For busy people, the promise of packing as much exercise as possible into a short time is a kind of Holy Grail. If you work in an office and get just an hour for lunch, you may want to exercise and still have a bit of time left over for food when you’re done. Or just some time to breathe through your ears, as HIIT is tough!
Various types of “high intensity interval training,” or HIIT, have evolved to meet the needs of such busy people. The concept behind this type of workout is getting the heart rate up, up, up and keeping it there. This boosts your metabolism and keeps it high even after you’ve stopped working out, so your body continues to burn calories and fat even when you’ve staggered back to your desk.
Most HIIT training of this type is focused on heart rate, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, so it doesn’t typically use weights. The exercises are old friends you know and love (or love to hate, anyway) – pushups, situps, burpees, squats, jumping jacks, tricep dips, and so on. The difference is that you don’t just settle down and grunt your way through 20 or 30 pushups, stopping to wheeze and recover in between numbers 11 and 12, 17 and 18, and every one near the end. Instead, you do them with 100 percent effort, as hard as you possibly can, giving everything you’ve got, for a very short time, say 20 seconds. That’s the “high intensity” part of the name.
Sounds easy, right? Except that you don’t get to quit after that first 20 seconds. That’s the “interval” part – you have to repeat those 20 brutal seconds again and again, with just a bit of rest between each set.
There are several ways to structure a HIIT workout, depending on your personal level of fitness (or insanity). You can pick a set of half a dozen exercises, for example pushups, situps, burpees, squats, jumping jacks, tricep dips (do them on a bench or stair, or just on the ground with your legs extended). If you’re relatively new, or relatively sane, you alternate exercises. So you do as many pushups as hard and fast as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for 20 or 30 seconds. Next to you situps for 20 seconds, then rest, then move on to burpees for 20 seconds. And so on. You can go through the whole cycle several times.
A much tougher way to organize the HIIT workout is to do repeated sets of the same exercise – 20 seconds of pushups, rest, 20 seconds of pushups, rest, 20 seconds of pushups. This will probably make your arms feel like they’re going to fall off. When you’re done with pushups, you move on to repeated sets of the next exercise, situps.
Depending on the exercises you choose, this HIIT workout that can be done any place, requiring no more room than a few square feet. Since there’s no equipment, it can be done anywhere you feel like it. The beauty of this sort of routine is that you can tailor it to whatever your needs or goals may be. Beginners can choose just a few exercises and do just a few sets (or just one set) of each. This gives them a feel for the way it works.
Advanced HIIT & Tabata
More advanced and fit people can add either more exercises or more repetitions, or both. Variety in what exercises are chosen will also help keep the workout from becoming boring and routine, something that all too often leads to quitting. Other ways to keep it interesting include setting challenges for yourself. How many pushups could you do in that first 20 seconds? Try and hit the same number in each of the following intervals.
One particularly popular type of HIIT type training is Tabata, a system created by Izumi Tabata, and originally used to train Olympic speedskaters. A simple “Tabata timer” app is available for most smartphones and can be easily set up to time intervals of exercise and rest. It chirps at you to tell you when to start and stop.
Tabata’s original system called for 20 seconds of unbelievably hard exertion followed by 10 seconds of rest (if you can call such a short period “rest”!), with the cycle repeated eight times. Research showed that this four minute intense workout gave athletes the same sort of benefit as other, more conventional aerobic training.
But Tabata’s program is too hard for most ordinary people, and the timer app can easily be set for fewer or shorter intervals, more rest, or for a series of intervals over a longer workout – it’s flexible.
And it’s important to remember that although a shorter, more intense workout has plenty of benefits, it was originally designed for super fit athletes training for the Olympics. For the average Joe, some skepticism is warranted. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A four minute workout won’t meet your goals unless you really are exerting yourself tremendously during those intervals. Most people can’t work at that gut-busting rate.
Remember that your workout – particularly if it’s your first one in a while, or the first of a new type of workout – is an IQ test. You learn the results of the test tomorrow morning when you try to get out of bed. If you can’t move, you failed the test!
But the beauty of HIIT is that it can be modified and slowly ramped up. Don’t try a crazy four minute workout the first time. A Tabata workout can be eight exercises done eight times through at a decent pace and that’s about a 32 minute workout. Which leaves you plenty of time to cool off and get a snack before you head back to your desk!