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What is a HIIT workout and what are the best HIIT Exercises?


calendar-iconJuly 26, 2020

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Taking your workouts to the next level is never easy.

If you find that your old routine is no longer working for you, or if you want to really speed up your fat loss, then you are probably looking for a new way to train. That is where High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, comes into play.

It has become a popular way of making workouts not only more difficult, but also much more effective and fun. It’s also being used as a quicker alternative to longer, more steady cardio workouts.

But what exactly is HIIT? And more importantly, does it really work? What kinds of exercises can I do at home? 

All of those questions will be answered in this article, but first, it is crucial to understand the basics of HIIT and how it can affect your body’s metabolism.

What is HIIT?

HIIT is a challenging way of training that takes your cardio workouts to the next level. According to WebMD, it involves doing any cardio workout where you “work up a sweat fast, working at a very intense level and then backing off for a slower recovery period, followed by another round of high intensity”. 

To explain what HIIT looks like, let’s start by understanding what a non-HIIT treadmill workout looks like.

Most treadmill workouts are performed in a low intensity steady state (or LISS).

For example, let’s say you’re doing a 30 minute treadmill workout. 

  • Warm-up for 5 minutes at a low speed
  • Jog for 20 minutes
  • Cool down for 5 minutes at a low speed

Overall, it wasn’t a super intense workout since you stayed at a slower pace for most of the time, but it was still pretty satisfying. This is a low intensity steady state workout because your body stayed at a consistent pace the duration of the workout.

On the other hand, HIIT is much more rigorous. 

Instead of staying at that same pace for the entire time during your workout, you would switch between running incredibly fast for a short period of time and then going back down to an easy speed to recover your muscles. 

An example treadmill HIIT workout looks like this: 

  • Warm-up for 5 minutes at a low speed
  • Go all-out for 30 seconds, getting your heart rate up quickly and sweating 
  • Lower your speed for about 90 seconds
  • Continue to alternate 30 seconds fast, 90 seconds slow 9 more times (for a total of 10 intervals)
  • Cool down for 5 minutes at a low speed

Even though both of these workouts lasted for 30 minutes, the HIIT workout is more intense and works your muscles more than the LISS workout.

To have a better understanding of why exactly HIIT is so effective, it is important to know the basics of cardio workouts as a whole, and how they affect your body’s metabolism. 

There are plenty of individuals out there who are looking to incorporate more cardio into their workout regiment, especially if they lift and are looking to improve their strength and appearance, but many folks do not know the science behind how cardio works.

Understanding the main principles of cardiovascular exercise will help you both appreciate it more and learn how to structure your routine, so that you get the most out of each cardio workout. 

For those unfamiliar with cardio and how it exactly works, Joe Delaney’s video “Deconstructing Cardio For People Who Lift” is an excellent starting point for learning more about it. 

In this video, Joe discusses why people who are trying to “bulk” (gain more defined muscles) do cardio in the first place. 

He says that cardio exercise can improve your aerobic capacity and speed up the rate at which you recover between sets.

This means that doing exercises like jogging or biking can ultimately increase the amount of oxygen that your body can store, since doing HIIT cardio workouts deplete your oxygen reserves and forces your body to learn how to get used to that. 

With a higher aerobic capacity, your muscles have access to more oxygen later on when you are trying to lift weights and bulk up. This lets them use that extra oxygen to recover faster in between your sets of bench press, for example, which will help you grow stronger and be able to use heavier weights over time.

He also claims that cardio is an important tool used for getting better sleep at night, since it puts you into oxygen debt and makes it much less likely that you’ll stay up through the night. Getting more sleep at night can speed up your muscle recovery and greatly improve your performance in the gym, when you want to get a personal best on your bench press. Not only that, but doing cardio can cause you to be better equipped for the next time you choose to do it, since your higher aerobic capacity will let you increase the intensity of your workout. 

His main point is that doing cardio exercise can increase the rate at which your muscles take in and utilize oxygen, thus improving your recovery time, which can lead to faster results when you’re trying to bulk up. By losing extra fat through HIIT cardio workouts as well, you can improve the definition of your muscles and appear bulkier than you did before doing cardio. 

How Effective is HIIT? 

It is important to remember that HIIT is not only effective for fat loss. There are several other benefits of HIIT that you should consider if you want to give it a try. Here are just a few of them: 

  • It can help improve your speed for races. SissFit says, “Researchers have found the low volume, high-intensity approach of HIIT training can boost your speed”. If you are an athlete in a competitive sport like swimming, track, or cycling where you have to go faster than everyone else, then HIIT can be extremely useful in gaining an advantage over your competition. 
  • It can be good for a broad range of people. Dr. Edward Laskowski claims that HIIT has the potential to benefit a large variety of individuals, including people who are older, sedentary and overweight or obese. It is also useful for those with heart disease and type 2 diabetes, although these individuals need to progress very slowly through their training, and consult their doctor as they continue through their workouts.
  • It is very time-efficient. While a traditional low-intensity steady state workout can take over an hour, a solid HIIT workout can be done in 30 minutes or less. Plus, it can be done virtually anywhere, since there are so many different exercises that can be performed at a high intensity, even if you don’t have equipment. 
  • It can increase your overall metabolism. According to Healthline, high intensity interval training can significantly deplete the amount of oxygen that your body has to work with. Your body is working at such a high level that it cannot keep up your energy with just oxygen; it is forced to start using up fat for fuel instead. This metabolic change causes you to keep burning calories for many hours after your workout, since your body is still recovering from the oxygen debt it experienced while you were exercising. 
  • It is very good for your heart health. HIIT can make most of your muscles, especially your heart, a lot stronger through vigorous exercise. Furthermore, the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that those with heart issues get a much bigger benefit through HIIT workouts than they would by just doing a moderate cardio workout. This is because HIIT forces your heart to work harder and beat faster, causing more fresh blood to be pumped throughout the body. This, in turn, gives your blood a much higher volume of oxygen than someone who only does a moderate-intensity workout. Making your heart pump more blood keeps it healthy and working at the level it should, even in those with heart issues.
  • It can help you maintain your blood sugar levels. HIIT helps those with insulin resistance more than LISS when combined with healthy eating, according to this review from the National Library of Medicine. This is because high-intensity interval training can help increase your insulin sensitivity, according to Despina Pavlou. She says, “HIIT uses lots of glucose during the intense intervals and therefore, glucose levels in your muscles change. Insulin becomes active again during the rest period and helps deliver glucose back to the muscles to be used as energy. HIIT, therefore, helps the glucose found floating in the blood to enter the muscle cells to be used as fuel”.
  • It can lower your blood pressure. Another study from the National Library of medicine found that 8 weeks of 20 minute high intensity training workouts, 3 days a week, can bring down your blood pressure the same amount as low intensity, continuous exercise can for 30 minutes, 4 days a week. HIIT is especially effective for lowering blood pressure because it causes your heart to beat faster and pump more blood throughout your body. The improvement in blood flow throughout your body and heart will let your arteries open up more over time, in order to accommodate the higher amount of blood being transported and reduce any pressure placed on the arterial walls. This can ultimately lower your resting blood pressure over the span of a few weeks.

A lot of people are probably curious to know whether HIIT (high intensity interval training) or LISS (low-intensity steady state) training is better for fat loss.

According to Jeff Nippard, a HIIT workout consumes much more oxygen than a LISS workout does. Jeff notes that this will increase both the amount of oxygen your body uses after your workout (your EPOC, or Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) and the number of calories burned following your workout. 

Moreover, Jeff says that while HIIT allows you to burn calories for many hours after your workout ends, LISS really only gives you the caloric burn during the workout session, so there is not nearly as much EPOC, if any at all. Since your heart rate isn’t increasing as much during an LISS workout than it would during a HIIT workout, your body doesn’t need as much oxygen in the hours afterward. Therefore, you get much less of an after-burn effect when just doing a steady-state workout routine. Jeff does mention a study that explains how the number of extra calories burned in the hours after a HIIT workout is very minimal, and is unlikely to significantly contribute to fat loss. This leads to one of his main points, which is that one of the biggest benefits of HIIT over LISS is that it is simply much more time-efficient.

He then goes on to say that a HIIT workout and a LISS workout of 30 minutes in duration should burn about the same number of calories. Furthermore, although HIIT workouts can be done quicker and tends to be less boring than a LISS one, Jeff reminds us that they are very hard on the body and can be much tougher to physically recover from. NASM also states that long-distance athletes, like marathon runners, have to do longer training sessions besides HIIT at least once every two weeks, and also claims that HIIT workouts can potentially lead to overtraining and injury. 

Therefore, while a higher intensity workout can ultimately help promote more fat loss than a steady state workout and can be more time-efficient, it does still carry its share of risks. It must be done safely and in moderation, as taking it to the extreme can do much more harm than good. 
Ultimately, a workout schedule that utilizes both HIIT and LISS workouts seems to be the most effective and safest way to burn fat and build lean muscle, especially for beginners. Women’s Health also recommends combining high intensity aerobic exercise with resistance training, as you can burn up to 30% more calories than you would by doing each exercise individually.

What are the best HIIT Exercises?

A good HIIT workout can consist of many different exercises, ones that target virtually every muscle group. While some of these exercises require weights and other equipment, a decent number of them can easily be done at home.

Additionally, almost every exercise can be modified in some way to cater to all kinds of people. Men, women, and beginner athletes can get a great HIIT workout from these exercises. Most HIIT exercises can easily be done at home and are easy to learn.

There are many resources online that cover these exercises in much greater detail, and provide images and guides on how to perform them properly. This list is merely meant to help you decide which ones would work the best in your preliminary workout plan. Here are a few of the best ones: 

  • Running – Although it can be a little tough for beginners, or those with weaker joints because of the high impact from the ground, running is a great exercise for virtually anyone to do. Either at home or in the gym on the treadmill, it is a good way to both strengthen your leg muscles and get your heart rate up, particularly through short sprint intervals followed by longer recovery periods. 
  • Stairsusing either stairs at home or a Stair-master machine at the gym is fine.
  • Cyclingeither a normal bike or a stationary exercise bike is very good for cardio.
  • SquatsBodyweight squats can help you build leg strength and work your back muscles. Weights can also be used for even greater benefits, but make sure to practice doing squats without weights first. Doing squats improperly can lead to cramps or injuries
  • Jump rope
  • Burpees
  • Planks
  • Push-ups 
  • Mountain climbers 
  • Lunges – includes normal lunges, back lunges, side lunges, and walking lunges. These can also be done with weights being held over your head, but make sure you’re comfortable with bodyweight lunges first.
  • High knees
  • Toe touches 
  • Laterals
  • Bicycle kicks
  • Tuck jumps
  • Thrusterscombination of a squat and an overhead press. Can be done with weights.

HIIT Workouts Plans 

There are countless HIIT workout plans available on the Internet that can help you burn fat, no matter your age, gender, health or experience level. You might be wondering, though, how you can craft your own HIIT at-home workout. Now that you know many of the most effective exercises that people have been using, you probably want to pick a few and put together your own personal routine to start doing. Before you do that, it is important to consider the three essential factors that go into making any training plan. 

Our training article, “Training Macro Variables: The 3 Most Important Factors in Any Workout Plan”, covers three factors that comprise the optimal gym workout plan: intensity, volume, and frequency. 

According to our article, intensity is “the amount of weight lifted or resistance used in an exercise”, specifically when it comes to resistance training. If you are incorporating weights into your HIIT workout, make sure not to use weights that are too heavy if you are inexperienced with them. Although heavier weights can lead you to gain more strength, it won’t do you any good if you get hurt in the process. 

Volume, the second variable, is “the total number of repetitions performed during a training session at a given intensity”. When you’re doing a high intensity workout, you generally want to stick to lighter weights if you are using them, so that you can complete a higher number of repetitions and get your heart pumping. 

If you are primarily trying to build strength and muscle, however, then you should obviously use heavier weights. They should be heavy enough so that you get a good pump during the exercise, but not heavy to the point where you cannot complete a certain number of repetitions using them. 

The third variable, frequency, is “the number of times a muscle group is exercised within a training week”. As stated before, the ideal frequency of HIIT workouts in your schedule should be 2-3 times per week. Anything less than that and you’re not getting the full calorie-burning and oxygen deficiency benefits of HIIT. Anything more than 2-3 times a week puts you at a much higher risk of burning yourself out quickly, or injuring yourself and significantly setting yourself back. 

Keep these three fundamental variables in mind when you are constructing your personal HIIT workout plan. Stick to a lower frequency and intensity if you are newer to high intensity workouts, and build yourself up in steps. 

If you are unsure of where to start when it comes to full workouts, here are some of our best sample ones available to check out: 

  1. Dirty 30’s Workout – This 15 minute cardio workout involves doing 3 exercises in quick succession. The three exercises are the Sled Drag (with a harness), Chin-up, and Turkish Getup, which do require some equipment. However, you can substitute any exercises in for these three, and still get a great workout in. The goal is to do the 3 exercises mentioned above, or any exercises you substituted in, and figure out how many reps you can do in 50 seconds. Then, you have 1 minute to complete each set of those reps. Use any remaining time to rest. Go for at least 3 sets. This is a great workout for both men and women who are looking to burn fat and lose weight, as well as increase their stamina. Start off by doing the Dirty 30’s Workout once a week, so that your body can get adapted to it, and then you can do it 2-3 times per week as you get stronger.
  2. 10-20-30 – This workout, also referred to as the “1,2,3 Workout”, is a good option for beginners, as it is a relatively short one and does not require any equipment, although you can use a treadmill if you have access to one. Our 10-20-30 HIIT training plan involves 10 seconds where you use all of your strength and run as fast as you can. Then you go at a moderate pace for 20 seconds, as you get ready to go all-out for the last part of the cycle. The final part is 30 seconds of comfortable and steady cardio. You repeat this cycle four more times without rest, then you take a two minute break to recharge, before doing another five rounds. This may sound intense, but it is a very effective option for those who are new to HIIT. This workout gets them accustomed to the structure of HIIT and the immense pressure that is put on their bodies during the high intensity segments. People who are overweight or have medical conditions can lower the number of rounds they do at first, if they cannot handle the full workout immediately. 
  3. Our 12 minute core and cardio workout is a great option for men and women who are new to high-intensity interval training. It involves doing 25 seconds of Squat Jumps In ‘n’ Out, Bicycle Crunches, Crab Toe Touches, and Isometric-Explosive Bodyweight Jump Squats, for 6 sets. Take 5 seconds of rest in between each exercise. Of course, you may add more rest if you need it, but be sure to keep track of your intervals. Losing track of time and taking too much rest will cause your heart rate to go back down, and you will not get the full benefit of the workout. You will gain a decent amount of strength and stamina, as well as burn more fat, by incorporating this workout into your routine just once a week. If you really want to tone your body at a faster rate, you can even try doing it twice or three times a week. Just be sure to get used to the exercises first before doing this, though, as you do not want to get injured.
  4. Death Circuit – Our intense workout is suited for more experienced individuals, but it is an effective option for getting your heart rate up and feeling the full benefits of a HIIT workout routine. The only downside is that you do need some equipment to perform some of these exercises, but using objects around the house as substitutes should work fine. Doing this workout 2 times a week can increase your stamina, burn lots of fat, and greatly speed up your weight loss. The first day of the routine involves doing 4 sets of 10 reps of barbell squat, barbell bench press, barbell deadlift, and dips, with one minute rest in between each set. The second day requires you to do 4 sets of 10 reps of trap-bar deadlift, barbell incline bench press, machine hack squat, and then barbell incline bench press again, with one minute rest between each set. This workout is only a little over 20 minutes long, but it can be quite challenging for those doing it for the first time. Therefore, it is crucial to go at your own pace and not push yourself too far. Feel free to modify it if you must; for example, only do 3 sets instead of 4 if it is your first time trying this routine.

Tips and Tricks for HIIT 

Trying your first high-intensity interval training workout can seem quite daunting, especially if you are a beginner. However, by taking things slow and listening to your body as you exercise, you will see how effective HIIT training can be for both fat loss and your overall health. Here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind when doing HIIT workouts, so that you can safely progress and see the improvements you want:

  • Make sure to get in a good warm-up. Since you will be exerting a lot of energy and pushing your entire body to its limits, you want to make sure to properly prepare yourself for your HIIT workout. Stretch your whole body before you get started – legs, arms, back, etc. – so that you do not cramp up once you increase your workout intensity, or worse, injure yourself.
  • Start slowly with the intensity of your workouts. Pushing yourself too much at the start of a new HIIT workout plan can cause serious harm, so it is absolutely essential that you start very slowly. It is always wise to limit yourself during your first few HIIT workouts and build up incrementally as you get more accustomed to the high intensity of the exercises. Greatist provides an excellent tip for beginners: “Go all out for 20 seconds, and then recover for 40 or even 60 seconds”. Giving yourself sufficient time to recover (but not too much) is a must in order for you to succeed doing a HIIT workout for the first time.
  • Limit your HIIT workouts to only 2-3 times per week. Doing too much vigorous training will leave you either completely burned out or injured according to Greatist, so be sure to space out your HIIT workout days. On the days where you are not doing high intensity training, you can do LISS or yoga to allow your muscles to recover.
  • Do not make your high intensity intervals too long. Keep your workout intervals relatively short, so that you feel inclined to truly push yourself to the limit. If you make your workout intervals too long, then you might feel inclined to save some of your energy and not get the full benefit of the workout, or you might overwork yourself and end up hurt. That is why having an optimal work-to-rest ratio is so important to having an effective and safe HIIT workout. Your work-to-rest ratio is the amount of time you spend exercising relative to the amount of time you spend resting in between sets. The first number is always 1, and represents how long you are exercising for. The second number can range from 1-5 or even higher, and represents how much rest you take in between sets, relative to how much time you spent exercising. For example, someone doing mountain climbers with a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio would do mountain climbers for one minute, and then rest for one minute before doing another round. Likewise, someone with a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio would exercise for one minute, then rest for 2 minutes before starting again. 

Therefore, having either a 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, or even a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio will motivate you to go all-out during the work interval. A beginner might want to use a 1:3 or 1:4 work-to-rest ratio so that they feel inclined to work as hard as they can, but also so they have plenty of time to recover. For example, one who is just starting HIIT might utilize a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio; they would do as many reps of burpees as they can for 30 seconds, and then rest for 90 seconds.


High-Intensity Interval Training is a very challenging training program that can take your workouts to the next level, and can significantly speed up the rate at which you lose weight and build muscle. That being said, there are a few things to remember about HIIT and consider before giving it a try. Here are the most important takeaways from this article to keep in mind: 

  • HIIT (or high-intensity interval training) involves any type of cardio workout where you “work up a sweat fast, working at a very intense level and then backing off for a slower recovery period, followed by another round of high intensity”, according to WebMD. 
  • By quickly depleting your muscles of oxygen, you are forcing them to use stored fat as the energy source to keep you going. This means that HIIT can be much more effective at helping you lose weight than just doing cardio at a slower, steadier pace. 
  • There is a wide variety of great exercises that you can do for HIIT both at the gym and at home, including running, jogging, jumping rope, push-ups, squats, burpees, and many more. It is very important to remember, however, that you must start slow and gradually build your way up in intensity. Going too hard early on can result in overexertion and even injury, which can significantly impede any weight loss progress you have made. 
  • Many sample high-intensity interval training workout plans are available online to be used. There are variations of exercises and routines for everyone, no matter your gender or experience level when it comes to working out. When it comes to making your own workout plan, though, it is essential to listen to your body and only do what you can handle. Keep in mind the three training macro variables when crafting your personal workout routine: intensity, volume and frequency.

Be sure to check out for more useful articles on various fitness topics.


Date Created: July 26, 2020

Last Updated: December 16, 2020

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