High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is all the workout rage, with exercisers embracing intense challenges and pushing their limits. Offering numerous benefits and efficiency, HIIT drives results with shorter, more intense workouts – versus an hour pedaling a bike, for instance. There is nothing wrong with less intense steady-state routines; but HIIT offers an exercise alterative.
However, HIIT isn’t for everybody, and its rigorous nature can make it risky for some populations, such as the deconditioned, elderly or those with orthopedic injuries or limitations. It always should be performed with caution, and ideally under the supervision of a trainer or qualified instructor. With proper form, modifications and controlled intensity, HIIT for beginners is possible.
Interval Training Defined
Steady-state workouts, where you hop on a treadmill or elliptical, set the resistance and perform your entire session at that set pace (not including the warm-up or cooldown) for 20-60 minutes provide caloric expenditure and cardiovascular conditioning.
In contrast, interval training consists of varying intensity levels throughout a workout to alternate between periods of a steady, submaximal pace and brief bursts of high-intensity effort – such as walking with jogging, or jogging with sprinting. The varying intensity from moderate (aerobic) to high (anaerobic) challenges you to work very hard for short periods.
Interval training varies your pace to ratchet up the intensity and then bring it back to your steady zone. By definition, interval training increases intensity, but not all interval training must be HIIT. Although definitions vary, HIIT is working about 85%-100% of your maximum heart rate, which is can be anaerobic and only sustainable for very short bursts. Also, due to their intensity, HIIT workouts are a fairly short duration, such as 10 to 45 minutes.
Tabata is a specific type of HIIT in which you perform 20 seconds of highly intense exercise, such as squat jumps, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and repeat this for four minutes (8 cycles); then recover briefly and start a new cycle with another exercise.
But HIIT doesn’t necessarily have to follow an established formula like Tabata, and it can be totally customized. You determine the modalities, the exercises and the duration of intervals to alternate between aerobic to anaerobic zones. HIIT includes cardiovascular activities, but you can also add strength exercises and calisthenics. And remember, you can decrease intensity at any time so that you’re not anaerobic. Interval training still delivers great benefits even without the ultra-high intensity.
If HIIT is known to be extremely challenging, then why choose it over a more tolerable steady-state routine? Research continues to show that HIIT delivers multiple benefits, which make that temporary discomfort worthwhile:
- Improved stamina
- Greater caloric expenditure – high-intensity intervals use more calories than steady-state sessions
- Increased fat loss
- Higher metabolism – increased use of oxygen and calories during and after workouts raises metabolism even when you are not exercising
- Muscle maintenance
- More efficiency – burn more calories in less time using more muscle groups
- Enhanced cardiovascular health – a stronger heart, lower blood pressure, better cholesterol profiles and improved insulin sensitivity
- Better adherence – some exercisers prefer HIIT and are more likely to stick with it
Considerations for HIIT for Beginners
It is not recommended that beginning exercisers jump in immediately with HIIT, as they aren’t accustomed to such high intensity, which can be overwhelming, potentially cause an injury or result in feeling defeated and quitting.
So someone who hasn’t worked out in 10 years – or ever – should not jump into a Tabata session. It’s safer to begin with steady-state cardio workouts and light weight training to establish a base level of fitness and proper form before beginning a HIIT program. If you’re over 45, significantly overweight, have high blood pressure or have a family history of heart disease, check with your doctor first before beginning ultra-intense workouts.
HIIT for beginners is safest when supervised by a certified trainer or instructor, who can monitor intensity, correct form, offer modifications as necessary and select a smart balance of exercises. Plus, you can ask questions and benefit from extra motivation. Correct form is imperative and trumps speed of movements or repetitions.
Also note that it is not recommended to perform HIIT everyday, but instead, 1-3 times weekly. With its vigorous nature, HIIT causes the muscles to break down, and recovery time is critical to rebuilding and becoming stronger. Too much interval work can lead to overtraining, injuries and burnout. Vary HIIT workouts with steady-state cardio; strength training; gentle yoga or Pilates; or active recovery like leisurely walks.
Ideally, HIIT for beginners takes place in a supervised class or small group setting, so check your local health club or recreation center. Look for classes or training sessions that cater to beginners, and notify the instructor that you are just starting. Use lighter weights initially, and perfect your form. Don’t feel the need to do every exercise all-out, but follow modifications to reduce impact and ensure your success.
If you are working out on your own, you’ll find tons of HIIT regimens online, in magazines and on DVDs for variety. Be sure to modify anything – from changing tuck jumps to knee lifts, shortening high-intensity intervals from 30 seconds to 20, or reducing overall workout time from 30 minutes to 15 – to make the workout safe and successful for you.
Today’s cardio equipment includes HIIT at the push of a button. In fact, the classic Schwiin Airdyne Pro fan bike and the new Octane Fitness AirdyneX are simple ways to take on HIIT. Low-impact and total-body, these intuitive bikes have unlimited air resistance based on your pace. Pedal slowly and the resistance is easier, and pick up speed to add more resistance. Both bikes offer invigorating 20/10 or 30/90 regimens, or you can customize your own routine.
Check out preprogrammed HIIT workouts on other favorite cardio machines, such as the treadmill, elliptical, cross trainer, stationary bike, or rower. Here you can generally quickly program an intense workout with the push of only a few buttons. And if the intensity is too high once you’re underway, usually, you can decrease the resistance level or pace and continue the session. Watch your heart rate and notice how you feel.
Octane Fitness equipment also features Workout Boosters on its standing, recumbent and lateral ellipticals and on its XT-One cross trainer. These add one-minute intervals of specific movements, such as squat, go in reverse and upper-body only, between every two minutes of cardio on the machine. Opt for Boosters during a portion of or throughout the duration of your workout.
And remember, it’s simple to create your own HIIT session by manually increasing the resistance level (or pace or incline on a treadmill) every few minutes so that you’re pushing yourself. After your high-intensity work interval (10 seconds to 2 minutes), reduce the resistance to steady-state pace for the next one to three minutes. Watch your interval times carefully to adhere to them, and adjust the interval duration and/or intensity to keep the workout challenging.
Or skip equipment altogether with calisthenics, alternating high-intensity moves like sprints, jumping jacks, burpees, high knees, mountain climbers and more with slower-paced exercises like push-ups, crunches, bridges, planks and Pilates or yoga poses.