This High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) guide is probably the best interval training guide in the galaxy.
My justification for such a bold claim?
We’re really good at this stuff, AND we have dinosaurs and Muppets.
Plus, lots of great gifs:
We build custom interval training programs just like the ones in this guide for our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Clients, including workouts for at home, the gym, or even while traveling.
In this Ultimate Guide to Interval Training, we’ll cover:
If you’re interested in starting a HIIT practice (which you are, ’cause you’re here), you may want to try our new app! It contains a fun adventure that will take you from sitting on your couch to a full HIIT workout – with plenty of benchmarks in between for you to find your groove. No guesswork needed, just jump into the app and follow it’s next steps.
You can sign-up for a free trial right here:
Alright, let’s do this thang.
What is Interval Training? What is HIIT?
In 2018, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) was ranked the number one fitness trend by American College of Sports Medicine.
HIIT typically involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a short period of rest or recovery and typically takes less than 30 minutes to perform.
Essentially, HIIT is just following a specific regimen where you vary your speeds and intensity throughout a shorter run, swim, bike, or row.
Any exercise can be a form of HIIT, but here’s a common routine:
- Jogging lightly for three minutes.
- Pushing yourself harder for a minute (run or sprint).
- Repeating this cycle 4 more times.
Because everybody is busy and overwhelmed, fast results in the least amount of time is why most people discover HIIT.
Plus, you can do HIIT with just about anything, including a jump rope:
You may be asking, “Steve, just how short and intense are we talking about here? Also, your new haircut looks spiffy.”
Thank you, you’re very kind.
So let’s explore the pros and cons of intervals.
What are the Benefits of HIIT? Why Should You Do Interval Training?
The 1996 landmark Tabata study demonstrated the benefits of extreme HIIT.
Dr. Izumi Tabata, from Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports, was obsessed with interval training.
The doctor sought to see exactly what kind of gains were obtained from short, intense, periods of exercise. He conducted an experiment with Olympic athletes on stationary bikes and put them through intense bouts of exercise followed by short periods of rest.
The results were fascinating.
That 6 weeks of moderate-intensity endurance training did not affect anaerobic capacity, but that 6 weeks of high-intensity intermittent training (HIIT) may improve both anaerobic capacity and VO2max simultaneously.
Let’s translate that: compared to regular cardio, HIIT had a greater impact on improving BOTH:
- Aerobic increases (endurance).
- Anaerobic increases (power).
Tabata was able to demonstrate improvements in his athletes with just FOUR-MINUTE bursts.
So what’s happening here?
Simple: your heart is a muscle.
If you keep your heart beating at a constant rate, never expanding it outside of its comfort zone, it will never grow stronger.
By introducing chaos and pushing your muscles outside of their comfort zone, they must adapt and grow more resilient in order to survive.
Intense interval training challenges your heart by constantly forcing it outside of its comfort zone.
In other words: progressive overload – the same concept behind building strength.
Coach Jim explains 7 different ways to achieve progressive overload in this video:
Since Tabata’s 1996 study, many other trials have shown the positive impact of interval training.
Here are some of the benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training:
#1) HIIT can burn lots of calories in a short amount of time.
Revving up your effort requires more out of you, including calories.
One study backed this up, finding HIIT burned about 20-30% more calories than regular cardio.
The researchers stated:
These data suggest that individuals can burn more calories performing an HIIT session than spending the same amount of time performing a steady-state exercise session.
The name of the game here is “intensity.” The more intense you go, the more calories you’ll burn.
#2) HIIT for lowering blood sugar. Managing blood sugar is really important for health, not just for diabetics.
Those trying to lose fat should be aware of their blood sugar and corresponding insulin levels.
The good news for our current discussion? HIIT has been shown to help lower and manage blood sugar levels.
#3) HIIT for heart health. Touching on the “antifragile” topic again, HIIT has been shown to help with overall cardiovascular health.
It does so in the same way traditional endurance training does, but at a fraction of the time (almost half).
Alright, let’s chat about how to actually do some interval training.
What’s an Example of Interval Training? How to Do Interval Running
The key to HIIT is being able to go from “easy” to “difficult.” All sorts of different exercises can get you there:
- Aerobic (cardio).
- Bodyweight (strength training).
- Resistance (weight training).
HIIT is generally associated with running (aerobic), so we’ll devote this section to just that.
The easiest way to experiment with HIIT would be to run.
Here’s how to start with a basic HIIT running workout. Go to a park in your neighborhood. Warm-up with some light jogging, high knees, and mobility – leg swings, arm swings, etc,
And then begin your workout!
- Run/jog at a brisk pace for 30 seconds.
- Jog/walk at a slower pace for 2 minutes.
- After your rest, shoot for another 30-second run/jog.
- Continue until you get tired or after about ten “push/rest” intervals.
And BAM! You just did HIIT.
Don’t get disheartened if you find yourself stopping a lot during your first week of HIIT training.
You’ll be surprised how quickly you get better at this!
Also, “running” or “jogging” is subjective. Whatever walking fast means to you is great. Do that for your periods of intensity.
It should be noted, that the entire “Couch to 5K” concept rests on interval training through running.
It’s all broken down into “walking,” “jogging” and “running.”
If you’re curious, check out our in-depth Couch to 5k review. If you want to start interval training, “Couch to 5K” could be a good way to do it.
More of an indoor person?
Consider a treadmill, where it actually sets intervals for you based on your desired difficulty.
Just be careful on it…
We’ll be talking about machines a lot more in the next section, but a treadmill is all you need to do a HIIT workout.
Experiment with the speed and incline to find a setting that you would consider “intense.” Many machines can be programmed to flip between this and an “easy” setting.
And you know what that means… boom! It’s built for HIIT.
When we designed NF Journey (our awesome new app), we used an “intense” and “easy” interval switch for most of the workouts.
If you want, you can sign-up for a free trial right here to see what I mean:
How do HIIT Workouts Work? (More HIIT cardio to choose from)
There are a lot of different aerobic exercises for HIIT cardio.
For example, you could jump on a bike, which is like HIIT running but with wheels (duh):
Every spin class is based on HIIT cycling (SoulCycle, Flywheel, or even your local gym now has spin classes).
They’re popular for a reason, and you can make a friend or two!
Here are some more examples of interval training:
- Elliptical. If it has a dial for resistance, it can be used for interval training. For a couple of minutes, go on low resistance (0-2 level). Then crank up the resistance for one minute (up to 8-10). Repeat this process 12 times, which will give you a 20-minute workout.
- Stair Climber. Much like the elliptical, alternate between periods of low intensity for two minutes, then one minute for high intensity. The difference with the climber is the dial will control the speed of the stairs. Be careful.
- Rowing Machine. Start with a two-minute warm-up. On minute three, row like you’re being chased by the Kraken for a full 60 seconds. Then catch your breath. The rowing machine might be hard to do for a full 20 minutes, since it’s a lot of upper body. Shoot for ten minutes at first.
- Jumping Rope. Jumping rope is a full-body exercise. Also, it’s fun. There’s no dial here, your own body controls the pace of the jump. Follow the same two-minute easy, one-minute intense as above. Jump rope can also be done with friends!
So far we’ve just been talking about aerobic exercises.
Let’s cover our other categories, of bodyweight and resistance.
What Are the Best HIIT Exercises? (Two Other Forms of Interval Training)
“Steve, this all sounds great. But I hate running!”
Confession: So do I.
So I get my cardio in other forms!
Here are some bodyweight exercises to get going on HIIT:
- Burpees. Stand up, then squat down, kick your legs out, do a push-up, bring your legs back in, and explode up into a jump. Try to do 20 repetitions, then rest for two minutes. Repeat until you hate yourself:
- Push-ups. For 20 seconds, do as many push-ups as possible. Rest. Then do it again. If you’re worried about proper form, check out our push-up guide and watch this:
- Pull-ups. Same idea as above, do pull-ups for 20 seconds, then rest. If you can’t do a pull-up, we got you covered in our pull-up progression guide:
Let’s now chat about some Weight Training Examples for HIIT:
- Kettlebell swing. For ten minutes, do 20 kettlebell swings on every minute.
This will be intense, and worthy of congratulations when you’re done. Check out our 20 Minute Beginner Kettlebell Workout for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about kettlebells.
- Battle ropes. If your gym has battle ropes, they’ll be a great tool for HIIT. For intensity, the amount of slack in the rope determines the load. The more slack on the rope the tougher, and more intense, the workout. Also, don’t get stuck in just up and down movements. Some variation will help target different muscles.
- Weight lifting. The critical piece will be moving from one exercise to another quickly enough. For example, hustling from the bench press to the lat bar: we call this circuit training!
To answer your next question: yes, you can also do circuit training as a form of HIIT.
Circuit training is going through a sequence of exercises, or stations, back to back.
Coach Lauren explains the ins and outs of circuit training in this video:
So in a circuit you could go from push-ups to pull-ups, back to push-ups, only resting briefly from one exercise to another.
Circuit training would be perfect to mix into a HIIT workout, since you can design your circuit to be very intense.
Check out our post for 15 Circuit Training Routines to choose from.
Plus, there’s a Batman workout hidden in there. You’re welcome.
We create custom HIIT programs for busy people like you that are ACTUALLY fun. If you’re looking for a supportive coach to guide you and tell you exactly what to do each day, we got you covered!
If you just want a beginner circuit to get started with, you can try out our Beginner Bodyweight Workout Routine. Plus you can download a free worksheet to track your progress with this circuit when you join the Rebellion below:
Grab Your Beginner Bodyweight Routine Worksheet. No Gym Required!
- Complete this workout at home, no equipment required
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing bodyweight exercises
- Learn how to finally get your first pull-up
Oh, what’s that? You want to have even MORE fun while getting the benefits of HIIT?
Sure. Let’s think outside the box:
Basketball, tennis, soccer, and Ultimate (frisbee) are AMAZING styles of exercise that use interval training (it’s all start and stop!).
Run here, catch this, and wait for the next round to start.
That’s what we’re looking for in a HIIT workout.
So pick a form of FUN exercise that gets your heart racing faster and slower throughout the activity (yes, I suppose even THAT activity would count).
Is HIIT Good for Losing Weight? Is Interval Training Good for Losing Weight?
My guess is that you’re reading this article because you’re trying to get the most efficient “bang for your buck” when it comes to getting in shape.
And HIIT is a great form of exercise and COULD help with weight loss.
I will, however, lower some of these outlandish claims that exist in the media.
For example, Time magazine calls HIIT “miraculous” in one article.
That’s a little much, even for me, who writes for a living on why you should work out and likes using hyperbole for effect.
Seriously, I’m better at it than ANYBODY ON THE PLANET.
Cardio, strength training, and HIIT all have many benefits.
However, a meta-study reviewed HIIT compared to steady-state cardio, specially looking at fat loss.
They found no real difference.
As researchers noted:
Regular exercise is an integral component of long-term weight management. However, unless implemented in very large volumes, short-term exercise in isolation (including HIIT) is unlikely to produce clinically meaningful fat loss.
What’s that mean?
As long as your energy expenditure is the same (and you’re in a caloric deficit), steady-state cardio is equivalent to HIIT for fat loss.
In other words, if you want to lose body fat, how you eat will be responsible for 80% of your success or failure.
It doesn’t matter how many intervals you do – it’s not gonna help you lose weight if you don’t also fix your nutrition.
You can read our Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Eating if you want more information, which will help you build a plate like this:
And if you want to download our free 10-level Nutrition Guide to help you fix your diet starting today, you can do so by signing up in the box below:
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THE NERD FITNESS DIET: 10 Levels to Change Your Life
- Follow our 10-level nutrition system at your own pace
- What you need to know about weight loss and healthy eating
- 3 Simple rules we follow every day to stay on target
Getting Started with Interval Training
When it’s time to advance your high-intensity interval training, think about the following:
- Frequency. This would be the number of intervals in your workout.
- Intensity. How hard are you going in each interval?
- Time. How long are your intervals and rest periods?
Maybe you start out doing 3 intervals of intense running.
Once it becomes routine, bring it up to 4.
Maybe you crank the resistance on your stationary bike to “8” during your intense interval. When it becomes normal, bring it up to “10.”
Maybe you do pull-ups for 20 seconds. When you’ve got a good handle on that, aim for 30 seconds.
This mindset will keep you advancing in interval training.
Consistency is the name of the game here. Even just doing a HIIT workout once a week will help you progress in all three categories.
For more ideas on how to improve workout consistency, check out this video from Coach Jim:
Oh, and if you want help along the way, don’t forget about our Online Coaching Program:
Mistakes to Avoid When Doing High-Intensity Interval Training
There’s a lot to consider when embarking on a HIIT practice.
No matter which routine you end up starting with, make sure you follow these words of wisdom:
- Ease into it. As the saying goes, “you must walk before you can run.” The importance is building a HIIT practice. If you need to go “less intense” before progressing to “intense,” that’s fine. It’ll help build your aerobic capabilities (endurance), which will be important when working on intensity. Start with walking.
- Keep proper form. Doing your movements correctly will help prevent injury. Here’s how to run properly. This is even more critical in your later intervals, where you may be exhausted and tired. If you find yourself breaking form, go ahead and slow down. Intense isn’t worth an injury.
- Get rest. Our bodies actually build muscle while we are resting. So take some “off days” from your HIIT practice. Want to stay active on these days? Do some fun exercise!
Take it easy, focus on your form, and make sure to prioritize rest.
HIIT Timer Recommendations
HIIT centers on doing intervals.
One moment it’s intense, the next you’re onto a short rest break.
A good way to know when it’s time to go from one sequence to the next is a timer. A loud “beep” can tell you when it’s okay to catch your breath or when you have to kick it in gear.
Here are 5 HIIT timers you can try out:
- Runtastic. Don’t let the name fool you, this free app is for more than just running. You can customize for many different interval workouts, depending on what exercise you go with. And the interface looks slick.
- Seconds. It’s free and customizable to any form of HIIT. It can also integrate with your music, which is pretty sweet.
- Seven. If you’re new to HIIT, Seven would be a good app for you. It’s free, plus it has illustrations for exercises. You also get to customize your own virtual personal trainer, which may be the future of fitness. The bots are coming…
- Sworkit. First off, it’s a clever name (taken from “Simply Work It.”) Second, it’s free. Third, it can display your workout, goals, and calories burned. I like it.
- J&J Official Seven Minute Workout. This free app from Johnson & Johnson is actually really awesome. It has premade workouts you can choose form based on your fitness level, or tweak them to make it your own.
Also, we need to talk about interval timers. Most of the apps referenced are completely customizable.
For example, you can change the intense interval from 120 seconds to 90 seconds.
This is critical because it’s up to you to decide how long you can do intense vs. rest.
Generally, folks recommend one minute of intensity and then two for rest when doing HIIT.
However, this all depends on the individual, and exercises performed.
For example, burpees are tougher to do than jumping over a rope:
So feel free to make changes like 30 seconds of intensity and three minutes of rest. Make it your own.
Whatever way you chose to do HIIT, is fine, as long as you actually do it. The benefits of HIIT kick in when going HARD for you.
In other words, you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to get the benefits of HIIT.
A light jog totally works. Just don’t do it in a mascot costume.
As we discussed, if you’re consistent, you’ll improve.
So don’t stress about where you have to start.
For now, download an app and get going. Ours will help you train with HIIT too:
I hate multiple choice. Pick a HIIT workout for me!
Let’s power walk as our form of HIIT.
This is an example of a beginner HIIT workout we might prescribe for our Coaching Clients who are starting to train for their first 5K.
Let’s do seven intervals, two minutes each:
- Warm-up. For three minutes, walk at an easy pace.
- Intervals. For the first 60 seconds, power walk, like you’re trying to beat someone to the front of the line at Starbucks.
- For the next 60 seconds, just walk.
- Repeat six more times.
- Cool down. You can do some more light walking, or a little bit of stretching here would be great.
Total time: 20 minutes.
I want to stress, that you can do just about any exercise in exchange for this routine. Just minus “power walk” and add “push-ups and bodyweight squats”
It’ll still be a great HIIT workout.
“But Steve, that’s still multiple choice!”
Right, right… sorry. Stick to power walking! Done!
How to Start Interval Training now
Do our power walking routine above. It’s a great place to start.
Remember, our goal at this stage is to “build the habit.”
We can work on “whoa, that was intense” later.
If you’re looking for EVEN MORE stuff to do, we have a few options for ya:
1) Check out our popular 1-on-1 coaching program. You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
2) Exercising at home and need a plan to follow? Check out Nerd Fitness Journey!
Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).
Try your free trial right here:
3) Enlist in the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.
Sign up in the box below to enlist and get our guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. It’ll help you start incorporating interval training into your workouts.
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- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
There are a zillion ways to do HIIT, so don’t let the options paralyze you.
Pick one. Anyone. And get to it.
Interval training, in any form, is a solid fitness choice and a great practice to have in the workout arsenal.
Which HIIT workout style is your favorite?
Leave it in the comments below!
PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our content on interval training:
- The HIIT Workout for Home
- How to Do Tabata Sprints
- Should You Do Couch to 5K?
All photo credits can be found in this footnote.