As cardio training has evolved we’ve seen more and more people choose to move away from the long, drawn out steady-state training, and instead go for more intense methods.
Since the birth of the high-intensity interval revolution, more and more people are utilizing shorter and sharper workouts to lose fat, improve conditioning and boost maximal oxygen uptake. For the vast majority that been a productive decision.
But after a while even these methods become less effective. You become accustomed to the work-rest ratio, you are fitter and therefore more efficient – the workouts themselves become easier and less motivating.
That’s where supra-maximal interval training comes in…
Interval Training – An Exercise Revolution
Interval training has seen somewhat of a boom within the last few years. It has become the mainstay of cardio workouts, fat burning classes and body conditioning training. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) in particular has flourished within the commercial gym setting.
By its very nature, intense cardio involves periods of hard work followed by rest and recovery. There are hundreds of different variations and permutations, but they all have the common theme of repeated, intense workload duration.
If you are familiar with bioenergetics, you might have used interval training to enhance a particular energy system. You might have even linked it to the dominant energy system of your sport too (if not then Bompa’s ‘Periodization‘ is a good resource to start with).
For example, higher workloads followed by longer recovery time is effective for improving the ATP-PCr and creatine phosphate system, whereas working just above and below onset of blood lactate (OBLA) is more effective at improving your lactate threshold.
One common theme that runs through interval training methods though is that the more intense the work interval, the longer the necessary recovery. That way you optimize energy system productivity. Other methods – such as the Tabata method – even choose shorter recovery time.
But the recovery is often active – keep ticking the legs over to flush metabolites out of the muscle and in doing so reduce muscle acidity in preparation of the next interval.
What is Supra-Maximal Interval Training?
At first glance, Supra-Maximal Interval Training or SMIT, is not too similar to standard interval training. But it does have some distinct differences.
Firstly, for the majority of interval training systems you’re working hard but not maximally. You’ve got your eye on total session volume and with 8 work sets left you’ve got to hold a bit back in reserve. Even some of the more intense sessions only require a 90% max effort.
SMIT though requires not just maximal, but supra-maximal effort. You go all out. No excuses, you’re going as hard as you possibly can.
The second difference is that you don’t incorporate active recovery between intervals either. Instead, you’ll adopt longer and fuller rest phases in order to recover as much as possible. This way you can achieve maximal intensity ion the following interval, rather than suffering from high latent or residual fatigue.
Key Point: SMIT involves short but maximal effort work followed by longer and more fuller rest periods.
Why Use Supra-maximal Exercise?
- Improvements in maximal oxygen uptake
- Improvements in relative power output and maximal work
- Improved body composition
- More efficient lactate clearance, substrate use and anaerobic enzymes
- Better lactate tolerance
- Higher lactate threshold
- Better glycogen utilization
An interesting study published in a 2013 edition of the European Journal of Sports Science  analyzed the difference between SMIT and standard HIIT.
The research team recruited both male and female athletes and gave them all a pre-test 3000 m time trial, a 40 m sprint and a repeated sprint ability test to complete. The volunteers were then matched based on their ability, and then randomly assigned either a control, HIIT or SMIT training protocol.
- HIIT: 4 min at 100% of running velocity (V0²max), 4 min passive recovery, 4-6 bouts per session
- SMIT: 30 s at 130% V0²max, 150 s passive recovery, 7-12 bouts per session
- Control: 30 minutes of continuous running at 75% of V0²max
As you can see, not only did the SMIT group use a higher relative intensity, they allowed short work interval maximize output too.
The results after 6 weeks showed that “improvements in 3000 m time trial performance were greater following SMIT than continuous running, and improvements in 40 m sprint and repeat sprint ability performance were greater too”.
There were significant improvements in all measurements when compared to HIIT and control protocols.
Training Tip: Where possible use Watts as a measure of work output for your work intervals. Aim to hit the same peak Wattage each rep.
How Do You Perform SMIT Workouts?
Other than the key outcome measures of high intensity and low work to rest ratio, the actual mode you use is up to you. It’s simply a matter of preference. Aiming for a 1:4 or 1:5 ratio provides the perfect balance between all-out intensity and sufficient rest.
Bike sprints are a good place to start as they are low skill and low impact. If this is the first time you’ll be working at this intensity you want to try and reduce all other variables to focus on maintaining a high effort. Complex movement patterns can cause energy leakage. The rowing machine and running sprints offer a more full body alternative for those who wish to incorporate other, more technical modes.
You can also introduce resistance training into your SMIT workouts too. Battle ropes and body weight exercise allow versatility, and Prowler work challenges a multitude of muscles too.
- Cicioni-Kolsky, D et al. Endurance and sprint benefits of high-intensity and supramaximal interval training. Eur J Sport Sci. 2013; 13(3): 304-11