Note: This article is intended as a starter for people who have never worked out a day in their life or are extremely out of shape. If you’re already in decent shape but looking to take things to the next level, you will probably want to head over to a more advanced article on high intensity interval training.
If your goal is to lose weight, increase endurance or just to run a little faster and you want to reach that goal with the minimum amount of total work time invested – high intensity interval training (or HIIT) is for you. Besides a properly structured strength training routine there are no other forms of exercise that give so much benefit in such an efficient package. With only 5 to 15 minutes per week you can get HIIT’s full benefit. Everyone can spare 15 minutes a week to be healthier.
So What Is High Intensity Interval Training?
Simply put – training in an interval pattern at a very high intensity. Ok, moving on…
Alright, I know, you want more than that. High intensity interval training is a system of training that uses alternating periods of work and rest (intervals) to allow the person doing them to perform maximal or near maximal effort for a longer total time than without rest periods.
Why Is HIIT So Great?
There are a handful of reasons that high intensity interval training is a better option than long, slow drawn out cardio like jogging. Here are just a few:
- HIIT is efficient – Due to the intensity of the exercise HIIT puts a lot of stress on your respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous systems in a very short amount of time. This may sound bad, but this stress is good in small doses. Just like with weight lifting that’s how you get stronger. That intensity means you can get more benefit from 5 minutes of HIIT than you can from an hour of running.
- HIIT increases your metabolism – That stress on your CNS I just mentioned also means that unlike with most exercises your body stays geared up long after you’ve finished actually exercising. That means that three hours later when you’re sitting around playing Skyrim or watching TV your metabolism is still roaring as if you were active.
- HIIT releases growth hormones – Yet another benefit of the stress put on your system is that high intensity interval training triggers the release of Human Growth Hormone, Testosterone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 just like strength training does. This lovely cocktail of hormones means quicker fat loss, more rapid muscle growth and improved insulin sensitivity. All good things.
- HIIT improves aerobic and anaerobic systems – High intensity interval training improves performance in anaerobic areas (intensity / power output) and aerobic areas (endurance). Unlike a five mile run which only improves aerobic performance (and even then questionably) HIIT gives you a two-for-one deal. On top of that, high intensity interval training improves your VO2 Max, a measure of how efficiently your body processes oxygen. That means you can do things harder for longer.
How Do I Start HIIT?
The ‘high intensity’ part of high intensity interval training is not there sarcastically – HIIT is intense. This is the main reason it’s so beneficial but it’s also the reason it can be dangerous. Now this HIIT routine is already assuming you are completely out of shape or just starting exercising but even so it will put a lot of stress on your heart.
If you are at a point where you’re at elevated risk of having a heart attack than take it slow and talk to your doctor before you really get going. Properly applied HIIT will get you and your heart in the best shape of your life, but overdoing it can put you in the emergency room or worse. Be careful and use your head.
With that out of the way, here’s what you do:
5 minute warm up. This will depend on your overall fitness level, a very brisk walk or some easy jumping jacks should do the trick. The idea here isn’t to get out of breath, or even tired really, but to prepare your system for the shock it’s about to get.
30 seconds of full exertion. Here’s where you get going. This will also depend on your overall fitness level. The idea is to do something as hard and fast as you can manage. For some that might mean a furious set of jumping jacks or a quick stair climb for others it might be a full-on sprint. Running up a steep hill as fast as you can for 30 seconds is a good place to start if you’re not sure where your limit is, or 30 seconds of sprinting on flat ground. By the end of 30 seconds if you’re not huffing and puffing you need something harder.
2 minutes of active rest. As soon as your 30 seconds are up switch to active rest. Now, when I say active rest I don’t mean just standing there – walk around in circles, stroll back down the hill or casually work your way to the bottom of the stairs. Savor it, because you’ll find these 2 minute periods go way too quickly.
Repeat 7 more times. As soon as your 2 minutes are up immediately start into another 30 seconds of full exertion, followed by another 2 minutes of rest, followed by another 30 seconds of exertion and so on until you’ve done a total of 8 sets of 30 seconds. This sounds easy. It’s not. If you absolutely cannot make the full 8 sets then remember where you quit and do one more set each workout until you hit 8 total.
5 minute cool down. This is as important as the warm up. After you’re finished with all your sets take 5 minutes more to gently cool down. Take an even more casual 5 minute walk, do some light stretching and let your breath slowly return.
That’s it! To begin with, only do one session of high intensity interval training per week. If you’re doing strength training (which I highly suggest you do) you should either do your HIIT on a day you don’t have a strength workout or, if you must do them on the same day, do it after your strength training.
Eventually, you can move up to two or three sessions per week and shorter rest periods, but for now it’s best not to overdo it. HIIT really does put a lot of stress on your CNS and it’s easy to overtrain if you don’t give yourself enough time to rest in-between sessions.
One more tip, never do HIIT shortly after having eaten. Trust me.
Have any other advice to add for people just getting started with high intensity interval training? Leave them in the comments! It’s always helpful to learn from other people’s experiences.
Photo Credit: Hamed Saber