Essential Elements of HIIT for Beginners

Towards a Healthy Mind & Body

essential elements of HIIT

High Intensity Interval Training is very much in vogue and for good reason. It’s great for weight loss and strength, while improving overall health. Here are some essential elements of HIIT that you need to get right from the start.


Keep It Simple

One thing you will notice if you read a few articles on HIIT is that there can appear to be a whole language associated with interval training. There can also seem to be a lot of disagreement about how it should be done properly.

Don’t get caught up in this. There are some technical terms, mostly associated with how the ideas developed. You don’t really need to know about this categorisation.

And the apparent differences in opinions as to how HIIT should be done have more to do with the fact that it is a very flexible approach to exercise. It can be used by everyone from beginners to top athletes.

Plus a huge range of exercises can be included. These can include bodyweight, TRX, weights, running, cycling, and all manner of aerobic and stretching movements.

The key point about HIIT is the distinctive timing of the routine: short bursts of high intensity activity followed by short periods of rest.

This is the case irrespective of your level of ability. Get this right and all else will follow.

So the first thing you should learn is to keep it simple. HIIT works because of its basic structure. But having said this, there are some essential elements of HIIT that you should know and follow.


Remember These Essential Elements of HIIT

1. Start Slowly with Short Intervals

The core of HIIT is to alternate between the brief periods of intense activity and then rest. But what constitutes a brief period? And how much of your time should be given over to recovery.

With HIIT, less can be more. This is the case when starting but it is also relevant for all levels of ability. The important goal is not that the intense periods are long relative to the rest periods or that you work out for a prolonged period.

The goal is to ensure that you are able to give it all during the intense intervals and can continue to do so throughout the workout. The benefits arise from the intensity and the intervals should be enough to allow you to recover sufficiently to give it all in the next interval.

If you are not doing this, you are not doing HIIT. You are just doing a short workout.

It’s perfectly fine for the rest period to be 2 or 3 or more times as long as the interval for a beginner. As you get better you can adjust this and aim for the intervals to be twice as long as the rest periods after a number of months.

So, when starting, it’s not only allowable, but is recommended, that you might go all out in intense exercise for 20 seconds, and then recover for 40 to 60 seconds.

This might not seem like enough at the start of your first session. Don’t be fooled. It will seem a lot 10 minutes later if you are giving it everything.

So start with timings that are within your ability, then build up slowly. This will give you the benefits of HIIT – because you will be able to do it – along with reducing the risk of injury and preventing your body from burning out.

You’re never going to get to 60 seconds of intensity followed by 30 seconds of recovery. So put this way of thinking out of your mind.


2. Keep the Workout Short

How long is your typical workout? It depends of course on what is involved. If it’s a run it might be a couple of hours, weights an hour, and an aerobic-type class, such as spinning, perhaps a bit less.

With HIIT you are working with a very different time scale. At the start, your total workout, including the recovery periods, should be 10 to 12 minutes. Add warm-up and cool-down to this and you’re still under 20 minutes.

After a few weeks you can build up to 15 to 20 for your routine. Don’t even think about 30 minutes at this stage.

If you go for too long a workout you will either safe something to be able to keep going or your performance will fall considerably after 15 minutes or so.

This is the opposite of what you should be doing with HIIT. Short and intense is the essential requirement for a HIIT workout.


3. Warming-up is an Essential Element of HIIT

If you go and just start doing your exercise routine without warming up you will not get the benefits. You increase the risk of injury and your body will take time to get up to performance level. Plus, your recovery will take longer.

This is particularly the case with HIIT as you need to push your body well beyond its usual level of performance, and beyond where it feels comfortable right from the very first minute.

Once you start, there’s no time for taking it easy to allow your muscles to warm up. You must be warmed up before you start with your body ready for action. So, a proper warm-up – and cool-down – are essential elements of HIIT.

Also, don’t forget the HIIT is a full-body workout. This means you must warm up all your major muscles groups including those in the upper torso, core and lower body.

Be sure to use dynamic stretches. If you are unsure what this means have a look at the free online course ‘Start Stretching’. This short course will introduce you to proper stretching techniques that are a basic first step towards undertaking a fitness program.

And don’t ignore your joints in in your warmup. Get flexibility into your neck, shoulders, wrists, hips, legs, and ankles with circular movements.

essential elements of HIIT

It’s also a good idea to design your HIIT routine so that you move easily from the warmup to the exercises. Do this by making a light cardio-type exercise the last one in your warm-up. A light ‘on the spot’ jog for 20 seconds or arm swings would be appropriate.

Then, ensure that the first exercise is a high cardio move that will get your heart and breath up to speed quickly. Examples include skipping, high knees or jumping jacks.

A similar approach should be used when deciding on the final exercise in the program as it should prepare you for the cool-down stretches. So, perhaps finish with a stationary exercise such as sit-ups before moving to your cool-down after a short recovery period.


4. Speed and Intensity

Performing exercises at a greater pace than usual with rapid movement between repetitions are essential to doing HIIT properly. This means there are two requirements for a HIIT program.

First, the exercises need to be simple to remember, easy to perform and easy to move between. You must not include an exercise that requires you to move your location any distance or that requires specific equipment beyond very basic equipment.

So, avoid exercise machines as much as possible or anything that might need you to change a setting. Restrict the equipment to basics such as a mat, small free weights (dumbbells and kettle bells), battle ropes or a skipping rope. Basic machines such as a stationary bicycle, a bench or a step are also fine.

For a starter, the best equipment is your own body. Bodyweight exercises are big in HIIT.

Second, you need exercises that you can perform more quickly than might be comfortable. Burpees, mountain climbers, and jumping jacks are good examples.

However, it is a good idea to include at least one slow exercise such as a crunch or sit-up into a routine.

In general, exercises such as yoga balance poses, wall sits and fixed or bar weights are not great in HIIT as it is difficult, or dangerous, to try to do them quickly.


5. Always Prioritise Your Form

Your form means how well you are doing each of the exercises, that is, your technique. There are different aspects to this depending on the exercise in question.

If you lose form you lose the benefits and you greatly increase the risk of injury, particularly if you are really pushing yourself. Be warned. Focus on your technique.

Speed and intensity are central to HIIT, but you should not try to increase the intensity of your workout by losing form. In this, HIIT is no different to any other approach to exercise.

Maintaining proper form, and trying to improve in this regard, is actually more important than the number of reps you can manage or any increase in this regard. Always monitor your form and measure your progress firstly in terms of how well you are doing each exercise.

You are better off not exercising if you’re going to do it with bad technique. This is the case irrespective of your experience of level of ability. “Form first, speed second” should be your motto. Otherwise, don’t touch HIIT.


6. Stay Within your Fitness Level

If you’re taking up HIIT for the first time, or starting back to exercise after a long layoff, be careful to match your routine to your current fitness level.

This starts with the goals you set yourself. Unrealistic goals are a sure road to loss of motivation and injury.

The fact that HIIT workouts emphasise intensity make this doubly important. Pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable is part of the idea. But if you push too much, too hard, too early you will greatly increase the chance of injury and burnout.

It’s a fine balance. The key is to listen to your body and always remain willing to readjust your training as needed. This is far more important than following slavishly a set workout or program from an instructor.

A further important point is that when beginning HIIT, and for the first couple of months, keep a close eye on your heart rate. Know your appropriate target heart rate and ease back of stop altogether if you need to.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t reach a target, provided you did your best. This is not a failure and should disappoint no one. If you don’t make a target, chances are the target was incorrectly set. Revise it and start again.

Remember that expectations should always be flexible. Keeping this rule is not optional.


7. Follow Planned but Varying Routines

You must plan and know what you are going to do in advance. With HIIT you do not have the time to stop and think ‘What will I do next?’ You are almost on auto-pilot as you push yourself and then recover.

This will not be easy at the start, but good, well planned routines are essential.

One of the best things about HIIT is that such a wide range of exercises can be used in a routine. It is not the precise exercise you do that makes a workout a HIIT workout. It is the way you do the exercise in short bursts.

This means that you can vary your workouts, and it is a good idea to do so. By using different routines, perhaps alternating between two or three that you have planned, you ensure that you will be training all parts of your body and not favouring a few parts as can be the case if you stick to just running or spinning or weights only.

Varying the routine will also keep it interesting as you find new ways of addressing particular problem areas. This will also be important in keeping up your motivation.


8. Monitor Yourself, and Your Progress

You need to monitor yourself during HIIT in a way that is not usual in most exercise programs. You should also try to monitor your progress.

Use an interval timer

Rapid movement between exercises and between activity and rest periods is central to HIIT. You need to get the timings right. So you’re going to need some way to do this.

If you are working with a trainer or in a class then this is already sorted for you. Timing will be their responsibility.

But if you are on your own, sort this out beforehand. A watch or wall clock will do for a start, but if you are in the middle of a 20 second intense activity period, or in your 10th such period in a routine, it will become difficult to keep the timings right if you have to keep glancing at a clock.

Some sort of timing device will be required and there are devices that you can set for specific program lengths on the market. You just need to set it once before you begin, press start, and get going. It will let you know when to take a recovery period and when to get going on the next exercise.

essential elements of HIIT

Monitor your Reps

There are 4 four basic ways you can increase the intensity of HIIT once you get going on a programme:

Increase the length of the activity intervals, both absolutely and relative to the length of the rest period;

Increase the weight used in any exercises where weights are involved or increase the range of movement in others;

Increase the number of times you repeat a movement (the number of reps) in an activity period without increasing the length of the period; and

Introduce exercises that require a higher level of ability to perform.

You can do all of these but increasing the number of reps is the easiest to apply. It is also the only one where you can make a change once you have begun the routine – you can try to speed up at any time – and it can be applied to almost any exercise you will be doing.

Increasing the number of requires that you monitor what you are doing and so it is a good idea to get into the habit of doing so right from the start. Then have a target for each exercise interval in your mind.

Don’t be obsessive about counting. But do be aware of how much you are managing on each exercise and how much you can do.

Add Weight

Simply adding some weight is probably the easiest way to make your workout harder, but you need to plan this in advance.

You can choose heavier equipment, body-weights or higher resistance levels on any equipment.

You can also be flexible such as having higher weights on the first circuit of a routine.

Use the ‘Talk Test’

HIIT is about pushing yourself to your limit for a short time. Everything you have – energy, strength, willpower and attention – should be going into the workout.

If you can speak more than a couple of words such that you could hold even the briefest of conversations and be understood while doing the routine you are not giving it everything.

That’s quite a target. It’s the ultimate way to monitor your input. It’s also what HIIT requires.


9. Find Sources of Motivation

This applies to any type of exercise. One of the benefits of HIIT is that it is fairly quick acting in the sense that you will soon see results in terms of your ability and moving towards your goals.

But for real results, consistency is the key. Plus, always remember that HIIT is part of an exercise program that should be supported by dietary and lifestyle choices.

You need motivation for all of these, but you may need additional motivation for HIIT due to the need to push yourself beyond your comfort levels.

You have various options. One is to find a partner. The interval nature of the routine means that you can work with a partner on alternative activity and rest intervals. That will certainly make you keep to the timings and such programs are easy to design.

A second motivator is to get your mood up. Music is the best way. Just make sure that the music you choose is upbeat and motivational, not just what you like to listen to.

If these are not working try joining a HIIT class or booking an instructor. For a complete beginner this can be a good idea as you will learn technique better and get to a level where you feel more confident going it alone.


10. Don’t Overdo it on HIIT

Give it everything during a HIIT routine, without injuring yourself of course. Then allow your body to recover.

This does not mean taking the evening off before going to HIIT again the next day.

It means that you should not do HIIT sessions more than twice a week and once is probably enough for a start. Even if you are already fit or used to HIIT, you should not be doing it on consecutive days.

There’s no point in breaking this rule. Your body will not be able to perform, and you will just be doing a short workout poorly. There’s no gain and you will not be able to do a proper HIIT session.

This also means that HIIT is always going to be just one part of your fitness routine. It is not a complete approach to fitness.

HIIT should be used in conjunction with other approaches to fitness. These should include other cardio activities – spinning or running, for example – and weights/resistance exercises.

It may seem that you are using similar muscles, or even doing similar exercises.

But this is not the point. The essential element of HIIT that needs to be avoided on successive days is the intensity of the short periods.

essential elements of HIIT


Beginner’s HIIT Workouts: Weeks 1 to 6

Below are two sample routines that are suitable for beginners and for use with increasing intensity as you progress. The idea is to start within your abilities and increase slowly.

Beyond week 6, alternate the routines and increase both the length of the exercise intervals and the overall length of the routine. Each activity and rest interval should total 1 minute. The rest interval includes getting prepared for the next activity interval.

It’s a good idea to alternate the routines each week to avoid boredom and unbalanced muscle development. Remember also: don’t do any more than 2 HIIT session per week and do other routines on at least 2 other days.

Beyond week 6, continue to do 3 circuits and consider introducing an additional exercise to each routine and/or modifying the one you find easiest to make it more challenging. Aim to get to 40 second of activity and 20 seconds of rest after week 8. But don’t go beyond 25 minutes in total, excluding the time allocated to warm-up and cool-down.

Follow the following timetable:

Routine Number of Circuits Activity Interval Rest Intervals Total Time Ex. Warm-up & Cool-down


Week 1 A 2 15 45 12
Week 2 A 2 20 40 12
Week 3 B 2 15 45 14
Week 4 B 2 20 40 14
Week 5 A 3 20 40 18
Week 6 B 3 20 40 21

Routine A:

1. Skipping

2. Standing Squat

3. Burpees

4. Standing Dumbbell Row

5. Mountain Climber

6. Triceps Dips

Routine B:

1. Standing Sprint

2. Squat with Overhead Press

3. Lateral Burpees

4. Lunges

5.Jumping Jacks

6. High to Forearm Plank

7. Walkout on Hands


Download a 1 page printable version of this program here.


Final Note

It’s easy to see why HIIT has become so popular. By alternating bursts of high-intensity work with rest periods HIIT will enable you to increase your body’s ability to burn fat, boost your metabolism, improve your cardiovascular fitness, and build muscle.

All this in a short period of time, without specialised equipment and using easy to learn exercises. Plus, you can constantly change your routines to keep it interesting.

But you need to learn the basic essentials of HIIT if you are to do it right.

Learn more about HIIT and fitness from this free video course.





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