Complete Beginners Guide to High Intensity Interval Training Workouts


There are many different approaches to fitness, weight loss, and exercise. As science progresses and more research studies are conducted, new strategies surface.

One such strategy is called High Intensity Interval Training (or “HIIT”). It’s a type of training that was actually pioneered by different people at different times.

The training that you see today is an adaptation and combination of the initial approaches.

HIIT is an advanced form of interval training. Interval training consists of putting in a moderate effort for a specific period of time and then cranking it up.

For example, interval training for a runner might include running at an 11-minute mile pace for five minutes, followed by 8-minute mile pace for one minute. You’d alternate this intensity level for a few cycles.

High Intensity Interval Training takes it up a notch and truly increases the intensity.

With this type of exercise, the athlete puts forth a period of high-intensity effort followed by a short rest followed by another period of high intensity.

One of the most notable HIIT formats is called the Tabata. It is 20 seconds of intense effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is repeated for 8 cycles, or four minutes total.

The Tabata workout can be applied to a number of different exercises.

For example, you can squat as many times as you can in 20 seconds, rest for 10 and repeat. You can do pushups, pull-ups, or sit-ups.

You can jump rope or sprint. You can ride your spin bike, row on the rowing machine, or do burpees or lunges.
Try the Tabata workout with your favorite movement and experience just what intensity really means.

Another example of High Intensity Interval Training for a runner might be a series of 200-meter sprints followed by 30 second rests. You might sprint on your bicycle for a quarter mile and then slow down to a casual pace to recover.

You can apply HIIT to any cardio or strength fitness exercise. There are numerous considerations before starting a fitness plan that includes High Intensity Interval Training.

The Pros and Cons of High Intensity Interval Training

The pros of HIIT are numerous, so we’ll take an in depth look at the research in the first chapter. For now, it’s important to know that HIIT results are astounding.

• Fast weight loss
• Less workout time
• Improved strength
• Improved endurance
• Improved cardiovascular fitness
• Better fat burning
• Decreased abdominal fat
• Decreased insulin resistance
• Reduced risk for cardiovascular disease

So the pros look pretty strong, right?

They are. You can truly burn significantly more fat and calories in less time.

It means that if you don’t have the time to run for an hour a day but you want the same, or better, results, then High Intensity Interval Training may be right for you.

The Potential Risks and Downsides of High Intensity Interval Training

With every fitness program and workout, there are risks. The same is true for High Intensity Interval Training.

The very nature of the workout means it may not be right for people who have a high risk of a cardiovascular episode. Meaning that if you’ve had a heart attack or are at a high risk for having one, please talk to your doctor before beginning a program like this.

If you are older or have other health complications, it’s also important to talk to your doctor. In most cases you can embrace a HIIT program as long as you do it under supervision.

It’s also critically important to pay attention to your body and to fuel it well. We’ll talk more about proper self-care for High Intensity Interval Training later.

So who is High Intensity Interval Training Right For?

HIIT is right for you if you:

• Want to lose weight quickly
• Have hit a fitness plateau and want to see improvements
• Have hit a weight loss plateau
• Enjoy intense workouts
• Are looking for a new and exciting fitness program
• Want to get rid of those “problem areas”
• Are pre-diabetic and want to increase your body’s insulin sensitivity

These are just a few reasons to try HIIT.

Let’s move forward and take a look at some of that research mentioned earlier. Understanding why it works will help you create a strong fitness program for yourself.

Why and How HIIT Works

Chances are your fitness program is primarily cardiovascular. You may walk, run, row, dance or bike.

Perhaps you spend most of your time on an elliptical machine, spin bike, or stair stepper.

If you integrate a bit of strength training into your current fitness program then you may have a very well-rounded program.

And yet you are likely not getting the weight loss and fitness goals you desire. You’re putting in the time and the work but not enjoying the results you truly want.

High Intensity Interval Training can be the game changer, the difference maker, and the solution you’ve been searching for. It really does produce faster weight loss and fitness results in less time.

But don’t take our word for it; let’s take a look at the research and the reason why High Intensity Interval Training is so effective.

Dramatic Fat Burning Results

HIIT has been shown to promote Human Growth Hormone release. This wonderful hormone is a natural one that your body produces.

However, as you age the amount of growth hormone decreases. After all, you’re not growing anymore. If you exercise and your muscles and tissues need repair, then Human Growth Horme (HGH) is released to help your body repair itself.

When released, HGH also boosts metabolism, burns fat and facilitates muscle building.

It also changes the way your body uses and converts energy. Your body does this because it knows you need fuel to repair your muscles and tissues.

The Journal of Obesity reported on a study that showed significant fat burning results after 12 weeks of HIIT.

The study focused on young overweight male. They were randomly assigned to a control group or a HIIT group. The HIIT group spent 20 minutes exercising three times a week for 12 weeks.

The majority of the 20 minutes was rest and recovery – between short bursts of intense exercise.

And by intense exercise it means that you’re getting up to 95% of your maximum heart rate. The results may surprise you.

The study participants had a reduction of total fat mass that averaged 4.5 pounds. They reduced their visceral fat, the fat under your skin, by 17%.

They also showed marked aerobic improvements and their aerobic power increased by 15%.

Some other studies, particularly one published in the journal, Cell Metabolism, seem to indicate that HIIT changes your DNA expression; specifically the genes that are involved in fat metabolism.

The study indicates that when you use HIIT as part of your training program, your body automatically turns on the genes that increase your production of lipolytic enzymes, aka fat busting enzymes.

Decreased Insulin Sensitivity

Diabetes occurs when the insulin receptors become desensitized.

It can happen when a person has a diet that is often high in glucose, sugar. The presence of glucose triggers the pancreas to release insulin.

However, after a prolonged period of this constant signaling to release insulin, your body begins to shut down those insulin receptors.

When this happens, fat storage is increased because the glucose cannot be processed correctly. So a person with a diet that is often high in sugar – like most Americans – begins to gain weight and take steps toward pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes.

High Intensity Interval Training has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity. It makes those insulin receptors work again so your body processes glucose effectively.

You don’t store fat, you burn it.

One study looked at volunteers with diagnosed Type 2 diabetes. They performed one interval training session and saw improved blood sugar regulation for the next 24 hours.

Other studies have shown that middle-aged adults who are fit but inactive were able to enjoy improvements in their insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation after just two weeks of interval training.

Increased weight loss, fat burning, and insulin sensitivity are all spectacular results.

However, you may already be at your target weight and not at risk for Type 2 Diabetes. So what are the benefits for you? Can you get better, faster, and stronger with HIIT?

You bet you can.

Aerobic Capacity, Endurance, and Strength

High Intensity Interval Training has shown that it provides improved health and fitness for all.

A team of Canadian researchers tested a wide variety of men and women at various stages of health – from healthy to fighting cardiovascular disease. The participants performed cycling intervals. All patients showed significant improvements in their health and fitness.

Surprisingly, the cardiac patients showed great improvements and the intense exercise didn’t cause problems for any of the patients.

“According to a 2011 study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine, just 2 weeks of high-intensity intervals improves your aerobic capacity as much as six to eight weeks of endurance training.” (Source: Shape Magazine.

If you’re training for a race or you want to get over a fitness plateau then HIIT may be the ideal program for you.
One study found that after eight weeks of doing HIIT workouts, participants could exercise twice as long as they could before the study, while maintaining the same pace.

We’ve already mentioned a few of the compelling benefits for integrating HIIT into your current fitness program. Namely, they’re:

• HIIT burns a ton of calories
• More efficient, and shorter, workouts
• Enjoy faster results
• Boost metabolism
• Increased fat burning

However, there are other benefits we’ve yet to discuss. They include:

• You don’t need any equipment to participate in HIIT.
• It’s applicable to just about any workout. From running to weight lifting, you can add HIIT to your program and enjoy results.
• You continue burning calories and fat long after your workout is over.
• It’s seriously challenging, so you won’t get bored.
• It’s quite fun and easy to add to your weekly routine.

So you’ve read the data and you know the facts. You know that if you want to burn fat and get in shape fast then High Intensity Intervals are for you.

But how do you get started?

Let’s take a look at how to get started with HIIT next and take a look at a few sample High Intensity Interval Training workout plans.

Getting Started with High Intensity Interval Training

Interval training means alternating between intensity levels. You generally alternate between low and medium to high intensity.

High Intensity Interval Training leaves no room for anything less than your maximum effort.

But what is your maximum effort?

Maximum effort can be measured a number of ways. One simple method is to first identify your maximum heart rate.

There are charts that you can use which take other elements into consideration, however you can also find a general range by subtracting your age from 220.

For example, if you’re 40 years old then your maximum heart rate should be 180 beats per minute. With HIIT the goal is to hit about 95% of your maximum heart rate. Continuing with the example of a 40 year old person then 95% of 180 is 171 beats per minute.

Now a normal resting heart rate is generally around 60 beats per minute. So if you’re almost tripling the heart rate then you can image what it feels like.

The good news is that this intensity level only lasts for a minute or less. Then you get to rest.

The maximum heart rate method is only effective if you’re performing a cardio workout and if you have a heart rate monitor. If you’re training in sit-ups or pushups then your heart rate doesn’t apply.

Instead, you’re performing the movement as fast as you can until your time is up. In twenty seconds you might get 20 sit-ups or 15 pushups if you’re very well trained. In subsequent rounds the number of sit-ups or pushups is likely to decrease as your body fatigues.

So you can use heart rate to estimate intensity. You can also perform a maximum number of reps in a specific amount of time, 20 seconds for example.

You can also estimate your intensity level by simply exercising as hard as you can for the duration.

Here’s an interesting tidbit for you, in studies, women tend to be better able to work out at a higher intensity for a short duration than men, based on measurements of their cardiac output and VO2 Max.

It’s important to identify a means for measuring your effort. There’s no right or wrong method and the method you choose may very well depend on the type of High Intensity Interval Training program you choose. Before we talk about creating your HIIT program, let’s discuss the importance of warming up before you work out.

HIIT isn’t something you just get up off of the couch and do. Warming up is essential for proper form, recovery, and to prevent injuries.

Your warm up will depend on your chosen program. For example, if you’re going to do a squat Tabata then you might warm up by jogging a quarter mile and then performing 20-30 slow and deep squats.

You want to thoroughly warm up the muscles that you’re going to be using.

If you’re going to do a rowing HIIT workout then you might row a slow 250-meter row followed by 20 squats. Then you’d row a medium intensity 250-meter row followed by 10 squats.

You’d finish it up with a hard 250 meters at about 75-80% of your maximum effort. Then it’d be time to begin your workout.

Your muscles would likely be sufficiently warm.

Skipping this step can result in injury. Remember, when you’re warming up you’re not just warming up your leg or arm muscles.

You’re also warming up your heart and lungs and preparing them for your workout. Work out for at least three minutes before any HIIT workout and make sure you feel mentally and physically ready to begin.

Creating Your HIIT Program

High Intensity Interval Training isn’t something you do every day. Most experts recommend performing this type of workout just three times a week.

There are different approaches depending on your fitness level, your current fitness program, and whether you’re starting a new fitness program or integrating HIIT into your existing program.

High Intensity Interval Training for Beginners

If you’re new to exercise and fitness or beginning a new fitness program, then you may want to begin with just one HIIT workout each week. You can then gradually increase the number of workouts depending on how your body is feeling.

For example, let’s say you decide that you’re going to start running. Generally, you’ll probably run three to four times each week.

One of those weekly workouts would be a HIIT workout. The others would be running for time or distance at a moderate or low intensity level.

What you’ll find with this type of approach is that your running fitness progresses more quickly. Someone who is beginning a running program and doesn’t include a HIIT workout or two each week will not likely reach their running goals as quickly.

With High Intensity Interval Training you might hit your goal of being able to run a 5k at eight-minute mile pace in a few months. It might take another beginner runner a full year or more to reach this milestone.

Sticking with running for a minute, in addition to performing a HIIT running workout, you can also perform other strength training workouts for runners. Lunges, squats, and box jumps are all exceptional workouts to consider.

You can do these in Tabata format, which is 20 seconds of work followed by ten seconds of rest. The work rounds are repeated eight times, which equates to four very intense minutes of exercise.

Integrating HIIT into Your Existing Fitness Program

If you’ve been working out for a while and you have reached a plateau in either your fitness or weight loss, then HIIT can help. Without changing your movements, you can integrate a Tabata or interval type plan into your existing program.

Let’s take cycling as an example.

If you’re an avid cyclist, either stationary or on the road, you might ride as hard and fast as you can for 20 or 30 seconds. Decrease the resistance on your bike and increase your repetitions to increase the intensity. You should feel like you can’t possibly continue.

If you have a heart rate monitor then go ahead and shoot for that 90-95% of your maximum heart rate.

Remaining on your bike, you’ll then ride at a slower intensity for 90 seconds. You should be able to regain your relaxed breathing by the end of those 90 seconds.

Kick it back into gear and ride at a high intensity for another 30 seconds. Recover and repeat. You’re done when you’ve repeated the cycle 8 times.

Whether you run, cycle, row or you love the elliptical at the gym, you can easily apply HIIT to your existing fitness program.

However, you may want to mix it up to stay motivated, and engaged, and to strengthen the foundation movements for any given exercise.

For example, in order to run faster and longer, you need strong hip and gluteal muscles. Squats and lunges are two of the best exercises for improving the strength of those muscles.

You can integrate a squat Tabata into your regular fitness routine.

You might run at a moderate pace and distance for three days. One day you perform interval runs and one day each week you do a Tabata squat routine.

You’ll undoubtedly notice the difference in your strength and speed after just a few weeks of HIIT.

If you’re not interested in starting a regular fitness program, but would rather try a wide variety of exercise routines, consider creating your own High Intensity Interval Training program.

For example, on Monday you might run 400-meter sprints followed by a rest that is exactly as long as it took you to run 400 meters.

If it takes you two minutes to run 400 meters, then you rest for exactly two minutes before running another 400. The next day you might perform a sit-up Tabata followed by a pull-up Tabata on the third day. You’d then take two days off.

On your first day back you might do a push-up Tabata followed by a rowing workout and so on. If you take this approach you’ll probably want to plan your week’s workouts in advance so you don’t have to try and figure out what you’re going to do each day.

Remember to warm up before you work out and to cool down too. The cool down may be as simple as walking for a quarter mile.

Let your heart rate and breathing return to normal.

We’ve talked a lot about the different approaches to High Intensity Interval training. Let’s take a look at a few different sample training programs.

You can use these programs as they’re written or to help you design your own.

Sample Treadmill High Intensity Interval Training Program

Monday, Wednesday, Friday – Run for 30 seconds at 90-95% your maximum heart rate or as fast and hard as you can run. Rest for 30 seconds. Stop the treadmill and stand or sit. Repeat this process 10 times. If you’re new to HIIT you might rest for 60 or even 90 seconds between each 30-second run.

Tuesday – Rest day.

Thursday – Spot focus. Tabata sit-ups or Tabata push-ups. 20 seconds maximum effort, 10 second rest repeated for eight cycles.

Saturday – Spot focus. Tabata push-ups, squats, or jump rope.

Sunday – Rest day.

The Treadmill HIIT can be changed to be a stationary cycle, elliptical, or rowing machine.

Sample Strength Training HIIT Program

Monday – With a heavy dumbbell in each hand, for example 40 pounds, perform 20 lunges on each side. Rest for three minutes between each round. Repeat four times.

Tuesday – Squat Tabata (you can also back squat, front squat, or overhead squat with a heavy bar 20 reps with a 3 minute rest in between each round). Repeat five times.

Wednesday – Rest day.

Thursday – Rest day.

Friday – 20 seconds of burpees followed by 10 seconds of rest. Repeat for eight cycles.

Saturday – Pull-ups or push-ups Tabata.

Sunday – Deadlift 20 reps followed by a 250-meter row (or run or cycle). Repeat 5 times.

As you can see, any exercise or fitness program can be easily adapted to include High Intensity Interval Training workouts.

Whether you hula-hoop, prefer endurance exercise, or enjoy the gym fitness equipment, you can get better results by including a few High Intensity Interval Training workouts each week. Before you get started with HIIT, take a look at some tips for success.

Tips for High Intensity Interval Training Success

#1 Start Slowly – If you’ve never worked out at a high intensity before, then take it slowly. You can either lengthen the rest time between intervals or you can begin with only one HIIT workout per week. As your fitness improves, you can decrease the rest time.

#2 Pay Attention to Your Body – In general, experts recommend around three HIIT workouts per week. Consider taking a “three days on two days off” approach. This approach allows you to rest just about the time that delayed onset muscle soreness kicks in.

If you notice that you’re not recovering quickly and muscle soreness has you struggling to get out of bed or in significant pain, cut back on the HIIT workouts.

Also realize that some weeks are just better than others. You might have a week where you’re on fire and having great workouts with little soreness.

The next week you may be able to barely finish your second workout. This is a sign from your body to ease up. Pay attention to it.

HIIT won’t do you any good if you’re injured, and pushing too hard or too fast can absolutely result in injury.

#3 Know What to Expect and Be Prepared – HIIT will leave you breathless and flat on your back on the floor. You’ll sweat, a lot. You may feel like you just can’t continue. This is why a heart rate monitor is a good idea. It’ll let you know if you’re in the zone.

If your heart rate is over your maximum heart rate or creeping close, you know to pull back a bit. Conversely, if you’re only at 50% of your max then you know you’re capable of more.

#4 Mix it Up – Interval training can become boring. If you’re doing the same workout every single time, you’ll lose motivation. With a loss of motivation comes a loss of intensity.

To stay engaged and enthusiastic, keep your HIIT program varied. You might look to a personal trainer or a cross fit blog to provide workout ideas.

#5 Measure the Results – It can be difficult to know just how much you’re gaining from HIIT. Consider not only taking a before and after photograph, but also track your fitness improvements.

Did you run a 200 in the fastest time yet? Did you manage to achieve 100 squats in your squat Tabata? By tracking your workouts and your results, you’ll be able to watch your fitness improve and the weight come off.

#6 Listen to Music – Intense intervals are exhausting. You may need all of the encouragement you can get.

Motivating music is often effective to not only make you feel more energized, it also tends to distract just enough that you’re not focused solely on the discomfort you’re feeling.

#7 Workout With a Friend – Finally, consider starting a HIIT workout with a friend. You can keep an eye on each other’s form, compete with each other, and help one another say motivated.

High Intensity Interval Training is a proven way to improve both your anaerobic and aerobic fueling systems.

If you’re looking to overcome a fitness plateau and want to achieve a new personal record HIIT can be the single most important change to your existing program. You’ll burn more fat, lose weight quickly, and improve your fitness, and you’ll accomplish all of this while spending less time working out.

Last Updated on November 11, 2022