HIIT for Beginners: 7 Tips to Jump-Start Your Workouts

Don't be intimated by HIIT; you can modify it for any fitness level. (Image: Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages)

If you're new to exercise, you might be wondering what the hype around high-intensity interval training — HIIT for short — is all about. For starters, HIIT workouts are a fantastic way to burn calories, build lean muscle and get fit — without spending hours in the gym

Sounds like a win-win, right? It sure is. And the best part: You can modify HIIT workouts for pretty much every fitness and ability level. So if you're looking for an efficient workout you can do anywhere — with or without equipment — HIIT is definitely worth checking out. Keep reading to find out why HIIT workouts are all the rage and how you can fit them into your busy schedule.

What Is HIIT?

High-intensity interval training uses bouts of high-intensity exercise alternated with short rest periods to maximize calorie burn and cardiorespiratory fitness in half the time of low-intensity steady state cardio. In other words, it gets you fit fast.

"HIIT is an exercise program designed to torch fat, increase anaerobic and aerobic capacity, and fit a full workout session into the smallest window possible," says James Swift, certified personal trainer and owner of Fit Body Boot Camp in Rancho Cordova, California.

What Type of Training Methods Use HIIT?

Being able to knock out your strength and cardio workouts at the same time is one of the reasons HIIT is so popular. That's why most gyms and training studios offer some form of the workout in their class line-up. It's also really simple to do at home, as more and more fitness apps, YouTube videos and online training programs offer streaming interval classes.

While HIIT will likely be the term you hear most often, there are other workouts that are similar in nature that you should know about:

  • Tabata training: Think HIIT but with very specific parameters. Four minutes in total, this workout consisting of eight rounds of 20-second max-effort bursts with 10-second rest periods between each.
  • Circuit training: A series of strength-based exercises, with no rest between each. The rest typically comes at the end of a circuit, and lasts for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP): When this is part of a HIIT workout, you'll perform as many reps as possible of a specific exercise for a set amount of time.

Tips to Help You Get Started With HIIT

Before you lace up your shoes and get after it, it's a good idea to have some core knowledge about how to get started with interval training. Here are a few tips to consider when including it into your overall fitness routine.

1. Start Slowly

Since HIIT is geared toward a more intense workout, pacing yourself is critical — especially if you don't want to burn out or increase your risk of injury. One way to ease into these workouts is to vary the intensity (aka your speed or the amount of weight you lift), work or rest periods, total workout duration and number of exercises you complete, says Swift. Go at your own pace, and progress when you're ready.

2. Find the Right Schedule

Aim for one or two days each week for a total of 15 minutes each session. As your body adapts, you can slowly increase the total time of your workout to 30 minutes. If you still want a challenge, then Swift suggests that you can add one more day of HIIT to your overall fitness plan.

3. Focus on Full-Body Movements

Focus on exercises that work your entire body at your current fitness level or just slightly above it, suggests Anna Larsen, certified trainer and owner of Fit Body Boot Camp in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Moves like squat and press, push-up, mountain climbers and burpee all fit the bill.

4. Be Aware of Muscle Soreness

When you first start HIIT, Larsen says you may experience delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS on your third or fourth day of training, which she compares to feeling like "you got hit by a truck." "This is actually normal," she says. "The best thing to do is continue doing small, short workouts for another two or three days to get over that hump."

5. Pay Attention to Signs of Overtraining

HIIT workouts place a lot of stress on your muscles, cardiovascular system and immune system. If you're performing too many HIIT sessions each week, you may find that you're headed down the path to overtraining. Some of the more common red flags to be aware of include decreased performance, excessive fatigue, restlessness, an increase in exercise-related injuries, agitation and moodiness.

If you're experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, reduce the amount of exercise you're doing, or rest completely. Talk with your doctor if any of the signs of overtraining continue to persist.

6. Do a HIIT Workout Anywhere

Because of the versatility of HIIT training, you can get a workout in with a full gym or at home in your living room. This means that the classic "I don't have the time" excuse is no longer valid.

If you're at home with little to no equipment, Swift recommends a body-weight HIIT session with a strength or cardio focus, depending on your desire for that day. When you're at the gym, you can use anything from barbells, dumbbells, suspension trainers, battle ropes or all of the above. "There is no limit to the kinds of HIIT training sessions you can complete with a full gym or with minimal equipment," says Swift.

7. Fuel Your Body for More Intense Workouts

Making sure your body is properly fueled before a workout is essential, especially for a beginner. To maximize energy, Larsen recommends you aim to eat a light meal one to two hours pre-exercise consisting of protein, healthy fats and complex carbs. Then, opt for a post-workout snack or meal within an hour of finishing your session.

"A protein shake and small serving of fruit is an ideal snack for HIIT and will help your body to build muscle and burn fat from your workouts," she says.

Try This Body-Weight HIIT Workout for Beginners

Ready to get fit with HIIT? This cardio-focused HIIT session from Swift includes five exercises: mountain climbers, jump squats, push-ups, speed skaters and burpees.

Do: Each exercise for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. Do six rounds of each exercise before moving on to the next, with a one-minute rest in between moves.

  • Mountain climber
  • Jump squat
  • Push-up
  • Speed skater
  • Burpee

Move 1: Mountain Climber

  1. Start on all fours, then lift up into a high plank — knees lifted off the ground, legs extended, feet hip-width apart, hands under shoulders and fingers facing forward.
  2. Keeping your abdominal muscles engaged, bring your left knee to your chest.
  3. Set it back to join the other, but then quickly draw the right knee up.
  4. Keep switching legs for 20 seconds.

Move 2: Jump Squat

  1. Stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width distance.
  2. Bend your knees and hinge your hips back to squat down like you're sitting in a chair. Your thighs should be slightly higher than your knees.
  3. Using your arms for momentum, jump up into the air.
  4. Land with knees slightly bent.
  5. Pause for a moment before repeating.

Move 3: Push-Up

  1. Start in a high plank.
  2. Engaging your core, bend your elbows back at a 45-degree angle to your body to lower your chest to the floor.
  3. Press back up to start.

Tip

You can modify by dropping to your knees or doing incline push-ups with your hands on a raised surface like a box or step.

Move 4: Speed Skater

  1. Start as if you're curtsying with the majority of your weight on the front (right) leg.
  2. Launch off your right foot and take a wide, low, leap to the left, landing on the left foot.
  3. Land in a low curtsy on the left leg, right leg swinging behind.
  4. Continue leaping from side to side.

Move 5: Burpee

  1. Stand with your feet together. Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor in front of you.
  2. Jump both feet back so you finish in a plank.
  3. Perform a push-up, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and maintaining your body alignment.
  4. Jump your feet back underneath your hips.
  5. Stand up with a flat back as you transition into a jump.
  6. Land softly with your hips back and knees in line with your feet and hips.
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