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Whatever your exercise of choice may be, chances are pretty good you’ve heard of the term high intensity interval training, or HIIT. But what is HIIT really, and how can you use it to make the most out of your workouts?

Like many workout protocols in the fitness field, there are some misconceptions about what HIIT really is, and what it can do for your fitness routine. Here’s what you need to know about this popular type of training.

What is HIIT?

There’s a lot more to high intensity interval training than its name alone suggests. In fact, HIIT refers to a very specific and particular type of training—and it’s possible to do interval training without actually doing a real HIIT workout.

The hallmark of HIIT is repeated, extremely hard bouts of work interspersed with periods of recovery. During your work intervals, you’ll be challenging yourself nearly to your max.

It’s the opposite of going for a long, easy run where you ration your energy in order to sustain the activity for longer.

When your body is going all-out during true HIIT, it relies on your anaerobic pathways (breaking down glucose without oxygen) to produce the energy it needs to fuel you. This provides an immediate supply of energy, but the amount is very limited—which means the length of time you can sustain that max effort is quite short.

What are the benefits of HIIT?

With true HIIT, you’ll maximize your explosive performance and speed.

There are other benefits too, including increases in VO2 max (how much oxygen you can use during exercise) and improvements in insulin sensitivity (how responsive your cells are to insulin), blood pressure, and cardiovascular function.

While true HIIT might look a little different from the HIIT you’re used to doing, you’ll still reap many similar benefits from that modified HIIT. With longer work intervals—even if they aren’t at your max work—you’ll still get some good cardiovascular benefits, as well as improvements in strength and muscle endurance.

Because HIIT spikes your heart rate during those hard efforts, it can also help contribute to weight loss (if that’s your goal), since you’ll be burning more calories per minute than you would with lower-intensity work.

What workouts work with HIIT?

You’re probably most familiar with HIIT as a cardio workout, and it’s true that it does lend itself well to cardio-based sprints, whether you’re running, on a bike, or on a rower.

But you can use HIIT in strength-based workouts too. HIIT routines that involve bodyweight work or added weight, such as kettlebells, medicine balls, or dumbbells, will work your muscles while spiking your heart rate.

 

What are some mistakes or safety issues to avoid?

When you add weight, technique is really important. If you’re going all-out and your form is off, you can put a lot of pressure on certain muscles and joints, which can lead to injury. That’s why it’s important to make sure you can do an exercise with proper form at an easy tempo before kicking it up to high intensity.

A proper warm-up is also crucial, whether you’ll be doing cardio-based HIIT or strength-based HIIT.

Scheduling a long HIIT session is also a mistake when talking about true HIIT—when you’re going all-out, you’re not going to be able to sustain that for a 45-minute class. Instead, a true HIIT workout would look something like this: eight all-out, 20-second sprints, with one minute of rest in between. That means your HIIT protocol (not counting warm-up and cool-down) would be just over 10 minutes.

And whether you’re doing true HIIT or modified interval training, don’t underestimate the importance of recovery: Prioritizing frequent, intense workouts while neglecting rest days can not only lead to diminishing performance returns with your fitness, but can also leave you open to injury, fatigue, or burnout. Limit your HIIT to one or two workouts a week, and make sure you’re balancing them with plenty of easy workouts—as well as at least one straight recovery day per week.

 

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