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What is High Intensity Interval Training

Band Sprints

The first thing to know about HIIT training is that if you are training for more than 30 minutes, you are either Lance Armstrong--or you simply aren’t HIIT training. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training. It’s a great strategy for those looking for the benefits of aerobic training without a big time commitment. If you have four to fifteen minutes to spare, you can get into shape, as long as you don’t forget the HI-- “High Intensity” in HIIT training

Thank You, Mr. Tabata

We can’t talk about HIIT without mentioning its famous founder , Izumi Tabata. Izumi Tabata prescribed his subjects, a group of elite speed skaters, eight rounds of twenty- seconds maximum- effort intervals on a stationary bike, with each interval of exertion followed followed by a ten-second break.

Can you picture yourself walking into the gym and four minutes later walking out, having finished an effective workout? This is the promise of the Tabata method.

You may have heard about how efficient Tabata interval training is. Better yet, you may have participated in a Tabata workout in one of your spin classes or boot camps.

I program Tabata-style intervals into my group classes frequently. We follow the twenty seconds “on”, ten second “off” protocol for the eight rounds, lasting a total of four minutes. So, what’s missing? Why isn’t this a true Tabata? You got it--it lacks the high intensity maximum effort.

Benefits of HIIT

Research has shown that HIIT programs yields the same aerobic benefits as sixty-minute moderate-intensity aerobic workouts. Like most exercise programs, it reduces the risk of inactivity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Before You HIIT

Start slow. Going right to your maximum intensity is a sure-fire way to get hurt. If you have been sedentary for a few years, start out with some steady-state cardio to build up your aerobic capacity and workload. Go out for a brisk walk. For some a 15- minute mile pace would be brisk, and for others not enough to break a sweat. If you can sing Happy Birthday, you are not walking fast enough.

How Do You HIIT?

There are many varieties of HIIT. The Tabata protocol utilizes a 2:1 work-to -rest ratio. You can use that same 2:1 work to rest ratio, but tweak the length of work and rest intervals. For example, you could row on the erg for 30 seconds and recover for 15 seconds, repeating for 8-10 rounds. The key is to exert maximum effort with each round.

Sample Beginner HIIT program

  • Weeks 1-2 (5 rounds)

30 seconds of power walking, 60 seconds recovery/ slow walking

  • Weeks 3-4 (6 rounds)

40 seconds of power walking, 60 seconds recovery/ slow walking

  • Weeks 5-6 (7 rounds)

50 seconds of power walking, 60 seconds slow walking

  • Weeks 7-8 (8 rounds)

60 seconds of power walking, 60 seconds slow

This program can be performed on a bike, elliptical, rower, or with aerobic calisthenics such as jumping jacks, step-ups, and so on.

HIIT Circuit Training

Another strategy that works well is to pair a exercises together to create a circuit. Use exercises that focus on different large muscle groups--don’t pair a push-up and overhead press together, because both exercises require upper body strength. Instead, pair an upper-body exercise with a lower- body exercise. For example,you could perform push-ups and then squats with minimal rest in-between. If you need more of a challenge, add a third core exercise.

Sample Beginner HIIT Circuit

30 seconds of push-ups

30 seconds of squats

30 second hollow hold

Rest for 90 seconds & Repeat for 5 rounds

** This would take you 15 minutes to complete

Common Mistakes

Not using the right intensity, and not recovering sufficiently are the two biggest mistakes that I see. Still, some people get carried away, using too much intensity. If you ever feel like puking while exercising, you are overdoing it. You should feel hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable, but not sick or dizzy. You’re responsible for yourself and you must know your limits. If you’re in a class and the instructor is trying to push you past your limit, don’t be afraid to speak up and let him or her know you need to recover. A good instructor will understand, and may even suggest some recovery stretches.

In my twenty years of participating in sports and working out I’ve never driven myself to the point of getting sick or fainting. The closest I’ve come was in the late 90’s, in my Pop Warner football glory days. We must have been goofing off in practice, because at the end of practice our coach made us perform one sprint after another with very little rest in between. When it was finally over, I felt light-headed and nauseous. The coach’s approach might have been effective punishment for a bunch of raucous kids, but it wasn’t good fitness training.

Be Realistic With Your Workout

Pretend a serial killer is chasing you and you run up a flight of stairs as fast as possible to escape. Your legs and lungs are strong and pumping , and you escape without a problem. Ten seconds later he catches up to you, and you have to run up another flight. This time you barely get away. Your legs feel like bricks, your lungs are burning, and you can’t seem to suck up enough oxygen. The fourth time around you are not so lucky! You’re wiped and you get wiped out by the madman. It’s unrealistic to expect deconditioned people to be able to work at top intensity for repeated intervals.


One of the major reason people struggle to exercise regularly is time. One of the questions I ask when I first sit down with a client is “what are some of the major obstacles keeping you from reaching your goal?” I constantly hear one of two things: time and motivation. You might not have an hour--or the motivation to spend an hour at the gym-- but you can probably find 10-15 minutes a few days a week. Just remember to start slow and use exercises you enjoy--then you’ll be ready to HIIT it!

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