Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: What Is High Intensity Interval Training?

Q&A Wednesday: What Is High Intensity Interval Training?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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?

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Micia June 20, 2012 - 3:19 PM

I don’t know if this counts or not but I’m doing the 30 Day Shred by Jillian Michaels. I’m 5’10 and 225lbs so for me it’s HIIT!!! It’s a 30 minute high intensity workout consisting of a warm up, jumping jacks, squats, weights, jump ropes, punches, ab work and stretching. We go from the floor to our feet alternating the exercises every minute. I’m about ready to pass our afterward and I’m only on level 1!!!

Sophia December 12, 2012 - 1:13 PM

Yes, Jillian Michaels, in many of her DVDS (I own them all) does HIIT workouts. That’s how I started to lose sizes…but I can’t say that they provide quick results for everyone. I did her workouts while on some days, I did running or yoga. I am trying to push myself to get back to those days.

Dee June 20, 2012 - 3:45 PM

What a timely post to see on my timeline today! I just committed myself to trying out HIIT. I’ve heard and read about it, tried it a couple of times and realized, I don’t like working out as much when I have to work that hard! But I’ve been convinced of the value, so I just joined 24hr fitness to make use of their BodyPump strength classes, and their treadmill for interval work. I did my first HIIT for only 10 minutes before class, and was sweating like a beast during BodyPump warm-up. I started out following a rec from a blog I read, but quickly found I wasn’t ready for it. So after a 1 min warm up, I just alternated between 1 min running at 5.0, then walk at 4.0; then run at 5.5, walk at 4.0; and did that up to 6.5. I attempted 7.0 but that was too hard for me, almost fell off the treadmill. I plan to get to the gym early enough to do 20 min HIIT before BodyPump, three times per week (and have time stem the sweat flow before class!) I was told that doing the cardio first is good because your heart rate has a jump start during the strength training work.

Jami June 21, 2012 - 1:02 PM

HIIT training rocks!! I found that it helps me burn the most calories. I try to do this training at least 2x per week or if I’m short on time and need a quick workout. I like to do sprints with my training but my trainer loves strength based HIIT. Having a HRM helps me stay aware of my intensity. There are also some great phone apps that can guide you with keeping time, etc.

larenee10 June 26, 2012 - 12:54 AM

I have done the entire thing twice this week, except burpees (dizziness). I’ve never made myself so sweaty or sore at my own house. I was channeling you since I used my detergent bottles for resistance since I don’t have bands. Thanks! This is a keeper.

Tes October 3, 2012 - 11:58 AM

HIIT is IT!!!… I’ve been doing them 2-3xper week for about 3 weeks now and already notice a difference in my body, fitness, and overall strength levels. I sweat like a waterfountain is flowing from me and I love that! It helps me control my eating because I am a compulsive overeater and this class keeps me psychologically in check. I feel like a fitness fanatic, (which I am, I love fitness unlike most :-)), but this class helps me understand the principle of eating for life and nutrition and to fuel my day as opposed to eating for the sheer taste of it! If you want to be strong, lean and in control… HIIT it!

Norn Cutson October 3, 2012 - 12:59 PM

I do 30/60/90™… its my favorite drug!!!
Seriously, you get HIGH from those intervals!!!
Our teacher, Darbi, says “You can do ANYTHING for 60 seconds!”, and I’ve applied that to all the challenging times in life, too… you know, “2 hours… I can get through this… I can do anything for 2 hours…”

Charey December 27, 2012 - 5:53 PM

This pretty much describes Sean T.’s INSANITY workout. The pain!!!! But I liked that I saw results fast and you feel like you are actually getting something done. Before that I felt like I was on the treadmill for hours and nothing was happening. Of course thing WERE happening, but it just wasn’t painful/tiring enough I guess is what I mean.

nächste Seite April 23, 2013 - 9:16 PM

I knew that a HIIT session consists of a warm up period of exercise, followed by three to ten repetitions of high intensity exercise, separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, and ending with a period of cool down exercise. The high intensity exercise should be done at near maximum intensity.

Sarah February 17, 2015 - 2:27 AM

Great circuits! I find it hard sometimes to just get started, but when I do the workout seems to fly by. I’m with laranee, burpees make me dizzy unless I start my workout with them :/

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