Make Your Workout HIIT

For those of us looking to do more to prevent disease, manage weight, and increase fitness, a type of training called high-intensity interval training (abbreviated HIIT) can help! Competitive athletes use HIIT to improve performance, but it has serious potential for anyone.

What is a HIIT workout?

A HIIT workout is one that involves intervals of all-out, vigorous-intensity exercise dispersed with bouts of low-to-moderate intensity exercise. In other words, after warming up, you exercise very hard for some time, then exercise easily to recover, then repeat.

HIIT workouts most commonly use sprinting or uphill cycling, but stair climbing, swimming, bodyweight training, and weightlifting are all incredibly HIIT friendly! For example, many gyms now offer HIIT group classes that make use of bodyweight movements (i.e., burpees) and free weights (i.e., kettlebells). Since the goal is to elevate your heart rate close to its maximum capacity for a brief period, anything that speeds up your heartbeat can work!

During high-intensity intervals, aim to work as hard as you possibly can, ideally raising your heart rate to about 60-95% of your maximum heart rate (learn how to calculate your maximum heart rate here). Stick to the lower end of this range if you’re newer to exercise. Stick to the upper end if you’re already well-conditioned. On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the highest effort level you can achieve, a high-intensity interval should feel like a 6-10. Depending on the workout and your fitness level, high-intensity intervals may last fifteen seconds to five minutes long (check out the beginner HIIT workout structure below!).

The low-intensity intervals are periods of active rest. So, switch to a moderate activity where you’re at 40-50% of your maximum heart rate. You could do a brisk walk, light jog, slow cycle, or side-to-side step. On a scale from 1-10, low-intensity intervals should feel like an effort level of 1-4. These intervals generally last as long or longer than the high-intensity interval. High and low intervals are repeated 6-10 times for a total of 10-40 minutes.

HIIT benefits

First, it’s fun! A HIIT workout structure keeps things interesting, especially if you feel that long walks or runs are monotonous.

Research studies that assess health changes from doing HIIT workouts are generally short-term and usually involve small groups of people. But the findings are positive and consistent. Research has shown that HIIT can improve aerobic fitness to a greater extent and more quickly than moderate-intensity continuous exercise, like a steady jog. Since it can impart these benefits in a shorter amount of time, it’s an excellent option for people with busy schedules.

Two weeks-worth of HIIT has also shown potential to improve insulin sensitivity better than continuous exercise, especially in people with type 2 diabetes. And like other forms of exercise, interval training preserves healthy heart function by keeping blood vessels flexible and reducing the chance of plaque formation. Studies have even demonstrated that overall bodyweight and percentage body fat loss is greater from HITT compared to continuous styles of exercise.

HIIT safety

HIIT has been tested in many different groups of people and can be safely undertaken by those who already exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends first establishing a base level of fitness before attempting a HIIT workout. In other words, aim for 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two full-body strength-training sessions per week before incorporating HIIT.

There is evidence that older adults and people with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or other health challenges can benefit from HIIT with guidance and supervision from an exercise professional. However, researchers are still evaluating the safety and experts recommend getting the OK from your physician before starting a HIIT program. Regardless of your health status, check with your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen. Stop your workout if you experience chest pain, lightheadedness, severe fatigue, difficulty catching your breath, or if your heart rate does not increase as you exercise.

Time it right

Adapting your favorite way to move into a HIIT workout starts with finding an interval timer. These will keep track of high- and low-intensity intervals for you without needing to always check with a clock or timer, although these are still an option. The apps below are easy-to-use and allow you to pre-select the number and duration of the intervals you want to perform.

Try it out

What to do (2-3 times per week)

Example

Warm-up at a low to moderate intensity for 2-5 minutes 5-minute walk or jog at a brisk pace (3.5 to 5 mph)

OR

1-minute jumping jacks + 1-minute butt kicks

Do 1-minute of high-intensity exercise (at least a 6/10 effort level) 1-minute sprint at an all-out speed

OR

1-minute burpees as quickly as possible

Do 1-minute of low-intensity recovery (1-4/10 effort level) 1-minute walk at an easy pace (2-3 mph)

OR

1-minute boxer shuffle or side steps

Repeat the high-intensity and low-intensity intervals for 10 times for a total of 20 minutes Repeat high-and-low intervals with little to no additional rest.
Cool down at a moderate intensity for 2-5 minutes Walk at an easy pace for 5 minutes. Stretch as necessary.

Change it up

  • Make it a little easier: Increase the recovery period or shorten the length of active intervals.
  • Make it harder: Increase the high-intensity intervals or make the rest periods shorter. For example, 1-minute at high-intensity, 30 seconds rest.
  • Your body quickly adapts to the exercise you do. So, switch up your high intensity exercises with bodyweight squats or squat jumps, lunges, push-ups, triceps dips, high knees, and mountain climbers.
  • Make use of free online HIIT workout resources, like Fitness Blender, SworkIt (Apple / Android), and Nike Training Club (Apple / Android).

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