The great news is that HIIT training really is just as easy as it sounds and simply involves alternating between periods of high exertion and relatively low intensity exercise. There are a few caveats however and it is important to approach this in a sensible and structured way in order to avoid injury or disappointment.
Most people will begin their HIIT with running as this is a very straightforward form of cardio training that doesn’t require access to any specialist tools and that anyone can understand and use.
There are countless HIIT protocols however and these vary in length and intensity. The key thing to recognize here is that high intensity training of any kind can be highly dangerous if you have never done it before, if you’re very overweight or if you’re in very poor physical health. It’s also dangerous if you have any pre-existing heart conditions.
In short, you need basic heart strength before you start pushing it to 100%. Thus, it is a good idea to build up at least a basic level of fitness before you start your HIIT training. If you’re still gasping for breath whenever you ascend the stairs, then you’re not ready for HIIT.
But here’s the thing: even if you’re used to exercising regularly and you’re in good shape, switching to HIIT will still come as a very big shock if you’ve not used it before. This is a whole new ball game in terms of the demands it places on your body and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you end up in a gasping heap on the floor!
If you’ve never exercised before, then read the next section. If you’ve not used HIIT before but you’re generally in good shape, then you can skip to the one after it.
How to Build Up a Basic Level of Fitness
Note: Before beginning an intensive training routine, it is always a good idea to consult with your GP and to ensure that you don’t have any underlying heart conditions!
Before you start pushing yourself to your cardiovascular limit, it’s a good idea to first build up that basic level of fitness that will prevent you from shocking your heart too much. Right now, you might be thinking that you don’t need to worry about this and that it’s not likely you’re going to suffer heart problems.
Even if you’re not worried though, building this basic level of fitness is important for your ability to stick with an intense HIIT workout.
This is the mistake that too many people make – they launch straight into their training and hope that they’ll be able to keep up a pace that is far above what they find ‘comfortable’. The belief is that you need to be pushing beyond your comfort levels in order to lose weight.
But what actually happens is that you end up hating exercise and dreading your workouts. The result is that you’ll find yourself putting it off and unable to take part unless you’re feeling your very best. In no time at all, your training falls by the wayside and you give up!
So don’t aim to start losing weight or transform your fitness right away. Rather, focus on gradually improving your fitness so that your workouts are never outside the realms of comfortable to begin with. You’ll find that as you do this, you learn to do more and eventually this allows you to take on more challenging workouts and actually stick with them.
So how do you build up this basic fitness?
The answer is actually to start with steady state cardio, using a gentle pace to begin with and then build up. Begin with running but don’t aim to run a long distance or to run quickly to begin with. Instead, just aim to enjoy running. Set out with comfortable running shoes and jog carefully and slowly for half an hour. When it becomes painful, go home.
Do this once a week and over time, you’ll find that you start running faster and further without even trying. Importantly though, you won’t risk exhausting your body, you won’t damage your knees, overtraining or learning to loathe your training.
This can be very frustrating at first if you were hoping to get into great shape right away! But what’s very important here is to be disciplined with yourself. A lot of people think that getting into great shape is all about being disciplined enough to keep training. Just as important though is to be disciplined enough to be patient and to build that basic level of strength before you approach the more intense types of training.
Build up your strength and stamina slowly and then you can look at adding HIIT workouts. And again, you’re going to start gently…
A Gentle Introduction to HIIT A lot of people will read the words ‘HIIT’ and assume that this is one type of workout. In reality though, HIIT is a very broad and flexible term that can encompass a great many different types of training and a great many different protocols.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make then, is to start HIIT and dive in right at the deep end with an intensive program aimed at the incredible fit. One of the most popular choices for instance is ‘Tababta’. This is a brutal, punishing, fast and highly effective method of training that will leave you gasping for air and covered in sweat in just 4 minutes. But it’s also far too intense to start with and especially when running.
So instead, let’s begin with a very easy beginner routine:
Jog for 2 minutes
Sprint for 10 seconds
Repeat this five times. It sounds very easy but you’ll quickly find that just 10 seconds of sprinting is more than enough to completely exhaust you. By the time you’re finished, you’ll be completely exhausted and you’ll feel as though you can’t perform another 2 minute jogging session.
Finish this with a 10 minute cool down.
The entire workout will take you 12 minutes but you’ll find you’re easily as tired (if not more tired) than you would have been after jogging at a steady state for 30-40 minutes! Moreover, this is enough to trigger the after burn effect and to leave you burning calories for hours afterward.
Because this type of training is so fast, you can afford to do this 2 or 3 times a week. Once you start to become more confident, you can then move on to the next step up:
Jog for 2 minutes
Sprint for 30 seconds
You can also increase the number of laps to 8 and then ten.
Eventually, you might be able to work all the way up to:
Jog for 1 minute
Sprint for 30 seconds
Jog for 1 minute
Sprint for 1 minute
Again though, you should only move on to these harder difficulty levels once you have built up the basic fitness and heart strength to be able to cope relatively easily. You should be exhausted at the end but not to the point where you can’t do anything for the rest of the day, or where you’re unable to train again for days and days on end.
I recommend the following resource for HIIT – 100 HIIT Workouts: Visual easy-to-follow routines for all fitness levels