High Intensity Interval Training
Q & A with Promix Founder & CEO, Albert Matheny
“I’ve read that HIIT training can burn more fat than steady-state cardio. How can I make sure I’m doing HIIT correctly? What are the specifics? Do I need to work and rest for a certain amount of time, reach a certain heart rate, etc?”
Before we dive into this question, know that a well-rounded workout plan involves both of these (and other) types of training. Steady-state cardio is great for building endurance, or how long you can go, while high intensity interval training, or HIIT, increases stamina (1).
HIIT training is an incredibly popular and effective tool you can implement into workouts to get a bit more bang for your buck when you are pressed for time (2).
Is HIIT Training Right for you?
The most important thing to acknowledge first is that high intensity interval training is not for everyone (1). Due to its intense nature, those who take on a HIIT workout should have some familiarity with exercise in general and specific experience with the movements done during your chosen HIIT workout.
The right way to do HIIT
HIIT is different for everyone. For a person who is just getting into working out, doing a simple movement, like jogging stairs or stepping up and down on a bench may get their heart rate to a very high level.
Conversely, someone who works out often may need to sprint that set of stairs or jump up and down from the bench to elicit the same heart rate response. Your level of fitness and your mastery of the movement will dictate how you should HIIT train.
Work at your level
Like driving a car, when you first learn to do something, you should not be doing it as fast as possible. Bursts of speed are often required as part of a true HIIT workout. The faster you go, the more your heart rate will go up. That’s the goal: keep your heart rate high with minimal rest for more burn in less time.
However, if you try doing something fast before you are confident with the movement, your chance of injury is very high (3). Not only might you lack coordination within the movement, but if you haven’t built into it, your body’s ability to absorb and react to the movement might not be high enough to go fast with it. For example, for someone who never jump ropes, doing a HIIT jump rope workout may lead to shin splints because certain muscles in the legs are not used to that specific type of stress. Jumping rope a bit slower for a little longer (practicing in steady-state) can help develop the muscles necessary to take on a full HIIT jump rope session later on.
Similarly, if you’ve never done a burpee before, it makes little sense to jump in and start trying to do such a big, dynamic, full-body motion full speed. For moves with multiple steps, breaking down movements to master the form is essential before increasing intensity. So, practicing components of a burpee – like push ups and squat jumps before trying the full burpee – is the best way to make sure you’re working effectively and preventing injury.
For those with specific injuries and restrictions, high intensity training can exacerbate them and work against your overall fitness (3). Avoid this by working within your fitness level.
Work to rest ratios
There is not necessarily a definitive, hard & fast rest/work ratio for HIIT. This, too, will change depending on the athlete and his or her level of fitness.
The main parameters are that you pair your intense exercise (could be as little as 10 seconds or as much as a few minutes), with alternating intervals of rest or low intensity exercise.
In general, I would recommend above 80% of max heart rate for the interval, and no longer than 20 minutes maximum of a training session. You cannot sustain high intensity interval training for a long period of time. Typically, your rest/low intensity period should be 2-3x the duration of the high intensity period. The goal during rest is to get your heart rate down around 60% of your maximum heart rate.
HIIT for Beginners
For those just starting out, I’d recommend a routine that looks something like this:
- 20 seconds of a high intensity movement (such as a step up to a box of about knee height. Step up and down as quickly as you can in safe manner in this time frame)
- 40-60 seconds of recovery. During the rest period walk around slowly so your heart rate has a chance to stabilize without fully dropping
- Repeat for 8 rounds (roughly 8-10ish minutes)
Common mistakes to avoid
- The most common mistake I see is people not taking enough recovery. If you don’t rest between intervals, you won’t be able to get your intensity at a high enough level to make it truly effective.
- I also see people going for too long. HIIT workouts have to be short for a reason: if you are truly at 80%+ of your maximum heart rate, then you are not going to be able to train that hard for a 40+ minute session.
- Attempting movements that are too complex or unfamiliar is counterproductive. If you feel uncertain about your form on any given movement, you should not do it in your HIIT session. For example, if you’ve never done battle ropes, you should not use them in a HIIT workout, as your form might need work and you could sustain a serious shoulder or back injury. If you’re injured, you’re not training, period!
- Finally, and this brings us full circle, there’s a time and a place for HIIT training. You should not do HIIT training every day. That would be like sprinting as fast as you can day after day in order to get faster, or lifting as heavy as you can every day to get stronger. You rebuild and get stronger in your recovery. If you HIIT train too often, you’ll fatigue yourself too much to see any real improvements. Worse, you’ll set yourself up for injury. Your body needs time to recover and adapt, which is why rotating between other types of training, like steady-state cardio and strength training sessions, can be so beneficial.
And of course, you have to fuel properly. Getting enough protein and incorporating Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs) into your diet will ensure you are optimizing all of the hard work you’re putting in at the gym.
(1) McCall, Pete. Steady State Vs. Interval Training: Which One is Best for Your Clients? American Council on Exercise Website. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5563/steady-state-vs-interval-training-which-one-is-best-for-your-clients. Published July 2015. Accessed June 2019.
(2) Gibala, Martin J., McGee, Sean L. Metabolic Adaptations to Short-term High-Intensity Interval Training: A Little Pain for a Lot of Gain? Exercise and Sports Science Reviews Website. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/Fulltext/2008/04000/Metabolic_Adaptations_to_Short_term_High_Intensity.3.aspx%C2%A0. Published April 2008. Accessed June 2019.
(3) Rynecki, Nicole D., Siracuse, Brianna L., Ippolito, Joseph A., Beebe, Kathleen S. Injuries sustained during high intensity interval training: are modern fitness trends contributing to increased injury rates? – Rutger’s Medical School. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness Website. https://www.minervamedica.it/en/journals/sports-med-physical-fitness/article.php?cod=R40Y9999N00A19021210. Published Feb 2019. Accessed June 2019.