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HIIT Workouts: A Complete Guide to High-Intensity Interval Training

HIIT – short for High Intensity Interval Training – in its purest sense is defined as short spells of sustained maximum effort, combined with rest or active recovery periods. Many workouts claim to be HIIT workouts. However, the majority of these workouts are better described as moderately high intensity interval training. The key element of a ‘true’ HIIT workout is the concept of maximum sustained effort – this is where many people’s definition of HIIT differs from the reality of what HIIT actually is.

To illustrate this point, let’s assume you’re doing a 30 second interval on a Spinner. ‘True’ HIIT would require you to pedal as hard and as fast as possible, with maximum power from the very first second and sustain this effort for the full duration. This means your high intensity interval performance output should decrease, even over short intervals of 20-30 seconds.

In other activities like sprinting or rowing, the goal would be to reach your maximum output as fast as possible and fight to sustain that output for the entire interval and subsequent spells.

So what does all this mean? Basically, training like this means you’ll hit peak fatigue very, very quickly. When people claim they’ve done over 15 minutes of HIIT with several rounds, the likelihood is they haven’t really done a HIIT workout. Not in the purest sense anyway. Like mentioned earlier, they’ve probably done what’s better described as moderately high intensity interval training. In reality, 30 seconds of absolute maximal effort can take several minutes to fully recover from.


There are several styles of HIIT training and two types of HIIT variation that are very popular. These are Tabata and The Wingate Test.


The Wingate Test is performed in a lab on a special bike called an ergometer. The goal is to reach – and sustain – maximum output for a period of 30 seconds. Sometimes this is performed as repeated bouts with differing rest intervals depending on the goal of the testing session.

This test has been developed into Wingate HIIT sessions for gyms, which often includes 30 seconds of activity, followed by a 60-90 second rest for several rounds. The reality is, if activity in the 30 second interval is performed at 100% maximum intensity (or even close to it) then even very fit people would struggle to do more than a few rounds before needing to stop with the short rest periods.


Tabata is usually performed on a bike or rower, but the principle is also applied to many other exercises like body weight exercises, sprinting and ‘functional’ training (sled pushes, tyre flips, battle ropes etc). Tabata is performed with 20 seconds activity and 10 seconds rest for eight rounds – totalling four minutes work.

The beauty of Tabata is this: even if you’re doing exercises that are impossible to monitor or perform at sustained maximum effort – like running on a treadmill, body weight squatting or flipping tyres – due to the short 10 second rest periods, you’ll quickly enter a level of training intensity that would be considered HIIT. This means Tabata performed on equipment where you can go straight to maximum output is that little bit more ‘brutal’.

Due to the widespread misinterpretation of what HIIT actually is, many forms of circuit training market themselves as such. Although these circuits certainly get your heart rate higher than lower intensity steady state exercise, they’re usually – not in the strictest sense – HIIT.

The important thing to note here is this doesn’t really matter for most people.


There are very specific physiological adaptations to HIIT training that might be of concern for athletes. However, for beginners looking to take part in HIIT – or the average gym goer looking to reap the benefits of a HIIT style workout – the need to push the limits of their own performance in each interval is not essential and certainly not a fun way to exercise.

There are several benefits to HIIT style training:

For those who are short on time, HIIT is a great choice as you burn a lot of calories in a short period. You also get an ‘after burn’ effect, where your body increases energy expenditure for several hours after exercise to help itself recover from these types of workouts.

HIIT sessions can also include a variety of different interval lengths using different types of equipment. This variety can keep training interesting and more engaging than other types of exercise.

Most importantly, HIIT workouts can simultaneously improve muscular strength, muscular endurance and cardiovascular performance and health – making it a great way to train and get several positive training and health adaptations in a single, short, sharp training session.


HIIT can be very demanding and high impact so it’s important you choose the correct kind of HIIT for your ability level. You need to make sure – until you build up some basic fitness levels – you only allow short HIIT intervals, with plenty of recovery time between and choose activities that are low impact on your joints.

HIIT has performed safely in several clinical populations, but if you’re a beginner or have health issues it’s essential to seek expert advice before taking part in any demanding exercise program – especially those that may have a heavy impact on your joints and cardiovascular system.


‘True’ HIIT workouts might be off-putting for some people due to their nature. However modified HIIT workouts using a variety of different equipment in higher intensity interval bouts and circuit training can be an effective and fun way to exercise.

HIIT may have some specific benefits to athlete performance and testing, but for the average gym goer the main benefit HIIT workouts provide is they can have a high calorie expenditure in a short period of time, improve muscular endurance and may even allow you to build some muscle at the same time.



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