4 Steps to a Great HIIT Workout

Art by Bill Hall
Art by Bill Hall

In a couple of recent posts, (here and here) I discussed the science behind High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT Training. In those posts, I discussed why HIIT is an essential tool in developing complete physical fitness as well as being a VERY effective fat burning tool.

I have also designed a custom HIIT workout geared to improve your vertical jump, click here.

Today’s post will give you the tools to develop your own HIIT or Sprint Training program.

The 4 Steps to a Great HIITWorkout

1. Exercise Selection

Most of the research studies into HIIT have relied on stationary bicycles or ergo-meters to test the effectiveness of this training protocol. Mainly this is due to the need for these studies to control all of the variables in a closed laboratory setting. Kinesiology lab = Stationary bike.

You, however, are not limited to an exercise bike, treadmill or ergo-meter (stationary rowing machine). HIIT or Sprint Training requires an all-out effort followed by an ‘active’ rest period. As long as you choose exercises that are fully challenging your body for the entire sprint portion, you are limited only by your imagination.

My two caveats are that

  1. You should choose big compound exercises that use as many muscles as possible.
  2. You should choose exercises that involve continuous movement. There should be little to no resting during the exercise – i.e. no bench press, power cleans where you drop the bar to the floor.

Here are some suggestions:

Cardio machines

  • Bike
  • Treadmill – be careful transitioning from sprint to recovery – some treadmills are more suited to this type of exercise than others – Back in the day, I used to keep the treadmill at a fast clip and increase the incline for my sprint and then (as quickly as I could hit the ‘decline elevation’ key, bring the treadmill level for the active rest portion.
  • Elliptical – Same warning as the treadmill
  • Ergo-meter / Stationary Flywheel Rowing Machine
  • Versaclimber, VersaPulley

Body Wight Exercises

  • Sprinting – track, indoor, outdoor, cross-country, etc.
  • Hill Sprints
  • Sand dune sprints
  • Swimming
  • Road cycling – My be difficult to coordinate HIIT if you have to deal with traffic
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Burpees
  • Think gym class calisthenics or take a look at some of the crossfit videos on you tube.

External Resistance Exercises

This is where you are really limited only by your imagination and your common sense. Remember, you should be going full out. Moves that are too complex won’t work when you hit that great big wall of pain.

2. Volume

Simply put, as you increase the volume of your HIIT work, your anaerobic endurance improves and the amount of caloric burn increases.

I have included a linear Volume Progression chart for you to follow. Beginners should start with 1 x 20 minute workout per week. Trainees with a good aerobic / anaerobic base can start with 2 x 20 minute workouts per week.

Don’t underestimate HIIT. It’s not like aerobic or standard resistance training. There is a strong neuro-muscular component to this training. You will over train if you are not careful.

Work to increase your volume to the maximum recommended 3 x 30 minute workouts per week before increasing the intensity or eternal load.

3. Intensity

I am defining intensity in reference to the ratio of sprint time to active rest time. In the McMaster University study, the participants struggled with a 1:9 – Sprint:Active Rest Ratio.

My Intensity Progression Chart takes you from a 1:9 ratio all the way to a 1:3 ratio.

In each Sprint:Recovery Ratio Category, I have provided guidelines based on 4 different sprint durations. Feel free to jump back and forth between sprint durations in between workouts. A 10 second sprint is not necessarily any harder than a 30 second sprint. Depending upon your individual fitness, you may find the 30 second sprint harder than the 10 second, while your training partner may be the complete opposite.

My advice; do whichever length is the hardest for you.

Beginners will start out with the 1:9 Ratio and progress through to the 1:3 Ratio.

The range of Sprints per Workout is to accommodate your improvements in HIIT Volume Progression. In the 1:3 Ratio workout, 30 second sprints performed for 20 minutes will result in a total of 10 sprints. As you progress to a 30 minute workout, you will be doing 15 sprints.

4. External Load

The final step to a great HIIT workout is external load.

Increase the resistance on your cardio machine. Increase the weight of the dumbbell. Or use one of my favorite tools, the X Vest. A less expensive brand of weighted vest is available here.

This is the final step on your path to a great HIIT / Sprint Training Workout.

To Review

  • Choose your HIIT exercise carefully. Big muscle groups, constant motion, not too complex to perform when you are tired, availability in the gym and hopefully something you enjoy performing.
  • Increase your HIIT Volume
  • Increase your HIIT Intensity
  • Increase your external load

With just these 4 steps, you have an endless number of HIIT workout options.

For a custom HIIT geared to improve your vertical jump, click here.

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83 thoughts on “4 Steps to a Great HIIT Workout

  1. HIIT yoga – this i have got to see – we could market this to Crunch and make a million – “the new fusion in mind-body workouts”

    Just looking at your blog – That Dave Chappelle post made me jealous. Gotta love NYC

  2. So, for example, during that first week, are you only supposed to work out once, or do one HIIT workout, and do some other type of exercise the rest of the week?

  3. Brit,

    If I assume that you are already working out, you can either replace a traditional cardio workout with a HIIT workout or simply add on the HIIT workout if you think you can handle the added volume.

    The easiest HIIT workout I start people on is 1 session per week

    20 minutes total – 4 x 30 second sprints with 270 seconds rest in between – that’s 300 sec or 5 minutes per set.
    Therefore 4 sets of 5 min = 20 min total

    Now, if you are not working out at all, I wouldn’t start with HIIT. I would prefer to have a newbie begin by building a cardio base while focusing on correcting muscular imbalances and building strength through the torso and legs.

    I hope this helps.

    If not, shoot me some more specific questions. I would be glad to help.

  4. Since I am about a week into my third or fourth attempt at starting a exercise regimen and keeping with it, I suppose you would consider me a newbie. However, the workouts I already do sound a lot like this. I’m trying to get better at running, so I’ll start out walking on a treadmill (set at about 3.5 mph) for four minutes. Then I’ll up the speed to about 6 mph and attempt to run for a minute. (I say “attempt” because while I can usually do about the entire minute at the beginning of a workout, it usually degenerates to 45 s or 30 s by the end.) I repeat this until I’ve worked out for half an hour.

    “building a cardio base while focusing on correcting muscular imbalances and building strength through the torso and legs”? Wow, that makes my head spin. How should I go about doing that?

  5. Building a cardio base means doing the exercise at moderate intensity, no intervals to start with. Since your musles are not prepared yet for the demanding sessions of intervals.

    If you are new at cycling for example, you wouldn’t want to start doing 30 sec sprints on your first workouts because your legs are not used to this type of activity yet, if you do you your chances of injury are much higher!

    You’d be better off doing a minimum of 8 weeks at moderate intensity 3 X a week just to get your leg musles stronger before attempting any hard sessions. The same principle applies to weight lifting, you don’t want to start lifting as heavy as you can when you just start, your musles are too weak and not used to the type of activity. You want to *BUILD* your way up there by increments.

    Once you have a solid base (meaning that you’ve been doing wathever sports your doing for awhile at moderate intensity) then you can start adding some more intensity.

    Competitive cyclist normally build a solid base during winter time (moderate intensity, pushing big gears, fast spinning ect..) and then add some interval work close to racing season (30 sec sprint sessions, race pace efforts ect..)

    Hope this helps

  6. So I started around 6 weeks ago.. I’m doing the 1:9 ratio for 4 sets every other day now and feel really good about it.. first couple weeks or 5 workouts were nausea city+puke. So now that I’m comfortable with the 1:9 and 4 sets… I continue to 1:9 6 sets of 30 seconds hill sprints? or do I shorten the ratio first and do more sets in the 20 min?
    BTW lovin this workout.. definitely seeing and feeling the results.. 10lbs down and 10-15lbs to go. THanks for the info
    Bill
    trioxin@msn.com

    1. Bill,

      How long are your sprints? – 30 seconds?

      If so, I would try increasing the number of sets from 4 to 6. This will increase the total workout time to 30 min. however.

      If time is an issue, we could increase the number of sprints from 4 to 6, but instead of sticking with the 30 sec sprints, we could use 3 different sprint durations – 10 sec, 20 sec & 30 sec. 10 sec sprint/ 90 sec rest – 20 sec sprint/180 sec rest – 30 sec sprint/270 sec rest – repeat – This would keep the workout at 20 minutes.

      After a few weeks of this (when you have adapted) we can reduce the work/rest ratio to 1:6

      Have you changed your diet or is the weight loss mainly due to your new workouts?

  7. Thanks for the info,

    Increased to 6 /30 second sprints at the 1:9 ratio.. so yeah about a 30 minute workout. Jumped the gun a little and doing this every other day.. still completely exhausted but seeing big improvements. I do the same hill and able to sprint the 6th sprint as far as the 1st sprint when i first started 2 months ago… feels like I’m tearing up the hill the first several sprints. Feeling really good.
    Weight loss is continuing.. and really haven’t changed my diet much.. just usually not hungry after the sprints. I usually do them at 6 or 7PM after work and not hungry afterwards.. don’t usually eat much or anything after, and that is the biggest diet change.

    1. oh yeah.. just to add..
      Does it matter when these are done? I do them at night cuz I’m not a morning person but if it was helpful as far as EPOC is concerned .. I might try changing.

  8. Love this article, I think you should link it from the front page of your site… I have been doing Burpees for the HIIT since there is no steep hill nearby where I can sprint. Although, not sure it is too good on the knees long term.

    Thanks for your great blog!

  9. wow, I do alot of HIIT work… those are awesome ways to change it up, I’ve made a note of a bunch of them. Was getting a little stale with mine. thanks for this. totally rocks!!
    TAA

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  11. great blog! thank you for making yourself and your knowledge available to us all! i’ve been doing HIIT builds the past 3 years based on rpe (1-2 min @ 5; +1@6; +1@7; +1@8; +1@9 then rest for 1@6 then repeat same pattern 3x until “10” for final minute at last set) and it’s great. i also do Hi-Lo 1:2 x 6. they are the way to go. i try to get people on the bandwagon, but they don’t seem to bite. i think the “high intensity” scares them off — even though it’s all based on their personal abilities…

    i continue to do it because i know i’m burning fat. i like your HIIT schemes though – i use mostly an erg or elliptical; haven’t taken it outdoors yet and i know that will be very different when i do. any advice for when i do take it outside?

    thanks!

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  13. Hi, thanks for the post!

    I’ve been experimenting with un-timed HIIT and I’ve been asking around for other people’s opinion on the idea. I decided to try it because I noticed that my sprinting ability and recovery time varies greatly throughout an HIIT workout and I saw no reason why our bodies should be designed to make the best performance gains on a specific interval schedule.

    Basically, my idea was to:
    warm up -until I feel warmed up-

    then sprint -until I get the “HIIT feeling,” heart poinding, oxygen debt, etc then just a bit further- usually around 20-40 seconds

    then walk -until I feel ready to spring again. I am very strict here. I pretend to be chasing after something that is getting away, so I allow myself to just get back to a reasonable baseline- usually around 40 to 90 seconds

    then stop the workout – when I no longer feel that my legs will work hard enough to get me to the “HIIT zone” – usually after about a half hour, but it depends, like all of these things, on the day.

    You’ll notice that my times tend to be similar to those that you give for a structured workout. I just like the idea that this lets me be dynamic within the workout and not just when planning the next one and I feel that it is more natural way to work out for one who is capable of pushing his or her self. What do you think??

    thanks
    Nash Black

  14. Could you please tell me , what kind of recoveries between the sprints must be ??? fast walking ? jogging( and if jogging is the recovery you mean , in what intensity????( SORRY FOR MY BAD ENGLISH )

    1. Based on the available research, the best recovery method is complete rest.

      although, I personally prefer a slow walk between sprints. Try both and judge how it affects your speed and sprint endurance

      And no apologies necessary for your English.

  15. Haha. Thanks a bunch for the chart! I came here a week ago and decided to start doing HIIT. Only today (after 6 sessions) did I check back because I somehow thought it was sprint 30 seconds rest 60 seconds for a total of 30min or so and couldn’t believe that was the starter workout. I started the hard way, but it’s getting better!

    1. I HATE the longer duration sprints

      Yesterday I did 30 min of 10:20 and felt great, but those 30 sec sprints kill me after 10 min…every time

  16. I havent posted here for more than a year.. just wanted to give a bit of an update. I hit my goal weight a month or so after my last post in june of 09. So for the last year or more I’ve had a red flag weight.. once I hit that I resume hiit.. usually 1:9 ratio 30 second hill sprints.. my redflag weight is 185lb’s… So the way it’s been working is about every 3 months I get to 185, it takes about 2 weeks of hiit and I’m usually back under 180.. I’m 36 years old , 6ft with an average build. For someone just wanting to maintain a healthy weight this is ideal. First time in my 36 years of living on the heavier side I haven’t struggled keeping the weight off… and I’ve weight upwards of 240lb. Thanks for the article!!

  17. Great article! I’ve been doing HIIT and HIRT now for about a year and have seen huge gains. My endurance and strength have increased dramatically over the typical 3 sets of 12 routine that I see so many regulars perform. I actually use a “super set” idea while performing HIRT to help increase strength.

    Over the last month I added a 30 lb pack to my runs to increase lower body strength which in turn increased my aerobic endurance as well.

  18. Aha, this is a great workout schedule but I like to go all out! But will go with the flow of this one…Love, It will work for me!

  19. Studies have shown that HIIT actually improves aerobic conditioning contrary to what you describe. It can be misunderstood when VO2 doesn’t see great increases because of increased mitochondrial density in the working muscle. As far as what your endocrine system produces, proteins like mTOR are not present in the amounts they would be if your body was responding anaerobically.

    1. I agree 100%…unfortunately in 2008, there wasn’t any research linking interval training to improved aerobic conditioning.

  20. Appreciate the advice, any suggestions of good exercises to do while still recovering from torn calf muscle?, Prior to tear was running up 20 – 40kms per week?

    1. For rehab work, I always work in concert with my therapist buddies. For some great self-care work, google MobilityWOD and check out Jill Miller’s site.

  21. Wouldn’t refer to it as HIIT, but I incorporate dumbbells into my Ashtanga yoga workout and it kicks my butt. But then, my butt’s easy to kick.

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