Given how popular HIIT workouts have become in the past couple years, chances are good that you’ve heard about high-intensity interval training and recognize the name.
But if you find yourself wondering, “What is HIIT?” as in, what is an actual HIIT workout like, these pro tips from certified trainers who specialize in teaching the technique will help you crush your first class.
The first thing you should know is that a HIIT workout is designed to push you to your limits. The aim of this type of training is to get you to perform as many reps as possible of each exercise at max effort for a very short period of time, typically 20–30 seconds, rest briefly, and then continue on to the next move with minimal breaks in between. Phew.
Speaking of moves, you can expect a mix of explosive bodyweight drills like burpees or squat jumps, as well as strength endurance exercises like dumbbell thrusters. Bottom line: Prepare to S.W.E.A.T. and keep your heart rate elevated the whole time.
Because of this fast-paced sequencing, “one of the best things about HIIT workouts is that you can do them in a short period of time and get great results,” says Noam Tamir, certified trainer and founder of TS Fitness in New York City. “People tend to gravitate toward HIIT workouts because they burn more calories than steady state cardio and generate a bigger EPOC, or afterburn effect.” That means you can continue burning extra calories up to 48 hours after your HIIT workout ends.
Another benefit of HIIT, which Steve Uria, certified trainer and founder of the HIIT-based fitness studio Switch Playground, calls the beauty of high-intensity interval training, is that it can help boost your metabolic rate. “You will lose body fat, as well as put on lean muscle,” he explains. That combo can help you burn more calories throughout the day.
Watch this video to get a sense of what a HIIT workout looks like IRL:
Okay, but before you HIIT it, master these basic moves
There are a few standard bodyweight exercises, which Tamir calls primary movements, that both he and Uria say you’ll find in pretty much any HIIT class—the squat, hinge, and pushup.
“The reason that all of these are important is because most of the more complex or more functional movements in a HIIT class are built on these fundamentals,” Uria explains. He suggests scheduling some 1:1 time with a certified trainer who can break them down for you and make sure you’re form is A+ before signing up for a class.
Speaking of classes, forget about “Going Big” off the bat
Starting small (in terms of class size) is your best bet as a beginner. The benefit of signing up for HIIT workouts where the trainer-to-student ratio is low is that you get more feedback about your form and can ensure you’re doing moves correctly in order to advance faster and not injure yourself.
For example, at Switch, there are several trainers per class so that they can keep an eye on all the clients and give more personal attention while the instructor leads the workout.
But more often than not, there will only be one trainer in the room with you. To ensure you’re not getting lost in the crowd, Tamir has a good tip: “One thing I would also suggest somebody that’s new do is to call the gym or studio and ask them how big their classes are,” he suggests.
While you have them on the phone, you can also pepper them with a few other questions that can help you prepare for their particular type of HIIT workout. “Ask them what to expect from a HIIT workout with them. Are they, do you do a warm-up? Like what does the warm up consist of? How long is the actual session? How long is the cool down?” He also recommends reading reviews. “I really suggest doing that, and also letting the instructor know that you’re new so they can keep an eye out for you.”
Oh, and don’t be afraid to dial down the intensity initially
This might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating outright because one of the biggest risks with HIIT workouts is injuries sustained from overtraining. “Go at your own pace,” Tamir advises. “This is also if you feel intimidated; don’t try to keep up with others, just focus on you. You can increase the intensity as you get more comfortable with things.”
He says one way to not get caught up in how many burpees the person next to you is doing is by setting in an intention before class. “Ask yourself: ‘What’s the reason why I’m here? To increase my endurance. Because I have a lot of stress and I want to release it. Because I want to lose weight. Just to become a better you.’ Whatever your goal is, think about that.”
Even if you take it slow, prepare to be sore, especially in the beginning
Anyone who’s new to HIIT should familiarize themselves with another acronym: DOMS. It stands for delayed onset muscle soreness. “It can take about 48 hours for your muscles to recover properly after a HIIT workout,” Uria says. That also happens to be about how long he and Tamir both recommend waiting in between HIIT classes when you’re new to the training style.
In between sessions, you can help speed up the recovery process by doing exercises that stretch your muscles and keep your blood flowing. Uria recommends yoga, a favorite of Tamir too. He also suggests low-impact cardio like walking on a treadmill at an incline. Eventually, as you build up the endurance, he says that strength training is a good form of cross-training for HIIT.