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Quick-Start Guide to High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

October 03, 2022 | Fitness and Training

If you’ve been doing your research and learning how to structure an effective workout program, you’ve likely come across the term high intensity interval training, otherwise known as HIIT.

High intensity interval training is a type of cardiovascular training that earns top marks for fat burning and improving overall fitness levels, in addition to saving you valuable time at the gym. Each HIIT routine cycles through multiple degrees of intensity in roughly 20-30 minutes per session. This means you can get a fantastic cardio routine knocked out relatively quickly.

Sounds great so far, right?  The only problem is that high intensity interval training isn’t for everyone. With the levels of intensity required for this form of cardio, if you’re new to cardiovascular training, or just coming back after an extended break or physical injury, you shouldn’t jump right into HIIT. Chance are, you aren’t quite at the level of physical conditioning needed to perform HIIT as intended. It’s okay though, you’ll get there.

As a temporary alternative to HIIT, I suggest putting these plans on hold for a bit and start by building a cardiovascular base level of conditioning with a little steady state cardio.

To get you pointed in the right direction, this guide will cover the basic fundamentals of steady state cardio and how to build a good steady state cardio program. Keep in mind that the following guide is intended for individuals whose ultimate goal is to build up to a HIIT program, and rapidly accelerate their level of cardiovascular fitness.

What is Steady State Cardio?

Steady state cardio training essentially consists of a single exercise, like running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, performed at a moderate level of intensity for an extended period of time.

As the name suggests, it’s “steady state,” meaning that, after a warmup, there are typically no increases or decreases in the speed or intensity in which you are working. Your heart rate and overall level of intensity stay relatively consistent for the duration of the routine.

The nice thing about steady state cardio training, unlike HIIT, is that it’s generally not overly taxing on the body, so you can feel comfortable performing a steady state routine every day, even while watching TV or reading a book.

With this being said, all beginners should make it a point to take two days off each week for rest and recovery. As you make progress and gain more experience and stamina, feel free to roll this back to as little as one day off each week.

Choosing Your Exercise for High Intensity Interval Training

Now that you have a fairly good idea of what steady state training is, do you know what type of cardio exercises you should be doing? As a general rule, since your end goal is to transition to high intensity interval training, it’s usually recommended that you perform steady state cardio using the same mode of activity that you plan to be doing when you make the switch. This consistency helps you gain the neuromuscular conditioning to continue performing the exercises correctly at higher intensities. Basically, it forces your brain to get comfortable with the routines at low intensities before moving onto more advanced levels.

For instance, if you plan to perform running sprints when you transition to HIIT, walking and/or jogging is a great exercise to begin performing with steady state cardio.

If you plan on riding a stationary bike during high intensity interval training, which happens to be my favorite, you’ll probably want to start with a similar form of exercise for steady state routines. This way, you get great transfer-over benefits as you make progress within your program.

I think you get the idea.

To mix things up a bit, cross-training is also a good form of exercise to try on occasion. Since steady state cardio can sometimes get a little repetitive and boring, it’s good practice to alternate between two modes of cardio to keep things interesting. As an added bonus, changing up your routines also helps prevent overuse injuries.

For instance, you might want to try jogging on some days, then hitting the bike on others. Or, perhaps you work an elliptical or rowing machine into the equation. As an added bonus, this variety will also help keep you mentally engaged as well.

In terms of the level of effort, I recommend sticking to right around a 5-7 (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most intense). You should feel like you have to exert a moderate level of effort.  Your heart rate should be significantly elevated and you should barely be able to maintain a conversation with someone next to you. If you feel like you would have trouble speaking because you’re so out of breath, slow down a bit. You’re likely working too hard and should scale back on your intensity.

Start Off Slowly

As you begin your routine, you’ll want to start off slowly. Depending on your current level of physical conditioning, this might simply mean going for a brisk 15-minute walk at first. After you’re able to walk for 15 minutes with ease, try walking for 20 or 25 minutes on your subsequent routines until you’re able to perform for at least 30 minutes, uninterrupted. Once you’ve reached this goal, it’s probably time to tweak the intensity. Try jogging for 15 minutes, then increase to 20 minutes, and so on.

Again, your ultimate goal is to build upon your cardiovascular capacity until you can last for at least 30 minutes straight, without stopping. Once you’ve reached that goal, start looking forward to graduating to HIIT.

Generally, if your goal is to simply be able to adequately perform HIIT, you don’t need to build up a cardio base that has you performing cardio routines for more than 30 minutes. After your body is conditioned to work moderately hard for 30 minutes straight,  you should feel comfortable with progressing onto high intensity interval trainin without a problem.

If, however, you’re the type of individual who enjoys endurance training and wants to make that an integral part of your program, feel free to increase your steady state cardio goals to 60 minutes, or even longer.

If optimal fat burning and conditioning are your primary objectives, you’ll get a better return on your investment by transitioning to HIIT once you can perform 30 minutes of steady state cardio, versus continuing steady state until you can reach a 60-minute goal. Basically, the sooner you switch over to the HIIT high gear, the better.

Progressing to High Intensity Interval Training

If you’re especially motivated to begin HIIT, you’ll probably want to make the switch from steady state as soon as you’ve hit that baseline 30-minute goal. The best way to move over to HIIT is a lot like your transition from sedentary to steady state, which was gradual. I know HIIT can be really exciting when you first get into it, but try to avoid diving in and attempting to do a bunch of high intensity sessions per week.  Start with one, and be sure to keep your steady state cardio in place on the non-HIIT days.

As you begin your HIIT programs, you might want to start off with only 3-5 intervals total, with each interval lasting 30-45 seconds and 90-120 seconds of rest in between. When you’re comfortable with 3-5 intervals, start upping that number to 5-7, then 7-9, and so on. At this point, I’m personally performing about 14-15 intervals per HIIT session, which easily fills a 30-minute training window.

Give your body time to adjust and adapt to the heightened level of training associated with HIIT. As you start feeling fitter and more capable, begin cranking up the level of intensity.

In general, you’ll want to focus on adding more intervals into your sessions until you’re hitting your total-time goal for your workouts, which should be at least 20 minutes. Once you’ve gained the cardiovascular capacity necessary, you can then focus on increasing the intensity of your intervals, which usually means decreasing the total length of each interval as well.

As you have probably figured out by now, HIIT is a great way to quickly build up your fitness and endurance levels. I’m a huge fan of HIIT. Personally, whenever I have the opportunity to squeeze cardio routines into my training schedule, I always default to HIIT sessions. After 14-15 intervals, I’m in and out of the gym in about 30 minutes, and feeling like a million bucks. When you’re ready to start incorporating HIIT into your fitness plans, too, the time you spend working up to it with steady state cardio will be time well spent. Guaranteed.

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