Although high-intensity interval training (HIIT) doesn't need to include high-impact moves like jumping jacks, running in place with high knees and skater hops, those types of exercises tend to be popular in HIIT routines because they get your heart rate up quickly.
Boosting your heart rate can improve endurance improve endurance and overall cardiovascular function, but without proper conditioning of your lower-body muscles, your joints can be strained, according to Cordelia Carter, MD, sports orthopedic surgery specialist and director of the Center for Women's Sports Health at NYU Langone Health in New York.
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"Impact from any height, even just jumping up from the floor, creates force through our joints and into your bones," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "That's beneficial if you condition yourself gradually to accommodate that force. But if not, sudden movement, like in a HIIT session, may increase injury risk."
Fortunately, that doesn't mean ditching HIIT altogether. There's a way to build up to high-impact moves while keeping your joints protected — and it's called HILIT.
What Is HILIT?
By this point, you're probably wondering what a HILIT workout actually is. Short for high-intensity, low-impact exercise, HILIT offers short and intense intervals of work without the bounce.
"You can still get your heart rate up similar to a regular HIIT session, and you'll be building strength and endurance," Dr. Carter says. "You'll just be choosing moves that don't involve impact."
That might mean cycling instead of running, for example, or traditional squats instead of jump squats.
HILIT vs. HIIT: What's the Difference?
This is actually a trick question because HILIT is a form of HIIT. The difference is that instead of incorporating some common high-impact moves in which both feet leave the floor, HILIT includes only low-impact versions.
What are examples of HILIT? Here are a few:
"The majority of high-impact exercises can be modified into low-impact versions," Dr. Carter says. For example, walking briskly instead of running changes the impact of that activity.
Benefits of HILIT
The combination of low-impact moves with short, intense bursts of exercise can bring numerous advantages. Here are a few.
1. Lower Injury Risk
According to the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), you're less likely to get injured doing a low-impact workout thanks to less strain on the joints. That's not just for older adults or those with joint issues: A July 2019 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that even athletes in their 20s are at higher risk for injury with high-impact HIIT sessions, especially in their ankles, knees and shoulders.
2. Better Metabolism
According to a May 2022 research article in eLife, after five weeks of doing interval-based sessions of cycling, people showed significant changes in the way their bodies produced energy. That metabolic improvement can boost muscle function overall, researchers noted. This same concept can be applied to low-impact, high-intensity exercise as well.
3. Improved Cognitive Function
Changing the intensity of a workout, such as doing easy walking interspersed with bouts of brisk walking, can change connections in the brain to improve cognitive function, according to a December 2019 research article in Brain Plasticity.
Additionally, an October 2019 review in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport linked short bursts of intensity while cycling followed by short periods of rest — the ingredients of a HIIT workout — can enhance learning and memory.
4. A Stronger Cardiovascular System
Because HIIT — even the low-impact kind — is designed to raise your heart rate in short intervals, it conditions your heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system to operate more efficiently. A July 2019 review published in the World Journal of Cardiology noted that your aerobic capacity — your body's ability to use oxygen when you're working out at maximum effort — is considered one of the strongest predictors of future health.
"Many people who don't enjoy jumping or feel like it's detrimental think they can't do HIIT workouts, but that's simply not true," Dr. Carter says. "You can still get all of the advantages without high-impact moves."
How to Add HILIT to Your Routine
Adding HILIT exercise to your workout routine can just be a matter of choosing low-impact options that can be done in intervals — meaning short bursts of high intensity, similar to sprinting if you're out for a run.
Here's a HILIT workout plan that Sabrena Jo, CPT, personal trainer and American Council on Exercise senior director of science and research, recommends — and you can even do these HILIT workouts at home.
- Low-impact cardio exercises: These can include exercises like stationary cycling, rowing or using an elliptical machine to elevate your heart rate without putting excessive stress on the joints.
- Strength training: A HILIT workout often incorporates resistance exercises using your body weight, dumbbells or resistance bands to build strength and tone muscles. Examples include squats, lunges, push-ups and planks.
- Plyometric exercises with modifications: Plyometric exercises involve explosive movements such as jumping or bounding. In HILIT, these exercises are modified to reduce the impact. For instance, instead of high jumps, exercises like step-ups, modified burpees or knee lifts may done.
- Core exercises: HILIT workouts often include core-strengthening exercises like plank variations, Russian twists or mountain climbers to improve stability and overall body strength.
"The specific exercises and intensity levels can vary depending on the program," Jo says. "The main focus of HILIT is to provide a challenging workout without the high-impact stress on the joints associated with traditional HIIT workouts."
- ISSA: "Why You Should be Trying High Intensity Low Impact Training"
- Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: "Injuries sustained during high intensity interval training: are modern fitness trends contributing to increased injury rates?"
- Brain Plasticity: "Modulation of Distinct Intrinsic Resting State Brain Networks by Acute Exercise Bouts of Differing Intensity"
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: "Acute aerobic exercise and neuroplasticity of the motor cortex: A systematic review"
- World Journal of Cardiology: "High-intensity interval training for health benefits and care of cardiac diseases - The key to an efficient exercise protocol"
- eLife: "High-intensity interval training remodels the proteome and acetylome of human skeletal muscle"