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HIIT training: What is it and why is it good for your health?

HIIT offers a big calorie burn, revs your metabolism and builds strength in half the time of steady exercise.
Interval training means exercises are done in bursts with short recovery periods in between.
Interval training means exercises are done in bursts with short recovery periods in between.Getty Images/iStockphoto

You’ve likely heard of HIIT workouts — but you may not know exactly what they are or how to incorporate them into your routine.

HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training and it’s one of the most popular forms of exercise, in part due to its high effectiveness in a short amount of time. As a certified personal trainer and private weight loss coach for women, I focus on workouts that can be done quickly and efficiently. This is one of the many reasons why I love recommending HIIT workouts for my clients.

What is HIIT?

High-intensity interval training is a challenging workout performed at an intense level. Interval training means exercises are done in bursts with short recovery periods in between. They can start slow and become faster from one exercise to another. Typically, cardio and strength training are combined to create a well-rounded high-intensity interval training workout.

Your heart rate will go up, your muscles may fatigue and you will feel winded. By combining high-intensity bursts of cardio, brief rests and circuit-style strength training, you keep your body guessing. In this way, HIIT workouts are strategically designed to help you get a lot accomplished physically in a short amount of time.

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The benefits of HIIT workouts

HIIT offers a big calorie burn, revs up your metabolism, aids in weight loss and builds strength and muscle. Because there are hardly any pauses in a HIIT workout, you can reap these benefits in less than half the time of steady-state exercise.

Other benefits of HIIT include an increase in muscle mass, better oxygen consumption, reduced blood sugar and improved blood pressure.

Research also shows that interval training like HIIT is best for fat loss. HIIT training not only increases your metabolism during the workout, but it stays elevated after the workout is complete, meaning your body is burning more calories at rest. 

Who should do HIIT workouts?

HIIT is appropriate for most people, including both men and women and those of any age. HIIT is highly effective and allows people to reap the benefits of exercise in less time, making it easier to commit to on a consistent basis.

I always recommend that my clients alter HIIT based on their fitness levels and goals. For example, if you are stressed and have elevated cortisol levels, then doing a HIIT workout full-out may not be the best option for you. If you push yourself to your max effort during cardio bursts, it does place stress on the body and elevated cortisol can hinder weight loss. So instead of doing a full out sprint or a super intense cardio burst, simply add in some lower-intensity cardio rather than pushing yourself to your max.

You also need to be aware of any physical limitations. It’s important to note that high intensity doesn’t have to mean high impact. If you suffer from joint issues or pain, you should incorporate low impact, but high intensity, exercises like speed squats, mountain climbers and marching in place. If you have no joint issues or pain, you are safe to experiment with higher-impact exercises like high knees, jumping jacks and burpees. As always you should consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.

What does a HIIT workout look like?

Any form of movement can be done HIIT style, whether you’re doing pure cardio, like walking or jogging, or doing strength exercises.

Adding intervals to your cardio routine is a simple way to start experimenting with HIIT training. If you’re doing steady-state cardio like walking, add intervals by playing with speed. For example, walking at a slow pace for one minute, followed by a fast pace for one minute.

Another way to incorporate HIIT into your workout is to alternate between strength exercises and bursts of cardio. This could look like doing a strength exercise (like squats) for one minute, then going into a one-minute cardio burst (like high knees), and alternating like this between cardio and strength for the duration of your workout.

HIIT workouts for beginners 

You can easily turn your walk or strength session into a HIIT routine. Here are two sample workouts to try.

If you’re a walker, follow this HIIT routine:

  • 3 minutes: Walk at a normal pace to warm up.
  • 1 minute: Walk at a fast pace. (You can also measure by distance. For example: Walk for one block or a quarter mile at a quicker pace.)
  • 1 minute: Walk at a slower pace.

 Alternate like this for the duration of your walk.

If you’re doing strength training, follow this HIIT routine:

  • 3 minutes: Warm up with steady-state cardio like walking or marching in place.
  • 1 minute: Perform 3 strength exercises for 10 repetitions each. You could do 10 squats, 10 pushups and 10 bicep curls.
  • 1 minute: Perform a cardio burst, like running in place, doing squat jumps, or getting on the elliptical and moving quickly.

 Repeat this for the duration of your workout.