps curls and leg lifts.
  • Choose a weight for each exercise that allows you to do no more than 15 reps. Beginners might start with no weight or light weights and slowly work your way up to heavier weights.
  • Alternate an upper and a lower body move with no rest in between.
  • After the first circuit, rest for a minute or so and then complete about one to three cycles if you're a beginner and up to six if you're more advanced.

Below are a variety of workouts that fit different fitness levels. If you're a beginner, you can start with the first one and do that two to three times a week. When it gets easier, you can move up to the more advanced workouts.

Beginner PHA Workout

This workout is perfect if you're new to exercise or if it's been awhile since you've lifted weights. Go easy on the weights for your first workout and focus more on your form.

Equipment

A chair, dumbbells

How to:

  • Warm up with at least 5 minutes of light cardio activity—walking around the house, up and down stairs, etc.
  • Start with the first upper body exercise and complete it as described. Immediately go to the next lower body exercise and complete that set.
  • Continue going through the circuit, alternating the upper body exercise with the lower body exercise, no rests in between.
  • After you finish one circuit, rest for 60 seconds and complete one to two more circuits.
  • Cool down and stretch after your workout.
  • Do this workout two to three times a week with at least one day of rest in between.
Upper Body ExerciseLower Body Exercise
Wall Pushup - Face a wall with the feet an arm's length away and shoulder-width apart. Lean forward and place the hands at shoulder height and shoulder-width apart. Bend your elbows and lower the chest towards the wall. Push back and repeat for 15 reps. Try not to lead with the chin.Chair Squats - With a chair behind you as a guide, bend the knees and lower into a squat, sending the hips straight back. Hover just over the chair, press into the heels and stand up. Repeat for 15 reps. Hold weights for more intensity.
Dumbbell Rows -Hold weights and tip from the hips to a 45-degree angle, abs in and back flat. Squeeze the back and pull the elbows up to the torso in a rowing motion. Lower and repeat for 15 reps.Assisted Lunges - In a staggered stance, right foot forward and left foot back, bend the knees and lunge straight down until the knees are at about 90-degree angles. Push into the heel to stand and repeat for 15 reps on each side.
Overhead Press -Stand and hold weights straight up overhead. Abs engaged, bend the elbows and lower the weights to ear-level, like goal posts. Press back up and repeat for 15 reps.Calf Raises - Stand on both feet and push down through your toes as you lift both heels off the ground as high as you can. Repeat for 15 reps. Hold weights for more intensity.

Intermediate PHA Workout

If you've been exercising and are familiar with strength training, you may be ready for more challenging exercises and more circuits. The workout below builds on the beginner version with harder moves for more intensity.

Equipment

A chair, dumbbells

How to:

  • Warm up with at least 5 minutes of light cardio activity.
  • Start with the first upper body exercise and, when it's completed, Immediately go to the next lower body exercise
  • Continue, alternating the upper body exercise with the lower body exercise with no rests in between.
  • After you finish one circuit, rest for 60 seconds and complete three or more circuits.
  • Cool down and stretch after your workout.
Upper Body ExerciseLower Body Exercise
Pushups -Get into a pushup position on the hands and toes (harder) or knees (easier). With the back flat and abs in, bend the elbows to lower the chest towards the floor. Push back up without locking the elbows and repeat for 15 reps.Dumbbell Squats - Hold dumbbells at your sides and start with the feet hip-width apart. Bend the knees and squat, sending the hips straight back. Go as low as you can and press into the heels to stand up. Repeat for 15 reps.
Modified Renegade Rows - Hold onto two dumbbells and get into an all-fours position. Bracing the core, bend the right arm and bring the elbow up to the torso in a rowing motion. Take the weight back down and repeat on the other side for 15 total reps. Walk the hands out further and drop the hips or get on the toes in a plank position for more of a challenge.Front and Rear Lunges - Holding heavy weights with the feet together and step the left leg forward into a lunge. Make sure you step far enough ahead so that your knee doesn't go too far over the toes. Push back to start and then take the same leg back into a reverse lunge. Push off the toes to come back to start. Repeat for 15 reps on each side.
Dips with a Leg Extension - Sit on a step or chair and lower into a dip bending the elbows to 90 degrees. As you push up, straighten the right leg and reach the left hand towards toes. Lower and repeat, Lifting the left leg and reaching the right hand towards the toes. Repeat for 15 total reps.Deadlifts - Hold weights and stand with feet about hip-distance apart. Keep the back flat and shoulders back, tip from the hips and lower the weights towards the floor, keeping them very close to the legs. Squeeze the glutes to stand up and repeat for 15 reps.

Advanced PHA Workout

If you've been exercising for a long time and you're used to very challenging workouts, this PHA workout will take you to the next level. The moves are all compound exercises, which means working more than one muscle group at the same time and there's an optional cardio exercise included in each set of exercises.

Equipment

A chair, dumbbells

How to:

  • Warm up with at least 5 minutes of cardio.
  • Start with the first series of exercise and do the upper body, lower body and the optional cardio move one after the other with no rests.
  • Continue going through the each set of exercises with no rest.
  • After you finish one circuit, rest for 60 seconds and complete up to six more circuits.
  • Cool down and stretch after your workout.
Upper Body ExerciseLower Body ExerciseOptional Cardio Exercise
Pushup to Side Plank - In a pushup position, on the knees or toes, do a pushup. As you press up, rotate to the left and take the right arm straight up in a side plank. Go back to the start and do another pushup, this time rotating to the right. Repeat for 15 reps.Squat Press- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding weights at the shoulders, squat as low as you can, sending the hips straight back, abs in. As you stand up, press the weights overhead. Repeat for 15 reps.Prisoner Squat Jumps - Stand with your feet wide and the hands behind the head. Lower into a squat sending the hips behind you. Jump as high as you can and land with soft knees. Repeat for 20 reps.
Lunge Rows - Holding weights with the feet together, step the right foot back into a straight leg lunge. Tip from the hips bringing the torso almost parallel to the floor, back flat. Pull the weights up in a row. Step back to start and repeat the move on the other side for 15 reps.Walking Lunges - Hold weights in each hand and step forward with the right foot into a lunge, both knees bending to 90-degree angles. Step the left foot in and take it forward into a lunge. Continue across the room, alternating sides for 15 reps, turning around as you reach the end of the room.Plyo Lunges - Begin in a staggered stance with the right leg forward and the left foot back, about 3 feet apart. Bend the knees into a lunge and then jump up as high as you can, switching the feet in the air and landing in a lunge with the other leg forward. Repeat for 20 reps.
Squat, Curl and Press - Hold weights and stand on the right foot with the left foot just behind you, resting on the toe. Squat down, touching the weights to the floor. While there, curl the weights into a biceps curl. Hold that and then push all the way up, pressing the weights overhead. Repeat for 15 reps on each side.Front Kick with Triceps Extensions - Hold a weight with both hands on either side of the dumbbells. Start with the weight overhead, elbows bent and the right leg straight behind you. Kick up with the right leg as you straighten the weight in a triceps extension. Repeat for 15 reps on the right and then switch to the other side.Burpees- With feet about hip-width apart, squat and place both hands on the floor on either side of the feet. Jump the feet back into a plank position. Do a pushup (optional) and then jump the feet back in. Stand up and, for more intensity add a jump at the end. Repeat for 20 reps.

Sources:

Kravitz L. Peripheral Heart Action Training. https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/PeripheralHeartAction.html.

Piras A, Persiani M, Damiani N, Perazzolo M, Raffi M. Peripheral heart action (PHA) training as a valid substitute to high intensity interval training to improve resting cardiovascular changes and autonomic adaptation. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015;115(4):763-773. doi:10.1007/s00421-014-3057-9.

Continue Reading