HIIT Workouts and Guide for Beginners

HIIT Workouts and Guide for Beginners

By Christina Macdonald Personal Trainer
Workout by Mark Hatfield Conditioning Coach

Perfect for the time poor, High Intensity Interval Training helps you achieve maximum exercise benefits in the shortest amount of time. Coach Mark Hatfield and PT Christina Macdonald explain how it works and provide workouts for beginners starting at different fitness levels.

HIIT training is a popular choice for many people seeking to get in shape without committing to long exercise sessions. It burns fat and offers variety. Sounds like the perfect choice for those of us stuck in a rut with our weight loss. While it is effective, you need to approach it sensibly to avoid overdoing it and getting injured.

A HIIT workout means doing several bursts of high intensity exercise interspersed with lower, active recovery periods where you just about get your breath back before going hard at it again.

Why do HIIT?

It’s very time efficient. HIIT takes less time to complete than moderate intensity aerobic exercise, yet offers the same health benefits. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise versus 75 mins of high intensity per week. Working harder in a shorter time-frame is clearly going to be more time efficient.

A 2010 study published in the journal, Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental, showed that, over a 24-hour period, you will use more energy from fat stores during HIIT training than in traditional moderate/steady state intensities. Quality over quantity seems to stack up well. Another study published in Plos ONE found that just one minute of high intensity training during a normally moderate intensity session can boost endurance and overall health.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, HIIT in a circuit-style of training offers the same benefits to the health of your heart and lungs as if you were doing the same duration of traditional cardiovascular, moderate intensity exercise.

When you work at a higher intensity, you’re burning more calories in total compared to a moderate intensity. By raising your heart rate, over time you increase your stroke volume, increasing the amount of blood the heart can push out in one beat.

The elasticity in your arteries improves, making them more flexible, helping to decrease blood pressure and you even get a little extra calorie burn, sometimes referred to as EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) after you’ve finished exercising. Recent studies show this is around 10% of how much you burned in the workout, so don’t reach for the ice-cream just yet but every little counts.

Is HIIT for you?

While there are lots of benefits to HIIT training, approach with caution as you’re exercising at high intensities. Before starting a HIIT session, establish a good base level of fitness.

Broadly speaking, you should be able to comfortably complete 30 to 40 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (fast walking, cycling, jogging) where you’re breathing heavier, able to respond to questions with short sentences and feel like you have a little in reserve.

We recommend starting at the Beginners Level 1 workout if you are not currently exercising regularly.

Your heart and lungs will be challenged much more than during steady state training. It's a good idea to visit your GP for a health check if you are starting an exercise programme for the first time, or haven't exercised for a long time.

If you have any health conditions which affect your circulatory system such as elevated blood pressure, angina, diabetes or any other condition where stressing the heart should be avoided, seek guidance from a medical professional first.

Never compromise technique. If you haven’t done these exercises before, do them first independently of the HIIT session so you’re confident you’re doing it right.

Some of the exercises in our workouts may need to be modified so you can keep going. We’ll give you some examples of how you can tweak the technique so you can continue or start from and build up over the weeks as your strength and fitness improve.

How often should you do a HIIT session?

Just starting out? Try 1-2 sessions/week with 2-3 days’ recovery in between.

To keep your body in tip-top training condition, complement your interval training with lower intensity exercises such as swimming, walking or yoga.

HIIT Hints and Tips

  • Have a timer handy – Most circuits you’re exercising for time so you’ll know when to move onto the next exercise.
  • Have a bottle of water with you - You’ll definitely be sweating so stay hydrated
  • Play music – When it gets tough, having your favourite tracks can spur you on
  • Beware of the munchies – HIIT training can leave you feeling hungry so plan ahead and have a healthy snack ready

Instructions and Guidance for the Workouts

We’ve devised two HIIT workouts using exercises you would typically include in a resistance training workout. This means you’ll burn fat and tone up at the same time.

These exercises have been arranged in a circuit sequence. Complete each move for the number of seconds shown on the appropriate chart, followed by the recovery interval.

Use the recovery interval to either rest, or continue moving at lower intensity (eg marching or jogging on the spot) depending on how you're feeling.

Start the next exercise in the circuit as soon as the recovery time is up.

It’s important to warm up properly before you go in to your HIIT session. Think of it like going through the gears rather than stamping on the accelerator.

Doing some light cardio and/or dynamic mobility, using the movements from the circuit without the weights is a good place to start. 

Before you start the actual workout, you should feel warm, be breathing heavier and feel your heart rate is raised.

For beginners, once you start the actual workout you should feel like you're working at a 6 - 7 out of 10 on the effort scale.

Beginners Workout - 3 Levels

The goal of this session is to complete the exercises in a sequence, one after the other. The exercises themselves are relatively simple and this is for a specific reason. You can focus on working at the right intensity rather than trying to remember how to do the exercise.

Beginners Level 1

  Weeks
1 + 2
Weeks
3 + 4
Weeks
5 + 6
Work (secs) 15 20 30
Rest (secs) 45 40 30
Circuits 1 1 1

Beginners Level 2

  Weeks
1 + 2

 

Weeks
3 + 4
Weeks
5 + 6

 

Work (secs) 30 40 45
Rest (secs) 30 20 15
Circuits 2 2 2
Rest between circuits 1-2 mins 1-2 mins 1-2 mins

Beginners Level 3

  Weeks
1 + 2
Weeks
3 + 4
Weeks
5 + 6
Work (secs) 45 45 45
Rest (secs) 15 15 15
Circuits 2 3 3
Rest between circuits 1-2 mins 1-2 mins 1-2 mins

You perform each exercise continuously for the 'Work' phase, and recover/prepare for the next exercise in the rest phase. Work phase and rest phase total 60 seconds for each exercise. There are seven exercises in total so that gives you 7 mins.

If you are using a weight, start light. On most exercises, you'll be completing 10-20 repetitions in the 45 seconds and it soon adds up. You can always go heavier next time.

Session Structure

Intensity:

To start with aim for a 6-7 out of 10 on the effort scale. Try to maintain the tempo of the movement from start to finish with the last 3-4 repetitions of the exercise feeling tough.

Duration:

Leading in very gently (if you've not exercised much before). We recommend starting at level 1, which would give you a workout time of 7 minutes (plus warm up).

If you've been doing moderate intensity exercise regularly already, you could start at level 2 or 3, giving a workout length of 14-21 minutes.

Circuit Order:

1. Press Up (from feet or knees)

(Chest, Back of Arms, Shoulders, Abdominals)

  • • Kneel down on the floor.
  • Place hands level with chest, just wider than shoulders.
  • Keep your body tight and straight.
  • Imagine squeezing a balloon between your elbows and ribs as you lower your chest.
  • Push the floor away and squeeze those balloons as you straighten the arms

Making it easier: Bring the knees to the floor or place your hands on a raised surface like a step or a bench.

2. Reverse Lunge to High Knee

(Thighs, Glutes)

  • Stand tall and take a step back.
  • Bend the knees to lower towards the floor.
  • Push the front foot in to the floor and drive the back knee up.
  • Swap legs on each repetition.

Making it easier: If it starts to get tough, reduce the bend in the knee and gradually build up as you get stronger.

3. Bent Over Row

(Back, Shoulders, Biceps)

  • Push your hips back and soften your knees as if looking over a cliff.
  • Keep this shape and pull the weights up and your shoulder blades back.
  • The balloons between your arm and ribs should burst on each repetition as you squeeze.

Making it easier: If you feel your lower back rounding or your chest sagging, stand tall again, deep breaths and reset your position.

4. Goblet Squat

(Thighs, Glutes, Back)

  • Grasp the dumbbell/kettlebell and keep it close to your chest.
  • Position the feet at a width that feels comfortable to squat, usually a little wider than hips.
  • Crush the balloons between your arms and ribs.
  • Bend the knees and hips, aiming your elbows towards the top of your knees
  • Keep crushing the balloons and push in to the floor to get back to the top.

Making it easier: If it starts to get tough, reduce the bend in the knees and gradually build up as you get stronger.

5. Shoulder Press

(Shoulders, Back of Arms)

  • Hold the dumbbells at shoulder height, gently squeezing the balloons between the backs of your arms and ribs.
  • Tighten your body and push the dumbbells up over head.
  • Slowly lower back down.

Making it easier: If your shoulders start to get tired, at the bottom, dip the knees a little and quickly straighten them as if you were jumping to help launch the dumbbells up.

6. Kettlebell/Dumbbell Swing

(Back of Thighs, Glutes, Back)

  • Start tall with your arms squashed against your ribs.
  • Bump the weight forwards with your hips.
  • As it comes back, quickly push the hips back to absorb the weight.
  • Quickly stand tall to propel the weight up.
  • Remember to keep a little squeeze all the time on your balloons so they don’t float away.

Making it easier: The shape of your body and timing on a swing can be tricky. Don’t swing but simply raise and lower the weight by pushing your hips back and standing tall again. This is sometimes called a Romanian Deadlift and is great for learning how to make the right shape before adding in the momentum of the swing.

7. Jogging/High Knees on the Spot

(Calves, Thighs)

  • Alternate lifting each foot off the floor.
  • Keep tall through the movement and find a rhythm you can maintain.
  • Be careful not to hunch over of pulling the knees high.

Making it easier: If you start with high knees, remember you can always go lower if you’ve gone too hard, too soon.

Harder HIIT Session

Now that you have a base level of HIIT fitness, it’s time to take things up a notch.

You’re going to be working for less time at the higher intensity because that intensity is going up.

The exercises are similar but we are now asking you to produce a bit more force, giving you that increase in intensity. Practise these moves first to make sure you’ve fully mastered technique at a higher intensity. Increase weights slightly too.

Each exercise will be completed for approximately 30 secs with 30 secs active recovery. During the active recovery, the intensity will decrease. Marching or jogging on the spot for that 30 secs so you feel your breath coming back should mean you can then move on to the next bout of high intensity. There are seven exercises, two work each side independently so there will be a note in the instructions to swap to the other side once the 30 secs are up. In total, each round is 8 mins.

Session Structure

Intensity:

8+/10 – Aim to maintain the tempo of the movement from start to finish with the last 3-4 repetitions of the exercise feeling tough.

Duration:

30 secs per exercise – 30 secs jogging/marching on the spot

Circuits:

Aim to complete 2 circuits of all the exercises in weeks 1&2 and 3 circuits in weeks 3 onwards. Rest for 1-2 mins in between the circuits.

  Weeks
1 + 2
Weeks
3 + 4
Weeks
5 + 6
Work (secs) 30 30 30
Rest (secs) 30 30 30
Circuits 2 3 3
Rest between circuits 1-2 mins 1-2 mins 1-2 mins

If the work duration of 30 secs feels like too much, reduce it to 20 secs and increase the active recovery time to 40 secs. As the weeks progress, increase the work and reduce the rest by 5-10 secs. Remember, you know how you feel so if you’re starting to work much harder than the 8/10, slow down or regress the exercise a little.

Circuit Order:

1. Lateral Press Up

(Chest, Back of Arms, Shoulders, Abdominals)

  • Kneel down on the floor on all fours.
  • Hands level with chest, close together.
  • Keep your body tight and straight with feet close together.
  • Step the hands and feet out to the side so they are just wider than hips and shoulders.
  • Imagine squeezing a balloon between your elbows and ribs as you lower your chest.
  • Push the floor away and squeeze those balloons as you straighten the arms and bring the hands and feet back together in one movement.
  • Alternate the sides.

Making it easier: Bring the knees to the floor and remember the strongest part of the exercise is with your arms straight at the top. Catch your breath here.

2. Reverse Woodchop

(Abdominals, Back, Thighs)

  • Soften the knees and hips so the dumbbell sits outside your thigh.
  • Push in to the floor with your foot, drive your hip forwards and bring the dumbbell up above the opposite shoulder.
  • Allow the trailing leg to rotate – Think of what a golfer looks like at the end of their swing.
  • Complete 30 secs on one side and switch straight to the other side before going into active recovery.

Making it easier: Keep the dumbbell closer to you. This reduces the amount of force you need to produce.

3. Squat to Hand Walk

(Thighs, Abdominals, Chest, Back of Arms)

  • Bend the knees and hips to squat down.
  • Reach for the floor and walk the hands out until your body is straight and arms are beneath your chest, squeezing your balloons.
  • Walk the hands back so you are sitting in your squat and stand back up

Making it easier: If you struggle to squat low enough, use the end of a bench or step. Squat down behind it, place your hands on the bench and walk the feet back instead.

4. Reciprocal Row

(Back, Shoulders, Biceps, Abdominals)

  • Push your hips back and soften your knees as if looking over a cliff.
  • Keep this shape and pull one of the weights up towards your ribs.
  • As you lower that one down, pull the other one up so you have one continuous movement.
  • The balloons between your arm and ribs should burst on each repetition as you squeeze.

Making it easier: This can be hard on the breathing so you can alternate one up, one down to make it a little easier.

5. Lateral Speed Skater

(Thighs, Glutes)

  • Place a marker on the floor as a point to step over.
  • Find your balance on one leg and squat down.
  • Push in to the floor and step quickly over to the other leg, bending the knee and hip to sink down.

Making it easier: Balancing is hard. Use the back foot on the floor to help you stabilise. As you get better, speed up or add a little jump over the marker.

6. Dumbbell Thruster

(Thighs, Glutes, Shoulders, Back of Arms)

  • Hold the dumbbells close to your shoulders, elbows squeezing your balloons.
  • Squat down and push in to the floor to stand up quickly.
  • Carry that movement in to the dumbbells and push them overhead.
  • Bring the dumbbells down and squat in one, fluid motion.

Making it easier: The depth of your squat plays a big part in how hard this is so make it smaller to make it easier.

7. Kettlebell/Dumbbell Single Arm Swing

(Back of Thighs, Glutes, Back)

  • Start tall with your arm squashed against your ribs.
  • Bump the weight forwards with your hip.
  • As it comes back, rotate your arm so your thumb points behind and quickly push the hips back to absorb the weight.
  • Quickly stand tall to propel the weight up and finish with your thumb pointing up.
  • Remember to keep a little squeeze on your balloon so it doesn’t float away!
  • Complete 30 secs on both sides before going into active recovery.

Making it easier: Unlike the previous swing, you’re holding the weight with one hand now so you might need to lower the weight a little.

Mark Hatfield @fitnessxl is the Fitness Acadamy Trainer for Nuffield Health where he trains personal trainers to be their best. He is has been training clients for the past 19 years and is the owner of Fluid Coaching.

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