A Beginner’s Guide to Short, High-Intensity Workouts

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) packs a complete workout into a shorter, more intense, session. HIIT workouts alternate high-intensity periods of activity, called intervals, with recovery periods. You can often complete a HIIT workout in 20 minutes or less. Simply choose any activity you like to do — then kick it up a notch! Add higher intensity intervals to walking, jogging, swimming, dancing or even stair climbing. Add intensity by going faster and trying to increase your heart rate and/or level of effort.

Intervals can be as short as five seconds or as long as eight minutes. Periods of recovery are usually as long as the interval or longer. Recovery periods should be easy, but still active. The idea is to allow yourself to recover between intervals so you can give each one 100 percent effort. For example, start with a five-minute warm up and then alternate one-minute intervals with two-minute recovery periods. Repeat this sequence of interval/recovery three more times and you’re done in less than 20 minutes!

Intervals are usually done at about 80 to 95 percent of your max heart rate. Calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, let’s say you’re 30. Your max heart rate would be 220 minus 30, or 190 beats per minute (bpm). Eighty percent of 190 bpm (190 x 0.8) is 152 bpm. This would be your minimum target heart rate to reach during intervals. During recovery, your heart rate should get below 50 percent of your maximum heart rate, or below 95 bpm (190 x 0.5) in our example. Don’t start the next interval until your heart rate gets below 95 bpm. This is easiest to track during a workout with a heart rate monitor.

If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, or prefer a simpler method, consider the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. This method allows you to be in tune with the best levels of minimum and maximum effort that work for you. The scale runs from 1 to 10, with 1 being extremely light activity. Think folding clothes. 10 describes strenuous activity in which you’re working so hard you can barely breathe. You want your intervals to fall around 7 to 8 on the RPE scale. Your recovery periods and warm up should hover between 3 and 5. An easier way to think about this is that at a level of 3 to 5, you should be able to talk comfortably, while at a level of 7 to 8 you can only get a few words out at a time.

Why Do High Intensity Interval Training?

If you’re looking for a way to squeeze an effective workout into a busy schedule, HIIT may be for you. Though shorter than a traditional workout, HIIT may still improve cholesterol and blood sugars. HIIT can also decrease body fat and improve waist circumference. Compared to longer workouts performed at a lower intensity, HIIT might actually lead to equal or better levels of cardiorespiratory fitness. For those working out routinely, HIIT can add some much needed variety while improving fitness. But is it safe for those who rarely work out?

Is High Intensity Interval Training Safe?

HIIT is safe for many people. Those with pre-existing medical conditions, or people who are over the age of 40, should make an appointment with a provider before beginning HIIT. It’s also a good idea to get a baseline fitness assessment before starting. Once you start, be patient. It will take time and experimentation to determine the best combination of intervals and recovery periods that work for you.

Free High Intensity Interval Workouts for Beginners

There are some great videos that can help you get started. To make HIIT most effective, give yourself enough time to recover between intervals. Don’t forget to use that pause button and walk it out for an extra minute if you need more rest!

  • Whole Body Exercise. Try this 20-minute workout from The Body Coach. Alternate 30 seconds of high intensity exercises with 30 seconds of rest.
  • Walking. This is a great lower-impact workout from Jessica Smith TV for those of us who may need to take it easy on the knees. Her routine is a 25-minute HIIT walking workout.
  • Dancing. Check out this fun hip-hop dance HIIT routine from Be Fit. Less than 20 minutes, including warm up!
  • More Challenging. Have you been working out for a while and now you’re looking for a challenge to switch things up? Check out this 30 minute HIIT workout from PopSugar.

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