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HIIT For Beginners: High Intensity Interval Training 101

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Tired of the treadmill? Interested in burning more fat in less time? Is HIIT good for beginners? Delve into HIIT for beginners and learn how to lose weight & body fat faster.

hiit for beginners - high intensity interval training explained

Perhaps you’ve heard of high intensity interval training, but haven’t really looked into it before now. Lucky for you, this post is going to cover everything about HIIT for beginners. So read on!

If you’re tired of wearing yourself out with hours of steady-state cardio, or you’re simply not getting the results you want at the gym, your workout style may be something worth considering. It’s time to switch it up! And, of course, high intensity interval training is at the top of the list of things to try.

If interval training is new to you, know that you’re not alone.

It seems like this all-in style of training has only gained popularity in recent years. And for good reason.

I can’t personally remember learning anything about high-intensity interval training in high school. Heck, I don’t remember learning about it in college. It was until I started working with my own personal trainer that I finally hopped on the HIIT bandwagon.

I quickly learned why working out this way was becoming popular. And, when I decided to become a personal trainer myself, it was a hot topic. Now I am grateful to have learned about this training style, as it is my go-to for training both myself and others.

HIIT For Beginners: What is HIIT?

As you may have picked up, HIIT is an acronym for “high-intensity interval training.” And, while it might sound like kind of a fancy term at first, it’s really quite simple.

For the purpose of explaining high intensity interval training for beginners, I’ll explain HIIT in terms of how it applies to most people. However, bear in mind that there are a few different styles of HIIT. But to understand it on a basic level, you just need to know that the words, “high-intensity” are key to this workout equation.

The concept of HIIT, in the simplest of terms, is to work out at a high-intensity (or “all out”) at varying intervals to get the best results, fastest.

What do I mean by, “varying intervals”? I mean that you are going to get your heart rate WAY up, then take it down a notch, then back up, and repeat. Your rest time is limited – in fact, it’s not even what most of us consider rest. In HIIT, your recovery between super-high-intensity movements is usually done with what’s called, “active recovery.”

This means that while you recover from that “all out” exercise, you aren’t sitting down or standing around to catch your breath. Instead, you are continuing to get your blood flowing. However, you’re doing it at a slower pace or with a lighter load.

The concept is that you are burning through all of your energy reserves in a quicker amount of time. The intervals help to shock your metabolism. This is done by performing at a high level of exertion for short “bursts” of time. But there’s more to it – so keep reading.

HIIT for beginners - high intensity interval training for beginners

What You Need To Do HIIT

Luckily, you can perform HIIT using basic moves at high speeds. That means that anything you can do with your bodyweight will work for high-intensity interval training.

When it comes to HIIT for beginners, I recommend keeping your movements simple. Focus on performing movements as fast as you can while maintaining good form.

HIIT can get more fun and interesting if you incorporate some tools or equipment. Consider hand weights, slam balls, sliders, or other small modalities. These are things you might add in during mixed, moderate, or timing interval-style training. (Which we will go into in a bit.) However, if you’re ready to switch it up now, here are a few of my favorite portable training tools (affiliate links):

Types of HIIT & The Best HIIT For Beginners

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how to do HIIT. The concept of working in intervals is the same in pretty much every style of HIIT. However, there are a few well-established protocols that are widely accepted by trainers and exercisers alike. These are just a few of the main types of HIIT training:


This style of high intensity interval training is credited to Izumi Tabata. We first start to see his research and development of HIIT in 1996. Many people see this as the first time we really see HIIT as we know it today. (However, there is some evidence that indicates the use of HIIT-style training as early as 1912.)

Generally, Tabata’s work to rest ratio is 2:1. This means that for each interval of rest, your working period is twice as long. More specifically, Izumi Tabata’s style calls for twenty seconds of all-out-effort followed by 10 seconds of active recovery. This sets us up for a total of four minutes. However, this 2-to-1 ratio of work-to-rest is often adapted to a less intense level of exercise. This is helpful so that beginner to intermediate exercisers can still benefit from this style of training.

It may seem that four minutes is not long enough to see any results from any workout – no matter how intense. However, even workouts of just 6 minutes (4 minutes of work time, including a one-minute warm-up and one-minute cool-down) have proven to carry benefits.

In a 2008 study on HIIT, researches concluded that just one six-minute workout burned about 50 calories. More significantly, the exercisers’ metabolism remained elevated enough to burn an additional 250 calories in the next 24 hours. This means that exercisers burned the equivalent of what you would normally burn in about 30 minutes of steady-state exercise in just six minutes of work!

Psst! I recently created an online nutrition course jam-packed with information on food mindset, exercise science, and nutrition education so that I could pass that knowledge on to you. Check it out!

Max Interval 

Max interval training is considered a form of Tabata. In this style of training, we see the adapted style that most closely aligns with Izumi Tabata’s original brain child. That means that max interval style training is the “hardest” style of Tabata training. Max interval HIIT is exactly what it sounds like – workouts are performed at the highest of an exercisers ability. Because of this, most exercisers that perform max interval Tabata are professional athletes or advanced exercisers.

Mixed Interval

Mixed interval training still uses the classic 2:1 Tabata ratio of work to recovery. However, it is at a slightly less intense level. This allows exercisers to amp up the variety of movement and exercises during their workouts.

In a mixed interval workout, exercisers perform same-to-similar exercises at different speeds. This way, they can still benefit from the high-intensity bursts. However, they can do this without injury or burning out too quickly.

Timing Interval

The timing interval protocol usually allows for the most variety for your workout. This is a favorite for bootcamp-style workouts. (Because they involve many people exercising together.) Often, you’ll see a circuit-style HIIT workout when using the timing interval protocol.

With the timing interval style of Tabata, you’ll see more moderately intense exercises. This helps to accommodate more exercisers at varying levels of physical fitness.

bodyweight squats for the glutes
Hey, it’s Chantal, your favorite little fitness blogger!

Fartlek Training

Also known as discontinuous interval training, Fartlek training is great for partner or group workouts. (I remember performing this type of HIIT training in high school, but I had no idea what it was called!) There are several different ways to perform Fartlek training. But for the sake of simplicity, remember that this style of training has to do mostly with running and varying speeds.

For the simplest of examples, I’ll use what we did for a workout on my high school cheer squad. Imagine a team of four to six people. They are running single file on an outdoor track. The runners begin, maintaining a single-file formation at a comfortable place.

Next, for the “burst,” the person who is last in line speeds up. The goal is to speed up enough to get to the front of the line. When he or she reaches the front, the runner falls in line at the original pace. This continues for a set distance or time. Or, it can continue until all of the runners have been “line-leader.”

fartlek training example

Hopefully you can see how this would be a fun way to perform high-intensity interval training. It allows for active recovery while you are in the middle of the line. (And the more people you have in your line, the more “rest” you have in between “bursts.”)

Moderate Intensity Interval Training – Best HIIT For Beginners

How many times per week should you do HIIT training? The answer is, as much as you comfortably can. As it turns out, I only thought I was doing true high-intensity interval training for several years. The fact of the matter is that most people who are doing HIIT-style workouts aren’t going “all out.” This means that even when we are working hard and breathing heavy during a workout, we usually aren’t performing at our highest intensity.

While most of my workouts reach a pretty high level of intensity, I will be the first to admit that I could go harder almost all of the time. But that’s a good way to get hurt or get burnt out. So even I am often performing what we call moderate intensity interval training.

The concept is the same as true HIIT, simply performed at a lower level of exertion. The result is still a good workout with many benefits. However, these workouts are more practical and realistic. That’s because moderate intensity interval training is more sustainable. When you’re talking about multiple workouts per week, things can get sore! On top of that, this moderately intense workout style lets you have “bad” days. If you’re busy, tired, overweight, or whatever, this type of workout is a little more forgiving.

HIIT Benefits – Interval Training For Health

Is HIIT good for losing weight? Obviously, these are some pretty positive reasons to try HIIT. But one of the most appealing benefits of HIIT training is that training at a high intensity “shocks” the body. As mentioned, you can continue to burn calories as you recover for up to 36 hours. That means that even while you’re sleeping, your body is burning energy trying to recover from your workout – even if it was a short one!

You already know this to be true from the study I told you about earlier. But here are a few other studies that support the benefits of HIIT workouts, even if short:

One of the best things about HIIT is how it helps to shock your metabolism. But as you can gather, HIIT training is also beneficial for the lungs, heart, and more. *Specifically, the benefits of HIIT include:

  • Increased size of the heart (it is a muscle, after all).
  • Increased blood flow with each heartbeat, making the heart more efficient.
  • More efficient disposal and processing of waste.
  • An increase in the size and number of mitochondria. This leads to an increase in carbohydrate and fat breakdown.
  • The body becomes more efficient at making energy available for use.
  • Increased rate of oxygen intake.
  • Increased use of fat for energy (burning it instead of other sources of energy).

HIIT For Beginners – Basic Exercises

Luckily, even beginner exercisers can perform HIIT-style workouts. You can opt for bodyweight-only exercises, or you can use a wide variety of tools and equipment. And, since there are several variations of HIIT training, even the most inexperienced exerciser can complete a workout and reap the benefits.

For true beginners, it is recommended that movements are kept simple. That means that you should stay away from compound exercises. These are exercises that target more than one major muscle group. (For example, a burpee often includes both a push-up and a jump, utilizing many muscles.)

How do I start HIIT at home? It is also recommended that you limit the number of different exercises performed. Some good exercises to start with could be:

  • Basic Squat
  • Squat Jump
  • Basic Lunge
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Basic Push-Up
  • Shoulder/Overhead Press (with dumbbells)
  • Upright Row (with dumbbells)
  • Bicep Curl (with dumbbells)
  • Basic Plank

*If you are unfamiliar with these exercises, I recommend using ACE’s exercise library. Use it to familiarize yourself with proper form. (It’s very hard to find pictures that accurately depict these exercises. It’s even harder to take pictures of myself doing them!)

PSST! Don’t forget to sign up for my high-intensity interval training workout game! It aligns with the mixed interval protocol and is great for workouts on-the-go.

hiit for beginners - learn the basics of high intensity interval training

How To Create Your Own HIIT Workout Routine For Beginners

Anyone can design a great HIIT workout. (Since they can be performed quickly and without equipment.) To keep it simple, consider the original Tabata protocol. This involves using a 2:1 ratio of work-to-rest. That means that you can “work” for 20 seconds and rest for 10.

But, if you are a true beginner, you are likely to work at a slightly lower intensity. If this is the case, I recommend doubling the work-to-rest time. Make your high-intensity work last 40 seconds, while your active recovery lasts 20 seconds.

Then, simply repeat for the desired length of time or number of circuits. To do this, choose 2 exercises that you are confident doing at a high intensity. Then, choose 2 exercises that you can confidently do at a slower pace. You will use these for your “active recovery.”

Next, alternate between exercises. Choose one “hard” exercise at a high exertion level, and an “easy” exercise at a lower level. Here’s what it could look like if you had 2 “hard” exercises and 2 “easy exercises:

Simple HIIT Example
  • Exercise 1 (High Intensity, 40 seconds)
  • Exercise 2 (Low Intensity, 20 seconds)
  • Repeat Set Twice (for a total of 120 seconds)
  • Exercise 3 (High Intensity, 40 seconds)
  • Exercise 4 (Low Intensity, 20 seconds)
  • Repeat Set Twice (for an additional 120 seconds)

This example brings us to the classic, four-minute Tabata protocol. However, getting the results we want may require a little more. Most beginners aren’t typically reaching the level of exertion that brings us quickly to exhaustion. To make the most of it, simply extend your workout just a little. You can either complete more sets of the same exercises or add more exercises. You can also increase your work-to-rest ratio. For example, try making work time 60 seconds and rest time 30. It’s up to you!

Where to Find HIIT Workouts For Beginners

Pinterest is always a good place to find workout ideas. But it doesn’t always feature true HIIT-inspired workouts. It certainly doesn’t always feature workouts created by personal trainers. My suggestion is to glean ideas from Pinterest. Then you might be able to create your own HIIT workouts later.

However, I recommend starting with trainer-designed workouts. As far as finding HIIT workouts to try yourself, this is the best way to go. Here are a few workouts to check out:

Upper Body HIIT For Beginners
Lower Body HIIT Workouts For Beginners
Total Body HIIT For Beginners

I hope that reading this post has helped you understand HIIT with confidence. So go forth and give it a try! Don’t forget to let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below!

Looking for more? Try MyFitnessPal’s HIIT workout routine for beginners.

*Lewis-McCormick, Irene. The HIIT Advantage: High-Intensity Workouts for Women. Human Kinetics, 2016.


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