Healthy Living

What Are HIIT Workouts?

What Are HIIT Workouts?

Key Takeaways

  • HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training which is an exercise plan involving bursts of maximum intensity workout spaced with rests that last mere seconds. 
  • Studies show that HIIT has stronger effects and better benefits compared to continuous medium or high-intensity workouts.
  • There are plenty of studies showing that HIIT, despite its explosive nature, is good for the heart, contributes to cardiovascular system fitness, and may help reverse metabolic syndrome.

What is a HIIT Workout?

HIIT workout plans are intensive and punishing, but there are good reasons why they are very popular. HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. As its name implies, it is an explosive and high-power workout. It is not a specific workout or exercise routine. Rather, HIIT is an exercise plan or protocol where you do bursts of maximum intensity workouts spaced with rests that last mere seconds. The exercises occur in short bursts with moments of rest.

Magazines and health websites often paint HIIT as simple and easy, describing it as an ‘efficient’ workout to help burn tons of fat. They do not mention the pains, crumbling fatigue, and near-blackouts that often assail beginners and even seasoned exercisers. HIIT is an intense workout. It is like forcing yourself to finish a full CrossFit routine or marathon on your very first try. You will have to bring out your maximum effort, so expect that the workouts are punishing and grueling.

Why is such effort required in HIIT? If you do not give it your all, the whole routine will hardly be exercise; you might as well do ten push-ups and call it a day. Basically, HIIT requires explosive intensity, because it is the only way it works.

Typical HIIT Workout routine

Any HIIT routine follows a set pattern. Typically, it goes like this: exercise or workout lasting 30 seconds to a minute, followed by a 30-second rest, workout again, and then rest again, and repeats. The exercise can be the same or different. The important thing is that there should be bursts of explosive exercise interspaced by very brief periods of rest.

Here is an example of a HIIT treadmill workout. Note the pattern:

  • 5-minute jog to warm up
  • Right after the 5-minute warm-up, a high-speed run (sprint) for a minute
  • ‘Rest’ speed or walk for 30 seconds
  • Repeat sprint again to maximum intensity, add an incline if you can, for 1 minute
  • ‘Rest’ speed or walk again for 30 seconds
  • Repeat sprint again
  • Do it for 8 to 10 rounds
  • After the punishing workout, cool down with a walk for two to three minutes
  • Stretch to prevent cramps

This workout sticks to the HIIT routine and is often described as punishing to beginners. Not having enough endurance and muscle strength could make you quit HIIT quickly.

HIIT for Beginners

We found a workout here meant for beginners. 

  •  Do 4 minutes cardio for warm up
  •  Do as many jumping jacks as you can, for 20 seconds
  •  10-seconds rest (Yes, it is that short.)
  •  Ski squats and kicks, for 20 seconds
  •  10-second rest
  •  Traveling push-ups for 20 seconds
  •  10-second rest
  •  Crossover crunches for 20 seconds, and then a 10-second rest
  •  Fingertip-to-toe jacks for 20 seconds

During the momentary periods of rest, you can just march in place or pace around. It is still by no means easy.

Why is HIIT such a Big deal?

HIIT is a very popular routine. What is the real deal with it and why is it a big deal? It turns out that interval training (a series of bursts of exercise interspaced with brief rest) like HIIT has stronger effects and yields better benefits compared to continuous medium or high-intensity workouts.

Usually, we keep people with heart conditions sheltered. However, there are plenty of studies showing that HIIT, despite its explosive nature, is good for the heart, contributes to cardiovascular system fitness, and may help reverse metabolic syndrome.

A study in Sports Medicine showed patients with heart failure, a condition caused by the heart’s inadequacy to pump enough blood to fulfill the body’s needs, may benefit more from HIIT than continuous exercise. Patients with heart failure are often encouraged to exercise even if physical activities are terribly difficult for them to accomplish. Another study that examined the effects of HIIT in people suffering from a condition called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (caused by hardening of heart muscles) showed that HIIT improved heart function within 3 weeks of training. Another study in the Journal of Heart Failure showed that HIIT may help improve heart muscle problems in people with heart failure.

HIIT may also work for improving the health of blood vessels, thereby lessening the chances of a stroke or heart attack. In as little as two weeks, HIIT may help promote better blood flow in the blood vessels. Another related study showed it may benefit people with hypertension, which is caused by hardened blood vessels and poor blood flow. HIIT may also reduce the overall risk of heart disease.

It seems that HIIT has the most benefits in metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by obesity, hypertension, high blood sugar, and elevated cholesterol. HIIT may help ameliorate these problems within 12 weeks of straight training. Intense HIIT workouts may help induce fat loss in obese individuals.

The physical training may also bring back the effect of insulin in people with insulin resistance or diabetes; insulin brings glucose into the cells of the body and lowers blood sugar levels. It also brings down bad cholesterol levels, which is much needed by people with hypertension and those facing the risk of heart disease. Lastly, HIIT is known to reduce uncontrollably high blood sugar in people with prediabetes, and for diabetics, HIIT may help improve glucose control and induce weight loss. These effects explain why HIIT is popular.

The chances of success are better if you follow a few important points. First, the duration of exercise matters a lot. For most health benefits, a 30-minute HIIT workout is a lot better than shorter routines. Longer routines exercise the heart longer, improving the use of blood sugar and exchange of oxygen. Second, the intensity of exercise should remain at the maximum only. Lastly, you may find HIIT draining, but you really need to persist and sustain training. Results will show within 6 weeks to 12 weeks (2 to 3 months), which shows good chances. Note that with conventional continuous exercise, some people do not experience results even after months of exercise.

HIIT Cardio Workouts

Cardio workouts can be tuned to HIIT routine. Note that HIIT itself is considered a cardio exercise, despite brief rests, because it increases heart rate and respiration. However, you need to do HIIT for a sustained time to achieve aerobic effects. In case you really want a cardio workout, understand that such routines last atleast 40 minutes.

Many people find HIIT cardio workouts a lot easier than traditional cardio. Cardio exercises are easy and most people can do it. HIIT cardio is no different.

Here is a sample beginner cardio HIIT workout for some ideas:

On a treadmill or stationary bike:

  • 4 minutes warm up at moderate speed
  • 2-minute sprint at maximum speed
  • 30-second rest
  • Another 2-minute sprint (You can add an incline or resistance this time.)
  • 30-second rest
  • Do another 2-minute sprint (with incline or resistance) and rest
  • If you are tired, jog or pace at moderate to slow speed for one to two minutes
  • Do the same sprint-rest-sprint workout two more times, with up to 2-minutes' rest if tired, for 40 minutes

You can use other workouts including actual sprints, squat thrusts, or burpees; just remember to time everything, do routines at the maximum, and keep rests brief.

Best HIIT Workouts

HIIT workouts are all high intensity, so it is not easy to judge which HIIT workouts are the best. Just do the workouts you like, and you will receive good results as long as you stick to the protocol.

If you can do it, the best HIIT workouts are probably those that involve different sets of exercises. The human muscles have this amazing capability of ‘memorizing’ repeated physical movements, spending less energy over time. This ability may be an adaptation so early humans could deliver the same output even if their calorie intake varied. ‘Muscle memory’ increases the efficiency of the body, which sounds good, but not if you are trying to lose weight or bulk up; it also means you burn fewer calories over time when you do the same workout repeatedly. Different workouts ‘throw out’ the muscles, so they burn calories at a sustained rate.

The only problem is that varied HIIT workouts are very exhausting. It causes effort-stopping fatigue within two sets.

Here is a sample workout with different exercises:

  • 4 minutes warm up by pacing or moderate run
  • Pull-ups, as many as you can, for 30 seconds
  • 10-second ‘rest'
  • 60 jumping jacks
  • 20-second rest
  • Complete 20 burpees
  • 20-second rest, and then repeat the whole cycle starting from pull-ups

This workout is interesting because the ‘rest’ phases consist of doing a 1-minute jumping rope. Here is the layout of the workout:

  • 4-minute jumping rope as warm up
  • Mountain climbers, 45 repetitions
  • 1-minute jumping rope
  • Pushups, 20 to 30 repetitions
  • Another minute of jumping rope
  • Front plank for 1 minute
  • Another minute of jumping rope
  • Repeat the whole cycle starting from mountain climbers

This workout qualifies as an aerobic exercise, but it focuses on the lower body. Because it involves a lot of legwork, it is not easy for beginners. Here is the routine:

  • 4 minute warm up
  • 30-second sprint
  • 1-minute rest
  • Squat jumps for 45 seconds
  • Another minute of rest
  • 20 lunges on EACH leg
  • 1-minute rest
  • Calf raises, 50 repetitions
  • Repeat the whole cycle again

This workout focuses on the core or abs:

  • Warm up of choice (pacing, jogging, or jumping jacks) for 4 minutes
  • 50 Crunches
  • Rest for a minute
  • Bicycle crunches for 1 minute
  • Rest, 1 minute
  • Situps, 15 repetitions
  • Rest, 1 minute
  • Hanging knee raises, 15 repetitions
  • 1-minute rest
  • Oblique crunches on EACH side, 20 repetitions
  • 1-minute rest
  • Half-burpees for 20 seconds
  • Repeat the cycle starting from crunches

Best HIIT Workouts for Women

Women often tend to have different reasons for working out, so deciding which workout is the best is not easy to determine. Some of the reasons are to lose weight, increase endurance, gain muscle strength, and achieve a fit and trim physique.

A lot of female exercisers don’t even try HIIT because the workouts appear difficult. For starters, try this very easy workout. It is slightly aerobic with some elements of strength training due to the need to lift the upper body. It is helpful for raising the metabolism for weight loss:

  • Pace or jog for 3 minutes as warm up
  • Do a side-to-side lunge jump, as many as you can for a minute. It is done by standing feet apart, arms overhead and clasped, and then bringing the clasped arms straight to the right foot (bend the knee), and then returning to standing position, and repeating the movement with the other leg.
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Repeat the side-to-side lunge jump
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Repeat the cycle 5 times

This workout is slightly more difficult, with an element of plyometrics for the increased power output required for building muscle strength. Here are the steps:

  • Jump rope as warm up for 3 minutes to 5 minutes
  • Do a side-to-side shuffle jump. Start with feet apart, then squat down and reach the space beside the right foot, and follow with a jump. Repeat the step and reach the space beside the left foot. Repeat as many times as you can for 1 minute.
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Repeat the side-to-side shuffle jump.
  • Rest again for 30 seconds
  • Repeat to complete 5 repetitions

The following workout is designed to improve muscle tone, which can help reduce flabby skin in the abdomen, arms, and neck. Although it looks like it's exclusively an arm workout, it puts tension on the muscles in the shoulders and around the neck. You need a pair of dumbbells (6 pounds is enough) for this workout:

  • Read the exercises first and practice the form. Note that the elbows must be close to the body when lifting.
  • Warm up with jump rope for 3 minutes
  • Standing bicep curl. In standing position, grasp dumbbells with palms facing forward, arms hanging down, and flex the elbows until the dumbbells are at shoulder height. Return to starting position. Repeat as fast as you can for 1 minute.
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Do hammer curls. This time, with feet shoulder-width apart and arms hanging on the sides, grasp dumbbells with palms facing each other, then flex elbows and bring weights to shoulder level, and then return to starting position. Repeat as fast as you can for 1 minute.
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Repeat all over again starting from the standing bicep curl, and do the whole routine 5 times.

This is another workout that focuses on the core and arms, which can improve muscle strength and tone of the upper and lower body. Here are the steps:

  • Practice the full plank position for proper form.
  • Stretch or do jumping jacks as warm up for 4 minutes
  • Plank pike jumps. Assume a full plank position. Then bend knees, and jump into a crouch position, and then jump again to return to plank position to make one rep. Do as much as you can for 1 minute.
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • Do the plank pike jumps again for 1 minute, rest and repeat until you've done a total of 5 times

Best HIIT Workouts for Men

Men are often focused on building more muscle and reducing fat, and to do those, they need additional testosterone. Fortunately, there are certain workouts designed to increase testosterone levels, naturally!

Resistance training, or weight training, is the bread-and-butter of the testosterone-boosting workout. This is not a myth, as there are plenty of studies showing that progressive resistance training causes increased levels of testosterone and growth hormone (the hormone actually responsible for the growth of muscles). There are also studies suggesting HIIT protocol may induce greater responses in increased testosterone than steady-state exercises. 

Volume (repetitions) and daily workouts are important. If you want to get the best of both worlds, you can do those testosterone-boosting exercises using HIIT protocol.

Here are some sample HIIT workouts:

  • Warm up by jumping rope or high knees for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Jump lunge workout, 1 minute
  • 1-minute jumping rope ‘rest.’
  • Box jumps, box reaching knee height, for 1 minute
  • 1-minute jumping rope rest
  • Dumbbell Renegade Row with Pushups, 1 minute. With a dumbbell in each hand, do 3 push-ups (upper body supported by dumbbell) and then lifting a dumbbell until the arm makes a 90-degree flex, and again on the other side
  • 1-minute jump rope rest
  • Dumbbell Power Jerk, 1 minute. Do it by lifting a pair of dumbbells like an Olympic weightlifter doing a clean-and-jerk.

This workout requires a rower, which provides excellent resistance training. It is slightly more difficult than the previous workout:

  • You can skip warm up, or if you want, row with low resistance
  • Row as hard as you can for 30 seconds; peak watts should reach 350W
  • Rest for a minute
  • Again, row as hard as you can and result must reach 350W
  • Rest
  • Repeat as many times as you can, until you can no longer reach the required 350W output

Note that HIIT will take weeks to produce results, but in that time, you will notice that your endurance and strength increase. It will also help if you focus on accomplishing workouts based on the clock rather than thinking of the repetitions. HIIT workout plans may look and feel like punishment, but you will experience sustained results within days.