High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an ever-popular training style, but is it safe for exercise beginners?
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) was initially used as a sprinting workout for endurance sports such as running, cycling, and rowing but has since expanded dramatically to include strength options.
And it's not hard to see why, as HIIT exercise's physical and mental benefits are tremendous, so much so that HIIT training is now being used in cardiac and stroke rehabilitation for elderly patients.
HIIT workouts alternate between near-maximum effort and a short rest period (typically between 15 seconds and 2 minutes) for the training session duration. This high demand on the body creates the impressive benefits seen with HIIT training.
HIIT training has become exceedingly popular due to its effectiveness in scorching calories, improving cardiovascular health, and aiding muscle mass with a much shorter workout than traditional steady-state cardio sessions.
HIIT isn’t new, and it’s also not exactly the same thing as CrossFit. Though HIIT has become increasingly popular since the rise of workout programs like CrossFit, Insanity, and P90x (which incorporate some HIIT-style exercises in addition to other forms of exercises), HIIT has been around since the 1950s.
The difference between cardio HIIT workouts and programs like CrossFit is the types of movements performed and the skill and precision required. Don't get me wrong—you can injure yourself doing any type of workout if you’re using improper form.
But workout programs like CrossFit have higher rates of injury compared to other, less intense programs. In rare cases, this has even led to cases of severe kidney injury like rhabdomyolysis.
CrossFit poses the most risk of injury for any type of HIIT-style workout, due to its inclusion of highly-technical movements like Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics, both of which require intense dedication to mastering exercise form and the concurrent joint flexibility and stability to perform the moves safely.
HIIT Tips for Beginners
When the US government investigated CrossFit-like extreme conditioning programs due to the rise in injury rates among service members, they found that these high-intensity programs had worrying injury rates.
However, the programs in question were poorly programmed and did not have adequate warm-ups or progression. And you know that skipping your warm-up and progressing too quickly is risky for any exercise program.
So if you're a beginner and you want to try HIIT training, here are a few things you can do to stay safe:
- Learn the exercise form first before incorporating it into a HIIT routine.
- Build a foundation of fitness. Work on your aerobic capacity, strength, and stability before dialing up the intensity of your workouts.
- Always leave time for a proper warm-up and cool-down.
- Start slow and progress slower. HIIT workouts are great, but only if they don't leave you injured or feeling burned out.
Benefits of HIIT for Beginners
HIIT is beloved for a good reason, as research continues to show the many health benefits of HIIT training can even be seen in special populations like those recovering from strokes, heart attacks, and older adults.
Best of all, these benefits can be seen with any form of HIIT training.
Improve Your Heart Health
Regular, intense cardio exercise like HIIT training lowers blood pressure, improves your cholesterol, and lowers your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
High-intensity exercise is a phenomenal adjunct to any fat loss plan as it burns fat in two different ways.
- It burns more calories during your workout than other exercises.
- It increases your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). This represents a rise in the number of calories you will continue to burn for up to 24 hours following your workout.
Combined, these two mechanisms lead to more calories burned and fat loss in a much shorter workout than other cardio options.
HIIT workouts are primarily comprised of compound movements: exercises that use large muscle groups and more than one muscle at a time. Research shows that compound exercises are beneficial for growing muscle and increasing strength.
No matter which HIIT workout you choose, you can build your endurance and stamina quickly. This is because HIIT sessions push you hard and allow very little rest, forcing you to develop your aerobic capacity and muscular endurance.
A lesser-known significant indicator of your health as you age is grip strength. Research has shown that grip strength is highly correlated with muscle mass, longevity, and all-cause mortality.
HIIT that incorporates heavy strength training like CrossFit, EMOM, AMRAP, and MRT are excellent at developing your grip strength which helps your health in many ways.
Improve Mental Toughness
Intense exercise challenges you to increase your discomfort window and develop your mental fortitude and physical strength. When you take on a tough workout and see it through to the end, you build confidence in your ability to do hard things. Mental toughness developed in the gym has far-reaching positive implications for the rest of your life.
One of the most enjoyable benefits of HIIT exercise is the huge rush of endorphins–the little happy brain chemicals–released with intense exercise. These endorphins help boost your mood and battle stress.
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Types of HIIT for Beginners
As HIIT has grown in popularity and the evidence mounts for its broad benefits for different populations, more types of HIIT training emerged. These HIIT workouts differ based on the workout format, equipment required, workout setting options, and how technical the moves are.
Understanding the various types of HIIT workouts available is vital for those new to exercise as you need specialized equipment and quality instruction for some to stay safe.
HIIT cardio has been around for a long time and is the gold standard for cardiorespiratory fitness and workout efficiency.
Whether running, biking, swimming, or rowing, the workout comprises a short period of work followed by a short recovery period, repeated for multiple rounds.
Your entire workout, including the warm-up and cool-down, should be 30-60 minutes. Cardio HIIT is one of two options on this list that don't require equipment.
Cardio Workout for Beginners
|Sprint, row, swim, or cycle||30 seconds||60 seconds||20 minutes|
Tabata is a HIIT method created by the Japanese exercise scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata. The entire workout is just 4 minutes long, but it packs a punch.
The Tabata format is 20 seconds of 100% effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest for four minutes.
Tabata is the shortest type of HIIT workout available but still offers many of the health benefits of longer sessions.
Tabata Beginner Workout: 2 Rounds, 4 Minutes Total
|Squat Jumps||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|Lunges||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|Box Jumps||20 seconds||10 seconds|
|Push-ups||20 seconds||10 seconds|
Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT)
MRT is a form of HIIT training that uses compound strength moves performed at high intensity. This HIIT style offers the best of both worlds: scorching calories and building muscle and strength in one workout.
MRT is similar to CrossFit in that it prioritizes the strength side of the equation and uses heavy weights.
MRT Beginner Workout: Repeat for 3 Rounds, Rest 2 Minutes Between Rounds
|Goblet Squat||30 seconds||15 seconds|
|Gorilla Row||30 seconds||15 seconds|
|Push-ups||30 seconds||15 seconds|
|Weighted sit-ups||30 seconds||15 seconds|
While not as common as some of these other HIIT programs, you can get a HIIT workout by using bodyweight exercises only.
Bodyweight HIIT Beginner Workout: Repeat for 3 Rounds
|Squat||60 seconds||15 seconds|
|Lunge Hops||60 seconds||15 seconds|
|Push-ups||60 seconds||15 seconds|
|Superman||60 seconds||15 seconds|
|V-ups||60 seconds||15 seconds|
HIIT Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM)
An EMOM (every minute on the minute) is a workout setup that became popular through CrossFit. It involves performing an exercise for a certain number of reps every minute on the minute and then resting for the remainder of your minute.
The faster you complete the reps, the more rest you get. While there is no set time, most EMOM circuits are 10-20 minutes long. EMOMS are a fun challenge as they put you in competition with yourself from round to round.
EMOM Workout for Beginners: Rest for Time left in the Minute, Complete 3 Rounds
|Wall Ball||45 reps starting on the minute|
|Deadlift||30 reps starting on the minute|
|Med Ball Slams||45 reps starting on the minute|
|Push-ups||30 reps starting on the minute|
|Toe Touches||60 reps starting on the minute|
|Inverted Row||45 reps starting on the minute|
As Many Reps as Possible (AMRAP)
Another strength and conditioning program setup, AMRAP (as many reps as possible), also puts you in competition with yourself. An AMRAP HIIT workout means you complete the exercise in the allotted time and achieve as many repetitions as possible. Then for your next round, you try to get more reps than last.
You can also do as many rounds as possible, attempting to achieve as many rounds of the circuit in a prescribed time. AMRAP HIIT workouts are similar to EMOM, and many of the same exercises work well for both
AMRAP Beginner Workout
|Wall Ball||AMRAP 30 seconds|
|Deadlift||AMRAP 1 minute|
|Med Ball Slams||AMRAP 30 seconds|
|Push-ups||AMRAP 1 minute|
|Toe Touches||AMRAP 30 seconds|
|Inverted Row||AMRAP 1 minute|
How to Get Started with HIIT
The first step in starting a HIIT workout program is to talk to your doctor. High-intensity exercise is not for everyone, so you'll want to ensure you're cleared medically.
After that, choose which type of HIIT workout appeals to you. For example, you may want to join a CrossFit box or a HIIT cardio or bodyweight class at your local gym.
Personal trainers can also create a HIIT program for you, so let them know your interest. If you want to train at home, there are a few steps you can take to prepare your workout area and yourself.
While equipment isn't required for HIIT exercise, investing in a few pieces can make your workout program more fun and challenging.
Some excellent equipment for HIIT workouts include:
- Exercise bands
- Medicine balls
- Yoga matt
- Jump rope
High-intensity exercise requires you to work hard, so make sure you wear comfortable, breathable clothing and have plenty of water on hand. Work out in an area with good ventilation or a fan, and take breaks as needed.
Make time before each HIIT session for 5-10 minutes of easy cardio to raise your body temperature and get the blood flowing, followed by optional myofascial release (rolling out), and dynamic stretches, or targeted movements using light resistance.
Sample HIIT Warm-Up
5 minutes walking
20 air squats
20 glute bridges
20 walking lunges
20 yeard bear crawl
[Repeat as needed]
Aside from a dedicated warm-up, it's essential for your safety as a beginner to master the exercise form before you put them in a HIIT workout.
Learn how to squat, hinge, push, and pull first, and you'll be less likely to injure yourself performing the same moves at a higher intensity.
Best Equipment for HIIT
If you're looking to take your HIIT workouts to the next level, having the best equipment is essential. From kettlebells and resistance bands to interval timers and jump ropes, the right gear can help you achieve your fitness goals and push yourself to new limits. Here are some tools of the trade to help you get started with your HIIT workouts.
Kettlebells, Dumbbells, and Barbells
Free weights and kettlebells add resistance to any exercise. Because HIIT workouts keep you moving with minimal rest, consider using lighter dumbbells and kettlebells to keep your form tight and reduce the risk of injury, especially if you’re new to HIIT workouts.
For more advanced strength-based HIIT, a barbell and weight plates can be used for exercises like deadlifts, cleans, and snatches. One workout you may push heavier weight is with CrossFit, but make sure your body is ready for the load.
Exercise bands are a great alternative to free weights when adding resistance to moves. Try to have a variety of colors (tension) to use for various exercises like bicep curls, squats, and shoulder press. Heavier bands for large muscles and lighter bands for smaller muscles.
Treadmill, upright bike, rowing machine, and stair climbers all make excellent choices for keeping your heart rate up during a cardio burst.
TRX Suspension Trainer
Suspension trainers allow you to perform full-body movements using just your body weight.
Medicine balls are excellent for explosive movements like wall balls and overhead slams.
Plyo boxes are used for box jumps, step-ups, and other explosive lower-body exercises. Make sure the height is appropriate for your fitness level. Boxes that are too high can lead to bad form and injury.
Jumping rope is an excellent way to get your heart rate up and work on coordination. It's a cost-effective and portable option for HIIT.
A comfortable mat is essential for floor exercises and stretching during your cool-down.
Heart Rate Monitor
A heart rate monitor can help you track and optimize your HIIT sessions by ensuring you're working within your target heart rate zone.
An interval timer allows you to time your work and rest intervals during HIIT workouts. You can use a smartphone app, a dedicated timer, or a fitness tracker with interval timer functionality.
Best Apps for HIIT
Best Gyms for HIIT
One of the reasons we like HIIT is you can do it just about anywhere. You don’t need a specialized gym or class to get in a good HIIT workout since most facilities are designed for this style of training. That said, if you’re interested in a gym focused on HIIT there are a few that fit the bill, and it can be helpful to get in-person instruction for proper form. Here are some top picks to consider when looking for a HIIT-centered facility.
With locations worldwide, Barry's Bootcamp provides a dynamic HIIT workout that combines strength and cardio intervals using weights and running on a treadmill. They also have a floor-only class without a treadmill that focuses on resistance training with HIIT intervals.
CrossFit gyms specialize in high-intensity functional training and are known for their HIIT-style workouts. Instructors combine weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, and intense cardiovascular activities to create various WOD (Workout Of The Day).
F45 is a global fitness franchise that focuses on 45-minute HIIT workouts featuring functional movements. Their classes are designed to provide a total body workout in a short amount of time. While each class is a HIIT workout, F45 does alternate the type of routine, offering three cardio, three resistance sessions, and one super circuit that has both resistance and cardio.
Orangetheory Fitness combines strength and cardio in a one-hour heart rate-based interval training class. Instructors lead you through a HIIT workout using treadmills, bikes, rowers, dumbbells, TRX suspension trainers, medicine balls, and BOSU trainers.
Many national gym chains like Life Time Fitness, Crunch Fitness, Planet Fitness, Gold's Gym, Anytime Fitness, 24-Hour Fitness, LA Fitness, and Equinox offer HIIT-style group classes.
HIIT exercise has loads of health benefits, and a workout can be completed in as few as four minutes. While many HIIT workout programs are advanced, beginners can safely enjoy HIIT exercise with the right coaching and a strong fitness foundation.
Cardio and bodyweight HIIT workouts are the best choices for beginners. After mastering your exercise form, dial up the weight or intensity or try a more advanced workout like CrossFit or MRT.
No matter which HIIT workout you choose, you must warm up before any intense exercise, start with 1-2 HIIT sessions weekly at most, and progress slowly.
If you’d like to try HIIT workouts at home, check out these apps:
FAQs About HIIT
How much rest should one take between HIIT workouts to ensure proper recovery?
HIIT workouts are intense, so you’ll want to take at least one to two days off between sessions. If you’re new to HIIT, start with one or two sessions a week.
As your body adjusts and your fitness level improves, you can add another workout, but try not to exceed four sessions a week.
Two to three HIIT sessions a week is ideal. Remember, these workouts are not in addition to your existing routine, so you’ll want to swap out one of your current workouts for a HIIT session.
What is the optimal work-to-rest ratio in a HIIT workout for beginners?
The work-to-rest ratio is the cornerstone of HIIT. It’s also what makes this workout type so versatile, allowing you to customize a session based on your experience, fitness level, and goals.
If you’re new to HIIT, a good starting point is a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio. This might look like 30 seconds of high-intensity work followed by 60 seconds of active recovery or 30 seconds of work followed by 90 seconds of active recovery.
For example, a 1:2 ratio could be 30 seconds of sprinting or running on the treadmill followed by 60 seconds of walking. As you get more fit, you can adjust the ratio, reducing the recovery interval to a 1:1.
The intensity during the high-intensity work interval should range 80-95% of your estimated maximal heart rate, with the recovery interval around 40-50% of your estimated maximal heart rate.
Is it necessary to have a warmup and cool-down session for HIIT workouts?
Yes, it is necessary to have a warmup and cool-down session for HIIT workouts. The warmup should be about 5 to 10 minutes and include light aerobic activity such as jogging in place or high knees and a series of dynamic stretches, such as leg swings, arm circles, lunge and twist, inchworms, and downward dog push-ups.
After you finish your sweat session, make sure to leave about 5 to 10 minutes to allow your heart rate to return toward resting and move your muscles through a few static stretches. This three-stretch series from ACE is an excellent way to give your muscles the TLC they need. Hold each stretch for about 30 to 60 seconds.
More HIIT Advice from GymBird Experts
- What Is HIIT?
- Cardio vs HIIT
- Circuit Training vs. HIIT
- HIIT vs. CrossFit
- HIIT vs. Functional Training
- HIIT vs. Tabata
- HIIT Benefits
- Cureus. Exertional Rhabdomyolysis After CrossFit Exercise.
- Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. High-Intensity Interval Training in Cardiac Rehabilitation.
- International Journal of Exercise Science. EPOC Comparison Between Resistance Training and High-Intensity Interval Training in Aerobically Fit Women.
- British Journal of Sports Medicine. Effects of high-intensity interval training on cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies.
- Frontiers in Physiology. Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training vs. Sprint Interval Training on Anthropometric Measures and Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Healthy Young Women.
- Current Sports Medicine Reports. Consortium for Health and Military Performance and American College of Sports Medicine consensus paper on extreme conditioning programs in military personnel.
- BMB Reports. Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress.