High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is quickly becoming one of the world’s most popular training techniques.
At Ultimate Performance (UP), almost all our clients supplement their regular weight training sessions with some form of HIIT training.
If you are less than familiar with HIIT, this guide is going to provide you with a breakdown of the benefits and some proven workouts which you can immediately add to your regime.
What is HIIT Training?
As the name suggests, HIIT training involves short and high-intensity bursts of exercise followed by less intense recovery periods.
Although there are many different forms of HIIT training, a typical workout involves sets of max effort exercise for between 15-60 seconds followed by rest periods of between 60-180 seconds.
For the rest periods, you can either take the time to completely rest or ‘active rest’ where you perform a very low-intensity activity like walking.
HIIT training is extremely versatile, and you can perform it using a wide range of exercises. In fact, varying your exercise selection over time can help to keep cardio interesting and avoid overuse injuries.
Here are our top exercise recommendations for HIIT training:
Modified strongman equipment, e.g. prowler sled, battle ropes, tyre flips, etc.
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The above options are simple and safe which will allow you to train hard without injuring yourself.
You will notice that sprinting is not on the list, as most people fail to ease into it and nothing stops progress like an injury!
However, you can include sprinting if you’re confident in your running technique and don’t have access to other options.
Alternatively, you can try safer versions of sprinting such as hill-sprints or dead-mill sprints (sprinting on a turned-off treadmill).
The Top Five Benefits of HIIT Training
Benefit #1: HIIT Doesn’t Interfere with Muscle Building
The combination of resistance training and cardiovascular training in the same training programme is known as concurrent training.
A major concern that many people have about cardio is that it will somehow interfere with their muscle building efforts, something that is more formally known as the ‘interference effect’.
Although the exact mechanisms are unclear, one hypothesis is that cardio, especially endurance training, conditions your muscles to work at low intensities for long durations. In contrast, resistance training challenges your muscles to lift heavy weights explosively for short durations.
As a result, you’re asking your body to adapt in two opposing and potentially conflicting directions.
A significant benefit of HIIT training is that it is very similar to resistance training, which results in complementary adaptations.
For example, the intensity and work to rest ratio prescribed as part of an interval training session, e.g. 30 seconds on / 90 seconds off, is almost identical to a set of lifting weights for 10 reps.
Benefit #2: HIIT Training Improves Several Important Health Markers
Although all forms of exercise make a positive contribution to your overall health, the low barriers to participation of HIIT training (minimal equipment and time requirements) make it an effective starting point for anyone looking to stay fit and healthy.
Scientific research into the effects of HIIT training has so far reported positive effects on cardiovascular fitness through improvements in VO2 max (a measure of your maximal aerobic capacity), cholesterol, blood sugar management and blood pressure.
Benefit #3: HIIT Training is Fun
Traditional steady state cardio, like going for a long run, can give you an endorphin rush (and if you enjoy it, go for it!) but it can also be quite monotonous.
In contrast, HIIT training is extremely challenging and done right will push you to your limits.
From experience, most people who enjoy lifting weights, tend to favour HIIT over less-intense forms of cardio.
You can also make cardio feel like less of a chore by incorporating modified strongman equipment, e.g. pushing and pulling weighted sleds, or by attending fitness classes and training in a group environment.
Benefit #4: You can do HIIT Training Anywhere
The secret to HIIT training is training intensity (how hard you work), rather than a specific type of cardio equipment.
This makes it a great option when you have limited equipment, for example, many of our clients perform HIIT workouts when travelling.
Hotel gyms are notoriously poorly equipped, but nearly all of them will have some cardio equipment.
Alternatively, you can perform a bodyweight HIIT routine, either performing consecutive sets of a single full body movement, like high knees or burpees, or alternating between an upper body exercise, e.g. push-ups, and a lower body exercise, e.g. squats.
Make sure to select simple exercises with low skill requirements so you can train hard without overly worrying about technique.
Benefit #5: HIIT Training Gets More Done in Less Time
In contrast to steady state cardio, HIIT training takes much less time to expend a similar number of calories while also generating the associated health and performance benefits.
For example, an intense HIIT workout consisting of 10 sets of 20 seconds (hard work!) with 120 seconds rest periods should take no longer than 30 minutes including time for warm-up and cool down.
Any longer than this and you’ll most likely struggle to maintain the high-intensity effort required for HIIT.
How does it work? (Example HIIT workouts)
Once you’ve selected an exercise, you need to choose a target work to rest ratio.
Here are some example protocols that researchers have studied and we have field tested with our clients (note the inverse relationship between the number of sets prescribed and interval length):
10-12 sets x 10-second work with 20-30 seconds rest.
8-10 sets x 20 seconds work with 40-60 seconds rest.
6-8 sets x 40 seconds work with 80-120 seconds rest.
5 x 60 seconds work with 120-180 seconds rest.
These are just examples, and you can tailor the number of sets and work to rest ratios to match your fitness levels and goals. For example, you may require slightly longer rest when first starting to maintain a high intensity across all sets.
You’ll also realise that some exercises are more taxing than others and may need shorter intervals or longer rest periods. Although all HIIT training should be challenging, repeated sets of hill sprints will push you closer to the edge than a bodyweight circuit.
You can also try breaking up your HIIT workouts into two parts, separated by a 5-10 minute low-intensity recovery period. In addition to helping maintain your intensity levels, this strategy also helps fill out your workout, so you’re not travelling all the way to the gym for a super short workout.
Alternatively, you could use the extra time to perform any isolation exercises for target body parts, like calves or abs, that you normally tag on and rush through at the end of workouts.
Finally, regarding timing we recommend performing HIIT workouts 1-2 times per week and on non-training days or after your workouts (but never immediately before).