To cardio or not to cardio?
That is the age-old question around the water cooler at your commercial gym. Unless you’re someone who loves running on a treadmill for hours or willingly enters marathons for fun, you might have a hard time finding workouts that push your cardiovascular fitness—and don’t take all day to complete.
Thankfully, that doesn’t mean you have to grind out hours of steady state work to get your fat-burning sweat on. Why? Because of HIIT, better known as high-intensity interval training. Yes, it’s the trendiest catchphrase in the boutique fitness space, and these days, it’s overused far too often.
But when done right, HIIT is your saving cardio grace. A good HIIT workout can deliver a lot of what you want from traditional cardio — burning fat, elevating your heart rate, pushing you to sweat, and improving lung capacity — in a fraction of the time, making it especially useful for those of us who can’t spend all day in the gym.
To get all these benefits, though, HIIT has to be utilized correctly, and your intensity has to be high. That’s what you’re going to learn here, and you’ll also walk away with a handful of HIIT workouts for every situation, too.
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training, which refers to the short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods that make up the protocol. HIIT is quick and anything but boring, as its exacting work-to-rest ratios make it arguably the most time-efficient way to exercise and burn calories. You can use the HIIT protocol to build your entire workout, or apply it to just a few sets to create super-charged finishers.
However you do it, what makes HIIT work is the intensity. You’re going hard, typically as hard as you can, for a short period of time, then resting for a length of time that’ll let you recover to go hard once again. Work-to-rest ratio is frequently brought in when discussing HIIT, and there are several accepted ratios you should consider.
- To improve aerobic fitness: intervals would typically involve a work to rest ratio or 1:1 or 1:2 (i.e. work for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds).
- To train anaerobically (sport-specific training for power and explosiveness): rest intervals are often longer to allow for a more maximal effort, often at least a 1:5 ratio (i.e. work for 15 seconds, rest for 75 seconds).
The Key to HIIT
The key to making HIIT work: The intensity. You can’t coast through your work periods when doing HIIT. The protocol is designed to give you chances to go hard, so you need to take advantage of those chances.
That means working hard, but it doesn’t mean going completely 100 percent with your intensity. If you’re completely new to exercise, don’t go truly all out all at once. Instead of 15 to 30-second intervals executed at near-100 percent intensity, intervals of one to three minutes at closer to 80 percent of maximum effort, followed by up to five minutes of lower intensity exercise, have also been shown effective for weight loss in sedentary populations.
In group fitness settings (and among far too many trainers) HIIT and “interval training” are often used interchangeably. Make no mistake: True HIIT requires you to be explosive and intense during your work period. Basic interval training, however, minus the high-intensity aspect, is what you see most on the group fitness scene: Work periods here are typically larger than rest periods.
The Primary Benefits of HIIT
One review looked at 13 different studies on 424 overweight and obese adults. It found that both HIIT and traditional moderate-intensity exercise can reduce weight and waist circumference.
Metabolic Rate Is Higher for Hours After
Some researchers have found that HIIT increases metabolism for hours after exercise even more than jogging and weight training. This is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC, informally called afterburn), a measurably increased rate of oxygen intake following strenuous activity.
HIIT is not just a tool to use to lean out. It can improve your overall health, too. A summary of 50 different studies found that HIIT reduces blood sugar levels. Further research shows it can reduce resting heart rate and blood pressure in overweight and obese individuals.
Some Ways to HIIT
So, wait, you’re still technically on that dreaded treadmill, right? Not necessarily. Here are 11 HIIT workouts that can keep you off the treadmill and on a far more fun path to major fat-burn.
The Basic Sprint Interval
Here’s your ideal HIIT treadmill workout — and it’s pretty simple too. Warm up with a quick 3-minute jog, then immediately boost the speed so you’re sprinting as fast as you can for 15 to 20 seconds. After that, walk, or jog at a very slow pace for one minute. Then it’s back to sprints.
Repeat this for 10 rounds and you’ll get 15 minutes of good sweat. This works on a treadmill, but it can easily work on a track or football field, too.
The Bodyweight Tabata Circuit
Forget running entirely and get comfortable with bodyweight exercises, using the dreaded Tabata protocol. Here, you’ll choose a bodyweight move and do it for 20 seconds. Then you’ll rest 10 seconds.
During your 20 seconds of work, make sure to go hard, then rest. Do a maximum of 8 sets.
Yes, that means you’ll be done in exactly four minutes, but that’s half the fun of a tabata. When done correctly, if you’re going hard enough, you’re wiped out after that four minutes, because the electrically fast work intervals are broken up by a mere 10 seconds of rest.
You can do tabata circuits with almost any bodyweight moves you want to use. Try integrating moves like burpees, squats, and mountain climbers. Not sure how to perfectly do a burpee? Check out the video below.
The Bike Sprint
Have a stationary bike? Then blow up your quads and hamstrings with this sneaky HIIT workout. Pedal as hard and fast as you possibly can for 30 seconds, focusing on turning your legs over at a fast pace. Make sure you have some resistance on the bike, too; don’t set it to the lowest resistance.
After that, pedal slowly for one minute at an easy pace. Repeat this for 10-20 rounds, depending on how much time you have.
The Battle Ropes Blitz
Don’t make it complicated. Just moving battle ropes at a fast and aggressive pace will ramp up your heart rate. So grab a pair of battle ropes and start doing slams or waves; work for 30 seconds. Rest for about a minute. Repeat for 10 rounds.
The Hill Sprint Series
There’s running — and then there are hill sprints. Sprinting on an incline is a brilliant way to train, preventing you from overstriding and also decreasing the impact on your joints. You’ll be far less prone to a hamstring tweak on a hill sprint than you would be on a flat surface.
This one programs itself, too, and doesn’t force you to constantly stare at the clock. Find a hill and sprint up for 20-30 seconds. Then walk back down to your starting point; this serves as your recovery period. Repeat for 10 rounds.
The Sled Push Slam
The sled helps you improve your anaerobic conditioning, letting you battle through sprints that are over quickly. Those sprints are also super-intense, though, because you’re pushing a heavy sled, driving harder than you might if you were just running with bodyweight.
To do this sled push workout, load 70 to 85 percent of your max pushing capacity o the sled; you want to make sure you’re working hard. Now push it explosively, as hard and fast as you can, until you can barely move it. If you choose the right weight, this will be over in seconds — but you’ll still feel pretty fatigued. Rest for 3 minutes; repeat for 4 or 5 rounds.
The Rowing Ab Blast
This one will leave your glutes and abs on fire (and leave you out of breath too), and it relies on the popular EMOM format. That means “every minute, on the minute,” you’ll have to do a certain brand of work.
Set a rower for 2,000 meters. Row for exactly one minute. At 1:00, get off the rower. Do 5 hollow rocks then immediately get back on the rower and keep rowing. At 2:00, get off and do 6 hollow rocks, then start rowing again. Continue doing this, getting off the rower and doing hollow rocks at the start of each minute, until you’ve rowed all 2,000 meters. This may seem very close to work capacity training, but as the rounds wear on, you’ll be given more and more opportunity to be explosive, as the work periods of rowing increasingly shrink as you battle through the hollow rocks.
The Partner Rower Crusher
Find a partner and get ready to hit this underrated 8-minute rowing assault. Start on the rower, and start with the number 15. You have 30 seconds to row for that many calories.
At 30 seconds, if you’ve completed the calories, both you and your partner get to rest. If you haven’t, your partner does squat reps for every calorie you didn’t complete. So if you only hit 13 cals, your partner does 2 squats. If you hit 5 cals, your partner does 15 squats.
You partner has to finish in 30 seconds, though, because then they hop on the rower for a 30-second rowing interval, with the same rules. Except this time, add two cals to the workload. That means your partner has to do 17 cals (and if they fall short, you have to make up the difference in squats).
Keep going for 8 minutes, adding 2 cals to the workload every minute.
The 100s Crush
Grab a cardio machine, such as a treadmill, rower, or Ski-Erg and set it for a 100-meter sprint (or, if you’re on a Versaclimber, a 100-foot race to the top). Blast through that distance as fast as possible, then rest until your heart rate drops below 120 beats per minute.
Repeat for 10 rounds. This one’s better with a partner, too, because then you find yourself racing to each distance, and you may push a bit harder.
The Total Body Beatdown
Set a timer for 12 minutes, and get ready to rock your whole body. This is another EMOM circuit. So you’ll have one minute to do each move, then you’ll rest until the start of the next minute. The faster you finish your reps, the more time you get to rest. Don’t get sloppy with your technique, though; continue to do good quality reps, even though you do want to move fast.
Minute 1: 15 air squats
Minute 2: 15 burpees
Minute 3: 10 lying Superman holds
Repeat 4 times.
The Ski-Erg Shred
This one is built to fry your whole body, but it’ll attack your abs and back more than anything. It’s Tabata-style, too, so you’re going to get a lot of good work into just six minutes. Grab a Ski Erg’s handles and working, going for 20 seconds as hard as you can, focusing on being explosive. Rest for 10 seconds.
Now kneel on the Ski-Erg (grab a pad for your knees if you want). Go hard for 20 seconds again. You won’t be able to use your legs as much, so you’ll need to focus on driving with your core and lats. Rest for 10 seconds.
Now kneel on one knee. Go hard for 20 seconds again; this time, your base will be narrower so you’ll need to focus more on not tipping from side to side. Rest 10 seconds.
Kneel on the opposite knee and go hard; rest 10 seconds. Repeat for 3 rounds and enjoy the burn.