How to Build Your Own HIIT Routine at the Gym

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Short on time to work out? When it comes to burning fat, that’s OK!

It’s not easy for everyone to find the time to work out. Social commitments, busy workdays, and friends and family members can all fill up our schedules, making it hard to get a workout in. That’s why we love high-intensity interval training, or HIIT workouts. They’re a fast, effective way to get a great workout in a short period of time. We’re here to tell you all the information you need to know about them, and how you can create your own.

What is HIIT?

High intensity interval training (HIIT) involves alternating your workout between multiple seconds of high intensity work and multiple seconds of low intensity work, and it only requires a handful of minutes to reap the benefits. That makes it an especially effective exercise option for anyone short on time—but whether you have 20 minutes or an hour to work out, it’s beneficial for us all. Interval training encourages the development of lean body mass, which is required for a healthy metabolism. Though HIIT has been around a long time, it’s all the rage lately, with new studios opening up everywhere focusing primarily on this style of exercise. But good news: You can accomplish the same activities and burn fat in your local gym, too! Try group training sessions if available, or build your own workout. You can read more on that below.

How Does it Work?

The best part of incorporating HIIT into your workout routine actually happens after your workout. High intensity interval training raises your resting metabolic rate anywhere between 24-48 hours after you’ve finished your workout. You can read more about that from this study. This means you’ll be burning more fat just walking around being you than you would without HIIT in your workout routine.

This occurs because biologically, we are meant to move two ways: aerobically (traveling long distance on foot) and anaerobically (like sprinting away from danger). Anaerobic training, like HIIT, recruits fat for fuel, leaving us with strong, lean bodies that have healthy hearts, speed, and power.

During your workout, a HIIT routine uses fat as fuel. This study looked at two groups of participants and asked one group to complete HIIT workouts three times a week, and the other group to complete moderate-intensity continuous training three times a week. The study showed that after 10 weeks, the participants that were doing HIIT training lost body fat. While both groups lost some weight, the study mentioned that HIIT participants were able to complete their workout in 40% less time than the moderate-intensity participants. That’s one of the major benefits of HIIT: saving time. While there are plenty of fitness services out there that claim to save you time, HIIT is one of the best workouts for effectiveness and efficiency. After all, it’s literally based on seconds!

You don’t need a formal class to put this HIIT training into practice. There are endless timed routines online you can use, or fashion your own featuring many exercises that involve little-to-no equipment. It’s a great way to build a workout based on your favorite core exercises, or information from your favorite trainer!

How HIIT is Different from Cardio

While HIIT and cardio can both get your heart pounding, what makes them different is the level of intensity. The high intensity exercises that make up a HIIT workout require your muscles to work at maximum effort. When you’re doing steady-state cardio, you likely aren’t working out at that same intensity. We’re not trying to tell you that we don’t think you’re giving it your all! But think about it: if you know that your workout for the day is a three-mile run, you’re probably not going to start at a sprinter’s pace. Instead, you’ll pace yourself at a moderate rate of activity so that you can finish your workout. With steady-state cardio, you’re keeping your heart rate fairly consistent throughout your entire workout. This is called aerobic exercise, which means “with oxygen.” Your lungs and heart are working harder to fuel your body with oxygen.

Aerobic exercise definitely requires you to work hard, but you’re giving your absolute maximum effort during a high-intensity interval training workout. That’s why HIIT is fueled differently. It’s classified as anaerobic exercise, which means “without oxygen.” This means your body is breaking down other stored energy sources like fat and glucose to fuel your workout, because you need immediate and readily available energy. That’s what makes HIIT so great for burning fat!

Another thing that differentiates HIIT from cardio is the recovery periods. Typically lasting between 10 seconds and 30 seconds, recovery periods allow you a short amount of time to bring your heart rate down – before pumping it back up again with hard work. Of course, you can take breaks during steady-state cardio, but HIIT makes those breaks, since you have just a few timed seconds, a lot more dramatic. By strengthening your heart and lungs, HIIT can help improve your VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise. VO2 max is a great measure of your endurance, and it can be used as a baseline for one’s cardiovascular fitness. However, calculating your VO2 max requires information that can only be measured by laboratory services, so unless you’re a serious athlete, you don’t need to worry too much about yours. Just know that when you’re doing HIIT, even if it’s a short workout, you’re improving it!

Can You Combine HIIT and Strength Training?

The short answer? Absolutely! The long answer? Kind of. You can absolutely incorporate strength training moves like push-ups, squats and deadlifts into your HIIT routine. In fact, we encourage it! There are a lot of great, powerful training moves that work your entire body and use full muscle groups, particularly your legs and core. These movements are great for building strength and for getting your heart rate up. However, we will share one cautionary tale: if you are doing heavy weight training or powerlifting, it’s difficult to incorporate that level of weight into a HIIT routine. HIIT’s goal is to complete as many reps as possible during your limited seconds of work. If you are squatting or deadlifting with challenging weight, it can be really difficult to get multiple reps in during a circuit, no matter how strong your legs are! That’s why we recommend saving the heavy weight training for leg day, and using lighter weights or just bodyweight for a HIIT workout. 

With lighter weights, proper form is still just as important. Make sure you’re using your core, keeping your body in a straight line and keeping your right foot in line with your left. If you’re doing a one-sided move like lunges, make sure that you stay on one side (for example, starting with your right foot) for the first round. HIIT work intervals are only seconds long, not minutes, so you can get a more efficient leg workout if you’re not taking the time to switch from your left to right foot.

Doing such hard work for less time is what makes high-intensity interval training so effective. Even if you’re used to working out with heavy weight, we guarantee you’ll be in a good place to see results from HIIT within weeks!

How to Build Your Own HIIT Routine

The best HIIT workout for you will depend on your personal preferences. You might prefer trying HIIT on a cardio machine, like a treadmill or a bike, or you might prefer doing HIIT workouts with bodyweight moves. You might also have your own preferences for the length of your rest periods and work intervals. Some people prefer equal seconds of work and rest, while others might prefer 20 seconds of work to only 10 seconds of rest (a common format known as Tabata).

There’s plenty of content out there that can help you build a HIIT workout, or suggest exercises for you to include. Regardless of what composes your best HIIT workout, we collected some of the most important information you’ll need in order to build a routine that gives you the most benefits of HIIT.

  • Always use a dynamic warm-up. This athletic-based warm-up primes the body for movement and helps correct faulty movement patterns.
  • If you plan on doing HIIT on a day you also lift weights, do it at the end of your workout to maximize that fat-burning window. This will also allow you to maintain high energy and good form while lifting.
  • High intensity means high for you. HIIT is meant to push you past your anaerobic threshold, but everyone has to start somewhere. As you near your threshold, you will be out of breath and unable to carry on a conversation. Your muscles and lungs may feel uncomfortable, but that’s OK. It’s working! If you’re new or concerned, just “touch” on that feeling as opposed to maxing out every time to reap the benefits of regular interval training. Then push yourself more toward HIIT.
  • Make sure to incorporate resistance training using compound movements like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and kettlebell swings. You’ll get more bang for your buck as these recruit the most muscles and burn the most calories. Movements that utilize your leg muscles and core, like squats and burpees, are especially great because your legs contain larger muscle groups.
  • Varying your intensity on cardio equipment works really well. For example:
    • Stair climber – 60 sec high speed/60 sec low speed, repeat
    • Bike “Tabata” – 20 sec sprint/10 sec rest, repeat
    • Treadmill Sprints – 40/20 walk/incline walk, walk/jog, or run/sprint
  • Make sure your starting position is correct if you’re doing bodyweight movements. Even though the goal is to get your heart rate up, proper form is still incredibly important, and that begins with your starting position. If you’re working too hard to perform the movements properly, it might be time for a longer break!
  • Download a HIIT timer on your phone to ping you when it’s time to work, and time to rest! Trust us, you’re doing yourself a huge service by letting something else keep time for you.
  • When you set your second intervals, don’t forget to choose how many circuits you’ll be doing, too. That will help you stick to your entire workout, instead of completing one circuit at a time and then stopping once you’re tired.

Learn more about High Intensity Interval Training.

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