Q: What is high intensity interval training (HIIT)?

It is… gloriousness in the form of 60 seconds (or more… or less) of struggle.

No… seriously. HIIT can literally be what makes or breaks the time that you commit to working out each day. It can be the difference between burning 250 calories and 500 calories in your half-hour long workouts.

High intensity interval training is, quite frankly, training in intervals where you give 110% of what you’ve got for a chosen period of time and then rest for a shorter period of time. This is different from an activity that you’d participate in, giving steady effort and intensity, for a long period of time. High intensity interval training is more time-efficient, more effective and often serves as a great way to develop better cardiovascular strength.

Think back to when I answered another Q&A Wednesday question from a reader who was told only to “strength train:”

Quality, targeted, focused, challenging strength training exercises that also burn calories exist. I just.. they exist. Presenting it as if it’s zero sum is a bit dishonest and doesn’t promote all-around fitness. (I wonder where this was/what kind of gym enthusiasts these are…gyms usually push the heavy cardio route because they know cardio promotes weight loss and “weight loss” is what keeps people in the gym, even knowing full bloody well that extensive cardio actually runs counterproductive to muscle development.) There are tons of exercises that get your heart rate going without weights and help with muscle development – burpees, mountain climbers, that-exercise-whose-name-escapes-me-but-consists-of-switching-between-a-plank-and-a-lunge, any variation of high intensity interval training with calisthenics or interval training in general – so I’m not sure why they wouldn’t just steer you in that direction. I just don’t get it.

Truthfully, if lifting [with proper form] doesn’t have your heart rate up while you’re in there, I wonder if you’re challenging yourself enough. There are tons of ways to flip lifting into something that is challenging both for your muscles and your cardiovascular system, but if you’re new to working out you might not know those… much like most people wouldn’t know a lot of the stuff I’m saying here… which makes it all sound like a lead in to a pitch for you to hire one of the gym’s trainers. Tsk, tsk.

Lifting with proper form, burpees, mountain climbers, circuit training…. hell, even some plyometrics or even some hard work in a weights machine can turn into a HIIT workout quickly and having you in [the good kind of] pain and thanking your lucky stars.

A successful HIIT workout has lots of different components to it, and if you want to get the most out of your half hour (or hour, if you’re so tough) then you do what you can to make sure you’re managing all of those components. And, let’s face it – “getting the most out of your hour” is a polite way of saying “produce results.” Everyone cares about effectiveness, because if your workouts aren’t effective then you’re not going to be producing results, in the form of a changing body. HIIT can definitely make that happen.

What does an HIIT workout look like? Everyone builds theirs differently, and my studies for my personal training certificate haven’t yielded to one particular method for creating them, but the important component is that you double up on the effort, while making sure that you’re giving yourself time to rest in-between. The key component here, isn’t the interval part. It’s the intensity. It is absolutely vital to make sure that, for that short burst of time, you’re giving all that you’ve got. I measure my intensity levels by keeping tabs on my heart rate, not whether or not I’m experiencing “muscle burn.” I don’t build my HIIT workouts based on reps, because if I complete the reps and still didn’t get my heart rate up, then it wasn’t effective, to me. It wasn’t intense.

It’s effectiveness, to me, is all about what exercise and weight combinations you’re using in your intervals. So, for example. To make my treadmill time more effective, I build my intervals based on my heart rate. I spend the first three minutes of my workout, as warm-up time, with my heart-rate somewhere between 120 and 130. Then, I begin my interval workout – 2 minutes of my heart rate going between 140 and 155, another minute between 156 and 165, 30 seconds above 165,  followed by 30 seconds coming back down to 140 and starting the cycle all over again for another 8 cycles, and then a “cool down” period so that I’m not simply just hopping off the treadmill with my heart rate at 165. (Those of you who did c25k or followed my RunKeeper interval guide, this might sound a bit familiar.)

But what about strength-based HIIT workouts? Jackie Warner – my best friend in my head – offered up a sample circuit training workout in her interview with Greatist that I think can serve as a great HIIT workout, so long as you keep in mind that the goal is to get your heart rate up and keep it there, while remembering to give yourself rest periods. That means go hard in the paint. Leave yourself stankin’. Then break. And do it all over again.


A. Bodyweight Squats – 15 reps
B. Push-Ups – 10 reps

(Perform as a superset, three times through.)


A. Squat with side leg raise – 15 reps
B. T push-ups – 10 reps
C. Mountain climbers – 25 reps
D. Fire Hydrants – 15 reps

(Perform as a continuous circuit, two times through.)


A. Seesaw lunges – 10 reps
B. Split jumps – 10-15 reps
C. Burpees with push-up – 10 reps
D. Leg jacks – 15-20 reps

(Perform as a continuous circuit, two times through.)


A. Jump squats – 10-15 reps
B. Plank push-ups – 10 reps
C. Half-glute bridge with leg lift – 15 reps
D. Bodyweight dips – 10-15 reps

(Perform as a continuous circuit, two times through.)


A. Resistance band bicep curl – 10 reps
B. Resistance band punch outs – 10 reps
C. Resistance band lateral side raise – 10 reps
D. Resistance band overhead tricep extension – 10 reps
E. Jumping Jacks – 60 reps

(Perform as a continuous circuit, two times through.)


A. Spiderman planks– 10 reps
B. Reverse crunches – 20 reps
C. Leg lifts – 10 reps

(Perform as a continuous circuit, two times through.)

The kind of activities that Jackie suggests are awesome and, if you took this on as your HIIT workout, could work for a four-day-a-week affair. It covers the entire body, can get your heart rate up, and keep you working for a while.

The important components to a HIIT workout, to me, are heart rate, choice of exercises and amount of effort exerted. The reason the heart rate is so important, is this: your body, at a heart rate of 120bpm (beats per minute) for 30 minutes might burn you 300 calories, right? Well, your body, at a rate of 155bpm for 30 minutes can easily get you anywhere from 4-500 calories burned, instead. Your choices of exercises are important because you need to ensure that you’re creating a full, all-over workout that covers upper-body, core and your lower body…. and, because you need to give your body time to heal, you don’t do them every day. The amount of effort exerted matters because only you can gauge how hard you can go, and for how long, regardless of what’s on the paper. And, if you’re pushing yourself too far, know that it’s time to pull it back.

Who out there is using high intensity interval training? What’s your workout lookin’ like?