The acronym “HIIT” may be an abbreviation for “high-intensity interval training,” but to a novice, it could very well stand for “highly intense and intimidating training.” All the huffing, puffing, sweat dripping, and blink-and-you-miss-it rest periods involved don’t make the workout style seem too enjoyable.

However, when you consider HIIT’s health and fitness benefits and incredible efficiency, it’s worth setting aside your assumptions and fears and giving the exercise method a try. To get you started, Shape tapped Chris Ryan, CSCS, a certified personal trainer with MIRROR, to explain those perks, break down how to incorporate the training style into your routine, and share a HIIT workout for beginners that’ll convince even the biggest cynic to add it to their weekly rotation.

What Is HIIT?

Though the exact definition varies from trainer to trainer, HIIT generally refers to a style of training that involves alternating between bursts of vigorous exercise and short periods of active recovery moves or full-on rest, says Ryan. “You’re looking at doing some sort of exercise and then switching it up to keep the heart rate high,” he explains. “You’re also keeping the workout itself to a limited amount of time, so you’re not looking to work out for two hours.”

For example, you might do 45 seconds of an intense exercise such as thrusters, followed by 45 seconds of toe-touch jacks (tapping your foot out to your side rather than full jumping jacks) or just full rest, he says. Power through that circuit three times, repeat the process with two other exercise circuits, and you’ve got a 15-minute HIIT workout that’ll leave you dripping in sweat.

(Image credit: Andrew McElroy/Unsplash)

The easiest way to ensure your HIIT workout is high-intensity, as advertised, is to consider your rate of perceived exertion. Your RPE is essentially a self-administered rating of how hard you feel like you’re working (based on breathing rate, heart rate, sweat, and muscle fatigue) on a scale of 1 to 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An RPE of 5 may feel like moderate intensity, while an RPE of 9 may feel like you’re going all-out, adds Ryan.

But if you want to get more technical, look at your heart rate. For physical activity to be considered “vigorous-intensity,” your heart rate should be between 77 to 93 percent of your maximum heart rate, according to the CDC. (To figure out your estimated maximum heart rate, just subtract your age from 220.) Throughout a HIIT workout, your heart rate might be around 130 to 160 beats per minute, and during particularly challenging portions, it might jump as high as 170 or 180, says Ryan.

Do a little math wizardry, and that means a 30-year-old with a heart rate anywhere from 146 to 177 during a HIIT workout is making the most of their sweat sesh. (BTW, the talk test can also be helpful to understand your workout’s intensity.)

The Benefits of HIIT Workouts for Beginners to Pros

It improves your cardiovascular health and VO2 max

All the plank jacks, high knees, and butt kicks involved in HIIT workouts for beginners can do your ticker some good — and help you meet your recommended activity quota for the week. ICYDK, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults power through at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity weekly.

Just a single session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can reduce blood pressure, and folks who stick to that moderate-intensity quota have significantly less risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the HHS. And luckily, HIIT falls into the “vigorous-intensity” category, so you’re likely to reap those benefits.

(Image credit: Mark Adriane/Unsplash)

What’s more, regularly challenging your body to a cardio-heavy workout like HIIT can help make daily activities much less strenuous. “The more your heart and your lungs are so-called stressed, the better off you’re going to be walking up a flight of subway stairs or carrying grocery bags,” says Ryan.

“Your everyday life is just going to be that much better because you’re not going to exert yourself so hard for an ‘easy’ activity.”

Your endurance workouts might feel a bit less taxing, too. When compared to long, slow training intensities, research shows high-intensity aerobic interval training “significantly increases” VO2 max — the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during intense exercise.

The higher your VO2 max, the more energy your body can use, and the longer you can exercise, according to UC Davis Health.

You’ll continue to burn calories after your workout ends

Thanks to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, your body will continue to use calories well after you’ve finished your HIIT workout for beginners. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says Ryan. Post-sweat sesh, your body is working hard to restore itself to homeostasis — your body’s normal, resting metabolic state — and it needs to take in more oxygen than it did before you exercised in order to do so, according to the University of New Mexico.

Since you’re consuming oxygen at a higher rate to replenish the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that was used as fuel during your workout, reoxygenate your blood, and cool down your core temperature, you’re also using more energy (read: burning more calories).

And a HIIT workout is basically a recipe for EPOC success: Research suggests the extent of EPOC increases as workout intensity does, and a small 2019 study found that folks who performed interval exercises had greater EPOC than those who did steady-state exercise.

You’ll see muscle gains

Though they may seem cardio-centric, HIIT workouts can simultaneously serve as strength training, depending on how they’re programmed, says Ryan. For example, you can get your heart rate up and strengthen your arms by adding a light dumbbell and a press to a standard jumping jack, or holding weights while performing punches, says Ryan.

How to Add HIIT Workouts for Beginners Into Your Routine

When you’re first dipping your toes into the unique workout style, Ryan recommends sticking to 45- to 75-second intervals for each exercise, which gives you enough time to perfect your form and get comfortable with the movement. Still, it can be tedious to do two to three rounds of each exercise for that long.

To combat boredom and amp up the intensity, Ryan suggests using lightweight dumbbells or a resistance band during the second or third round, as long as you’ve first nailed the movement pattern itself. Changing the length of the exercise can keep things fresh, too: Try one 90-second round at a moderate intensity, a 60-second round at a vigorous intensity, then a 30-second round at all-out intensity, he says.

Of course, there are ways to dial back on the intensity of your HIIT workout for beginners. If your RPE or heart rate is through the roof, or you’re dealing with joint pain or mobility issues, try performing a modified version of the exercises, reducing your range of motion, or nixing the weights and sticking with bodyweight moves instead, says Ryan.

“If you’re like, ‘Oh, this movement’s way too easy’ or ‘this movement’s way too hard,’ there are always progressions and then regressions that you could offer for pretty much most exercises,” he says.

Though it can be tempting to power through a HIIT workout for beginners on a daily basis, Ryan cautions against doing them too frequently. “Your body needs time to recover because the whole thing is high intensity, and high intensity means that you’re busting your butt, you’re going hardcore,” he explains.

“Let’s say you did HIIT all the time — seven days a week — at some point you’re going to get diminishing returns. You might go good for like a week, a month, maybe several months, but at some point, you’re going to find yourself run down or find yourself injured.”

Instead, he recommends incorporating it into a well-balanced weekly routine, featuring one or two HIIT workouts, one or two strength training workouts, one or two Pilates or yoga workouts, and, of course, the rest days you need. Remember: “Less is more, and listen to your body,” says Ryan.

HIIT workout
Image: Courtesy svetikd/Getty

Full-Body HIIT Workout for Beginners

To get a taste of the training style, try Ryan’s HIIT workout for beginners and intermediates, which has modification and progression options so you can adapt the workout to your fitness level.

You’ll need: A set of light-weight to medium-weight dumbbells

How it works: Perform each circuit’s four exercises for 45 seconds, take a 30-second rest, then repeat the circuit and rest period twice more for a total of three rounds. For the first round, perform each move at a moderate effort (RPE 5-6). For the second round, perform each move at an intense effort (RPE 7-8). For the third round, perform each move at a max effort (RPE 9-10).

Circuit 1

Squat Jacks

A. Stand with feet together, hands clasped together in front of chest.

B. Jump both feet out to sides while bending knees to sink into a squat.

C. Push up from heels and jump out of the squat to return to standing.

Modification: Bodyweight Squat

Progression: Squat Jack with Alternating Floor Touches

Butt Kicks

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, hands clasped in front of chest.

B. Shift weight to left foot and quickly bring right heel to butt. Bring right foot back to floor, shift weight to right foot, and quickly bring left heel to butt.

C. Repeat, quickly alternating between feet.

Modification: Walking Butt Kicks

Progression: Lateral Butt Kicks

Knee Push-Ups

A. Start in a modified plank position with hands directly under shoulders and knees on the floor. Lift feet off the floor and hold them there.

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing the navel in toward the spine. Lock in lats by drawing shoulders down and away from the ears.

C. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to the body. Slowly lower body, and stop 3 inches above the floor, keeping core engaged throughout the movement and ensuring body forms a straight line from head to knees.

D. Push away from the floor to return to start.

Modification: Shoulder Taps on Knees

Progression: Push-Up with Mountain Climber

Reverse Crunches

A. Lie on back in a traditional crunch position, feet flat on the floor and hands underneath head, elbows wide.

B. Press lower back into the floor and pull in belly button to lift feet off the floor. Bend knees at a 90-degree angle, keeping them together.

C. Using core, draw knees toward chest so that tailbone raises off the floor. Simultaneously perform a traditional crunch, lifting shoulder blades off the floor and using core, not hands, to lift head and shoulders.

D. Slowly lower shoulders, hips, and legs to return to the starting position. Stop when feet are just above the floor.

E. Repeat the movement, making sure not to use momentum to power the next rep.

Circuit 2

Dumbbell Thrusters

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand next to thighs, palms facing in.

B. Brace midline, then hinge hips back, lowering dumbbells to mid-thigh. Next, simultaneously straighten legs and pull dumbbells vertically up, rotating elbows underneath to catch the dumbbells at shoulder-height in a quarter squat. Stand. This is the start position.

C. Keeping core tight, elbows high, and chest forward, sit glutes back toward the floor into a squat.

D. At the bottom of the squat, press heels into the ground to straighten legs while pressing dumbbells overhead. The rep is complete when legs are straight and dumbbells are directly over shoulders, biceps pressed against ears.

E. Lower dumbbells back to shoulders while descending into a squat to start the next rep.

Sumo Deadlift High Pull

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out. Hold dumbbells in front of hips, palms facing thighs.

B. Start sending the hips back, keeping spine in neutral position, squeezing shoulder blades, and bracing core.

C. Once dumbbells are lower than knees, do not allow hips to sink further. Dumbbells should be a few inches off the floor.

D. At the bottom of the movement, drive through heels, maintaining neutral spine and keeping dumbbells close to the body. After dumbbells pass knees, fully extend hips and knees, squeezing glutes at the top.

E. As you reach the top of the movement, shrug shoulders and pull dumbbells up to chin with arms, keeping elbows lifted up and out to side. Lower dumbbells back to hips.

Dumbbell Side Punches

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding two dumbbells in front of chest with both hands, elbows pointing down.

B. Keeping chest proud and core tight, twist torso and punch right arm across body toward left side. Bring torso and arm back to centre, then repeat with left arm. Continue, alternating arms.

Dumbbell March In Place

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells at sides with palms facing toward the body. Draw shoulders down and back and stand tall.

B. Shift weight to left foot while simultaneously lifting right knee up toward the ceiling, maintaining a 90 degree angle with thigh and calf. Raise knee until parallel with hips, then lower back to start. Repeat, alternating legs.

Circuit 3

Lateral Shuffle 

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Step out to the left and lower into a deep squat.

B. While sitting in the squat, quickly shuffle as far left as your space allows, keeping feet hip-width apart. Repeat on the right.

Modification: Lateral Walk

Progression: Lateral Shuffle with Opposite Toe Touch

High Plank with T Rotations

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders and knees bent and stacked directly under hips.

B. Step one leg back at a time to come into a high plank position on palms, actively squeezing heels and glutes together and drawing navel to spine.

C. Press right arm into floor while lifting left hand up, twisting hips and shoulders to raise left arm toward the ceiling.

D. Lower left hand to floor and repeat, alternating sides.

Modification: High Plank

Progression: T Push-Ups

High-Knee Forward and Backward Jog

A. Drive right knee toward chest and pump left arm up.

B. Switch, driving left knee toward chest and right arm up.

C. Continue alternating quickly, pumping opposite arm with each leg, while moving forward five to 10 feet and back again.

Modification: Forward and Backward March 

Progression: High-Knee Backward Sprint

Oblique Mountain Climbers

A. Start in a high plank position with shoulders over wrists, fingers spread apart, feet hip-width apart, and weight resting on balls of feet. Body should form a straight line from shoulders to ankles.

B. Maintaining a flat back and gazing between hands, brace core, lift right foot off the floor, and quickly drive knee to left side of chest.

C. Return foot to start and repeat with left leg, driving knee toward right side of chest. Quickly alternate driving knees in toward opposite side of chest as if running.

Modification: Mountain Climbers

Progression: High Plank Kick Thrust

Circuit 4

Dumbbell Front Rack Squat to Calf Raise

A. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand just in front of the shoulders, resting one end of the dumbbell on top of each shoulder. Make sure to stack the weight over wrists with elbows pointing down.

B. Keeping chest proud and spine tall, lower into a squat, pushing hips back and down until thighs are parallel to the ground. Avoid caving knees in toward midline or flaring out to the sides.

C. Press feet firmly into the floor to return to standing. At the top of the squat, press up from balls of feet into a calf raise. Lower heel to floor and return to start.

Dumbbell Hammer Curl to Reverse Fly

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees softly bent and core engaged. Hold dumbbells in front of thighs, elbows at sides and palms each other. Grip dumbbells tightly, with wrists in line with forearms, forming a straight line from knuckles to elbows.

B. Curl dumbbells up toward shoulders, keeping elbows tight to your sides. At the top of the curl, hinge at the hips with soft knees, leaning torso forward about 45 degrees. Maintain a flat back and a neutral neck. Let hands hang directly below shoulders, palms facing in.

C. Keeping core engaged and maintaining a slight bend in the elbows, exhale and lift dumbbells up laterally in a wide arching motion until they reach shoulder height. Focus on squeezing shoulder blades together.

D. Pause at the top, then inhale and slowly lower dumbbells to return to starting position. Return to standing, and repeat.

Split Squat with Dumbbell Lateral Arm Raise

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms by your sides. Take a big step forward with one leg, making sure ankle is aligned with knee and hip.

B. Engaging core and keeping chest proud, bend front leg until thigh is parallel with the ground. Simultaneously, raise both arms out to sides until parallel with chin.

C. Slowly lower dumbbells while pressing front foot firmly into the ground to straighten legs and stand back up to return to start. Repeat, switching legs halfway through the round.

Quarter Squat Hold with Alternating Dumbbell Punches

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding two dumbbells in front of chest with both hands, elbows pointing down.

B. Keeping chest proud and core tight, slowly lower into a quart squat, pushing hips back and down just until knee caps are in line with toes.

C. Holding this position, slightly twist torso and punch right arm across body toward left side. Repeat, alternating punches.

This story first appeared on www.shape.com.

(Main and Feature Image Credit: Getty Images)

© 2021 Meredith Corporation.  All rights reserved.  Licensed from Shape.com and published with permission of Meredith Corporation.  Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without prior written permission is prohibited.

Shape and the Shape Logo are registered trademarks of Meredith Corporation. Used under License.

Subscribe to the magazine

Subscribe Now
Never miss an update

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates.

No Thanks
You’re all set

Thank you for your subscription.