HIIT isn't just a buzz-phrase. Although the way it is sometimes promoted is closer to scientology than science, a HIIT workout can have big positive effects and, by definition, it doesn't take long. Be ready to get your heart rate pounding by any means necessary with this high intensity interval training guide for bikes, treadmills, skipping ropes… and anything else you can get your hands on
No doubt your eyeballs have been pummelled into teary submission by all of the Instagram ads, email marketing campaigns and posters that urge everyone to get in shape after the festive season.
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The fact of the matter is, they tend to be a ploy to get you to sign up to a gym membership you’ll likely use a few times and then stuff into a sock drawer, or to purchase some overpriced shorts that feature a pocket for your phone.
Rejoice! You can torch belly fat and get into great shape without spending cash on any of the above simply by adding a good High Intensity Interval Training (we’ll call it HIIT for short) programme to your weekly workout routine.
"Despite the fancy name, HIIT training simply means training at high intensity for short periods of time with rest or low intensity exercise in-between," explains former championship wrestler and founder of London based personal training company Right Path Fitness (opens in new tab), Keith McNiven.
It’s a great way to get into shape because, psychologically, it’s much easier to set your mind to, say, five or six sets of 40 seconds of intense exercise, as opposed to spending hours and hours pounding a treadmill.
On top of this, there have been numerous studies that suggest that fat is burned long after exercise where HIIT is involved, it helps stabilise blood sugar levels and can help build muscle and strength at the same time. The American College of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) has rated HIIT among the top fitness trends of recent years.
There is also very little need for fancy equipment, because it is possible to indulge in a sweaty HIIT session in your local park with little more than a good pair of trainers and the clothes on your back.
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How to perform HIIT properly
Simply put, High Intensity Interval Training can be described as a bout of fervent exercise, followed by a short period of rest or active rest, where a much lighter rate of exercise is performed in order to catch the breath and lower the heart rate.
The intensity of the exercise is typically where most newbies trip up, as this really needs to be "ah-ma-gad-I-can't-breathe" levels of activity. Purchasing a heart rate monitor or fitness watch that can do a similar job will help, as it helps visualise heart rate zones and can immediately tell if you're cheating.
In essence, a heart rate of 170bpm or above is high for regular fitness levels, but you can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. This is a safe max and anyone performing HIIT should aim for between 70% and 95% of their max during the intense bouts.
But what exercises should you do? That’s a great question, because it can be as simply as jogging for a minute, then sprinting as hard as you can for 30 seconds, before returning to a jog and repeating for 30 minutes. But you can also incorporate a static bike, rowing machine, elliptical trainer and treadmill, as well performing weighted strength workouts like kettlebell swings, medicine ball slams and battle rope exercises.
We’ve highlighted a few HIIT workouts on a number of popular pieces of fitness machinery below, so you there’s no excuse for not getting fit in the future.
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Rowing machine HIIT workout
Duration: 20 minutes
Warm-up on a rowing machine for five minutes by setting the resistance to its easiest level for the first couple of minutes and focussing on form. Keep the back straight, driving with the legs and incorporating the shoulder muscles properly, rather than rolling the shoulders forward or hunching the back.
Increase the resistance slightly over the next few minutes to elevate the heart rate before entering the HIIT element of the workout.
Now, with the resistance set at a relatively high level, aim for 30 seconds of intense rowing, giving it all you have with every stroke and aiming to keep the stroke rate high without compromising form.
Once the 30 seconds is up, drop the resistance and aim for 30 seconds of gentle rowing, aiming to get the heart rate back down and breathing deeply in through the nostrils and out through the mouth.
Repeat the above four more times and that’s the HIIT session over. Don’t forget to add a five minute warm down into the routine. Decreasing the resistance and stroke rate until the heart rate is near rest levels.
Top tip: Does 30 seconds intense exercise feel like a lot? Start with 15 seconds on and 45 seconds active rest instead. This can be gradually built up over the weeks.
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Exercise bike HIIT workout
Duration: 30 minutes
Get the bike set up properly so you are comfortable and can transfer power efficiently though the pedals. A good technique is to adjust the saddle so you can get a heel on the pedal without over-stretching the leg. There should be a slight bend in the knee with the heel flat on the pedal.
Once comfortable, begin with three minutes of free-spinning, where the bike is on an easy setting but pedal revolutions remain high. Start with 80rpm for the first minute, 85rpm for the second and then 90rpm for the final minute. Now increase the resistance slightly and start again, repeating these steps until a 10-minute warm-up is over.
Now, crank the resistance up, but make sure you can still manage a cadence of 80-90rpm and really go for it. Spin the legs fast and dig deep for a good 30 seconds, before dropping the resistance and lightly spinning the legs for a minute.
Repeat this five times and then crank the resistance up for the final part of the workout. During the high intensity interval sets, stand up in the saddle and aim to transfer as much power through the pedals as possible, rather than focussing on the amount of times the pedals turn.
Once completed, you should be dowsed in sweat, so don’t forget to take on plenty of fluids before, during and after the workout. Also ensure you spend at least five minutes spinning the legs on a light resistance level to rid the legs of lactic acid build-up and stretch once off the bike.
Body weight HIIT workout
Duration: 25 minutes
You’ll need a stopwatch for this bodyweight workout but there are plenty of apps out there that offer interval training timers for smartphones. The idea is to perform an athletic exercise for a set time, rather than counting reps, and then resting for a short time before moving on to the next exercise.
Set your stopwatch or interval trainer timer for 40 seconds of exercise and 20 seconds of rest and perform the following circuit.
Consider this a warm-up. Run on the spot but ensure the heels come up and tap your butt on the upward phase. Drive through the balls of your feet, keep a straight back and tense the abdominal muscles to work everything.
2. Jumping Jacks
They might be straight from a PE lesson, but the classic Jumping Jack really gets the heart rate soaring. Ensure the intensity is high for the 40 seconds required by squeezing in as many reps as you can, but tense the major muscle groups during the motion, acting as if you are pushing against an imaginary force.
Warning: burpees hurt. But burpees also call upon almost every major muscle group in the body, thus improving strength and cardiovascular fitness. Start from standing and then squat down so the palms of your hands are on the floor and your knees are tucked into your chest.
Kick the legs back in an explosive fashion until you’re in a push up position, then pull the legs back in towards the hands and jump as high as you can with arms raised. Repeat as many as you physically can in 40 seconds before resting.
4. Mountain Climbers
The short rest periods will mean your heart rate never really sinks back down to resting levels, making the later exercises in this workout fee much harder. Dig deep and go hard here for maximum results.
Start in the plank position, resting on your palms and toes with elbows tucked in close to your body. Bring your right knee in as close as you can towards your chest and return it to the starting position. Do the same with your left knee, then up the pace as soon as you get in the rhythm. Again, attempt to fit as many reps into 40 seconds, working each leg equally.
Finish the set with an exercise that is as old as time, but trust us, even a simple push-up will hurt after everything that has come before it.
Start in full push-up position, with arms fully extended, and then lower your body until your chest reaches the floor. Ensure elbows are tucked into your sides and don’t flare outwards. Return to the starting position by pushing back up with maximum force but keep the back straight and don’t let the hips sag.
Perform these relatively quickly but don’t compromise on form and remember to inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up.
Rest for two minutes and let the heart rate return to normal resting levels, control breathing and then start the routine again. Aim to perform three full circuits in the 25 minute allotted time but ensure you fit a short cool down in to avoid injury.