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THE FITNESS WORLD is so full of acronyms that you might sometimes feel you need to pack a glossary in your gym bag to decode one term from the next. If what you’re looking for is a style of workout that will challenge you to give all-out effort without exercising for hours, however, you only need to understand one four-letter term: HIIT. High Intensity Interval Training allows you to pair hard-hitting exercise periods with short rest breaks for a wide range of health benefits.

You’ll find this style of training everywhere, from boutique fitness studios to big box gyms that offer group classes. Given its popularity and prevalence, with each practitioner aiming to put their own spin on the concept, the public understanding of what constitutes a HIIT workout has become blurred.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, HIIT is defined as a style of training utilizing short, intense work periods performed between 80 and 95 percent of a person’s maximum heart rate. The intensity allows you to burn more calories in a shorter period of time than you would following other protocols. HIIT training can be programmed with all kinds of exercises, making it scalable to different fitness levels and incorporate diverse styles of training (no, it doesn’t have to all be burpees).

HIIT’s popularity stems partly from its efficiency. Unless you’re a professional athlete, you likely don’t have the time to spend two to three hours in the gym. Lack of time is cited as one of the main barriers to fitness, according to the CDC—and HIIT offers a shorter period than other protocols. “A lot of people are super busy, and can’t allot an hour in the gym. [HIIT training] is a good way to get a bang for your buck, and spend less time,” says Jahkeen Washington, C.P.T., owner of JTW Fit and the Harlem Kettlebell Club. You don’t need close to an hour for an effective HIIT session; even 20 to 30 minutes of focused work can be more than enough for the most well-conditioned exercisers.

HIIT sessions are also highly customizable, making them easy to tailor to your personal schedule and preferred training style. From running and strength training to rowing and boxing, there’s a HIIT workout that will work for you. The training protocol is “something that’s scalable is easier for people to utilize,” Washington says.

You might still be a bit confused about what HIIT actually is, and why the workouts are so popular. Here’s what you need to know about HIIT before you go back to the gym for your next session.

What Is HIIT?

HIIT stands for “High Intensity Interval Training” (which makes one of the most popular phrases used to describe it, “HIIT training,” totally redundant). You shouldn’t necessarily think about HIIT as being any one style of exercise, like running or weight lifting. Instead, HIIT is more of a framework, through which trainers can build out different routines depending on the equipment on hand, the experience of the participants, and the amount of time and level of difficulty desired.

One consistent thread through any HIIT program, however, is that workouts are composed of short periods of intense work, then a subsequent period of rest or active recovery. To be most effective, “Intensity” is the most important part of the HIIT equation—participants should be working near or at peak effort during the intervals, then backing off during the breaks. Since this high level of effort can pump up the heart rate, some trainees use HIIT protocols as the cardio component of their exercise routines instead of low intensity steady state training, (LISS) like long runs or cycling.

What’s Most Important for HIIT Workouts

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Again, HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training, which refers to the short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods that make up the protocol. HIIT is quick and anything but boring, as its exacting work-to-rest ratios make it arguably the most time-efficient way to exercise and burn calories. You can use the HIIT protocol to build your entire workout, or apply it to just a few sets to create super-charged finishers.

However you do it, what makes HIIT work is the intensity. You’re going hard, typically as hard as you can, for a short period of time, then resting for a length of time that’ll let you recover to go hard once again. Work-to-rest ratio is frequently brought in when discussing HIIT, and there are several accepted ratios you should consider.

  • To improve aerobic fitness: intervals would typically involve a work to rest ratio or 1:1 or 1:2 (i.e. work for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds).
  • To train anaerobically (sport-specific training for power and explosiveness): rest intervals are often longer to allow for a more maximal effort, often at least a 1:5 ratio (i.e. work for 15 seconds, rest for 75 seconds). This is less commonly practiced in group fitness scenarios.

The Key to HIIT Workouts

The key to making HIIT work: The intensity. You can’t coast through your work periods when doing HIIT. The protocol is designed to give you chances to go hard, so you need to take advantage of those chances.

That means working hard, but it doesn’t mean going 100 percent to failure. If you’re completely new to exercise, don’t go truly all out all at once. Instead of 15 to 30-second intervals executed at near-100 percent intensity, intervals of one to three minutes at closer to 80 percent of maximum effort, followed by up to five minutes of lower intensity exercise, have also been shown effective for weight loss in sedentary populations.

In group fitness settings (and among far too many trainers) HIIT and “interval training” are often used interchangeably. Make no mistake: True HIIT requires you to be explosive and intense during your work period. Basic interval training, however, minus the high-intensity aspect, is what you see most on the group fitness scene. Work periods here are typically larger than rest periods, without the consideration for the level of effort expended.

The Primary Benefits of HIIT Workouts

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Fat Loss

One review looked at 13 different studies on 424 overweight and obese adults. It found that both HIIT and traditional moderate-intensity exercise can reduce weight and waist circumference.

Metabolic Rate Is Higher for Hours After

Some researchers have found that HIIT increases metabolism for hours after exercise even more than jogging and weight training. This is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC, informally called afterburn), a measurably increased rate of oxygen intake following strenuous activity.

Overall Health

HIIT is not just a tool to use to lean out. It can improve your overall health, too. A summary of 50 different studies found that HIIT reduces blood sugar levels. Further research shows it can reduce resting heart rate and blood pressure in overweight and obese individuals.

Why You Shouldn’t Do HIIT for Every Workout

This intense workout template is popular enough that it’s become shorthand for just about any type of boutique fitness class that features multiple exercises, different stations, and plenty of sweat. The term is bandied about so much that many people who have taken a HIIT class might not totally understand why they’re pushing so hard through the stop and start nature of the protocol, either.

That doesn’t stop HIIT from being a top choice for boutique gyms and fitness clubs—the workouts fit a ton of activity into a brief period, which is ideal for consumers looking for the most bang for their buck and trainers and gyms hoping to slot as many sessions into a schedule as possible.

That’s fine for gyms with class slots to schedule, but if your whole fitness routine is only made up of HIIT workout sessions, you need to take a step back and reassess what you’re doing. Aiming to add muscle? HIIT can be a great tool to diversify your training, but you won’t be able to make the most gains that way. And if you’re taking on any more than two or three HIIT workouts a week, you’re doing too much. You’ll either push yourself into overtraining if you go as hard as you should be for every session, since you won’t give yourself enough time to recover properly, or (more likely) you’ll fail to reach the effort threshold the workouts are designed around. Be smart about how and when you use HIIT.

Some Ways to Do HIIT Workouts

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So, wait, you’re still technically on that dreaded treadmill, right? Not necessarily. Here are some of the different types of equipment and training styles you can use as part of a HIIT protocol.

  • Bodyweight workouts
  • Strength training exercises (dumbbells, kettlebells, etc)
  • Treadmill sprints
  • Stationary bike sprints
  • Rower sprints
  • Ski-Erg sprints
  • Boxing rounds
  • Battle Ropes
  • Sled pushes and pulls

HIIT Workouts to Add to Your Training

Now that you know everything to know about HIIT, here are some HIIT workouts that can keep you off the treadmill (for the most part) and on a far more fun path to major fat-burn.

Bodyweight Beatdown

preview for Try the Brutal 5-Minute Beatdown Bodyweight Workout | Five Minutes of Hell | Men's Health Muscle

You don’t have access to equipment, and you’re low on time. Luckily, Ben Feiden, CFSC of Performance HQ has just the thing for you. This “quick and nasty” five-minute routine utilizes plenty of plyometrics to get the body and mind moving. All you need is you and a clock to get this full body burn in.

Warmup

10 seconds of work / no rest

  • Butt Kicks
  • High Knees
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Plank Up-Downs

Hell Circuit 1+2

Work for 20 seconds / rest for 10 seconds / repeat for 2 rounds

  • Air Squats
  • Alternating Jump Lunge
  • 2-Pushup Burpee

7th Circle of Hell Finisher

Work for 30 seconds / no rest / repeat for 2 rounds.

  • Jump Squat
  • Lateral Frogger

The 5-Minute Dumbbell Finisher

preview for The 5-Minute Dumbbell Hell Finisher Workout | Men’s Health Muscle

If you’re really short on time, all you need is 5 minutes to get a hellish workout in. Get ready to get your butt kicked by Jaimar Brown, C.P.T., of J. Malik Fitness in this installment of our 5 Minutes of Hell series. Grab one set of medium and one set of light dumbbells and cycle through the following five exercises for 45 seconds of work, and 15 seconds of rest for a quick and dirty full body workout.

1 set each / 45 seconds of work / 15 seconds of rest


The 5-Minute Interval Workout

preview for Try This Brutal 5-Minute Full-Body Workout | Men's Health Muscle

It’s all gas, little breaks for this killer five-minute HIIT workout. Ngo Okafor, the owner and founder of Iconoclast Fitness, and two-time Golden Gloves Championship winner goes through another installment of our 5 Minutes of Hell series designed to push you to your limits in a short amount of time. Complete these eight exercises for 30 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest for a heart-racing HIIT workout.

1 set each / 30 seconds of work / 10 seconds of rest


The Military-Inspired 5 Minute Burn

preview for Hit This Quick High-Intensity Five Minute Full Body Workout | Men's Health Muscle

Erik Bartell, C.P.T., founder of Train Like a Soldier, leads through a military-style workout worthy of battle. In only 5 short minutes, this workout will have you contemplating surrender. Work through these 5 exercises for 45 seconds of work, and 15 seconds of rest.

1 set each / 45 seconds of work / 15 seconds of rest

  • Rowing Machine
  • Kettlebell Alternating Reverse Lunge to Press
  • Fast Feet to Reactive Sprawls
  • Kettlebell Alternating Reverse Lunge to Press
  • Rowing Machine

All Out Studio Upper Body HIIT

preview for Men's Health All Out Studio High Power HIIT Upper Body Workout

This dumbbell workout from All Out Studio‘s High Power HIIT program by trainer Gerren Liles will help you to sculpt your chest, arms, and back while ramping up the pace. You’ll be toast after these 15 minutes.

Close-Grip Chest Press – 30 seconds

Close-Grip Chest Press with Crunch – 45 seconds

Close-Grip Chest Press with Crunch and Leg Lowers – 75 seconds

Squat Hold – 45 seconds

Renegade Rows – 30 seconds

Weighted Walkout to Renegade Row – 45 seconds

Weighted Walkout to Renegade Row to Knee Raise and Twist – 75 seconds

Squat Hold – 45 seconds

Dumbbell Over-the-Shoulder Chops – 30 seconds

Squat and Over-the-Shoulder Chops – 45 seconds

Squat Thrust and Over-the-Shoulder Chops – 75 seconds

Cooldown Stretch – 45 seconds


20-Minute At-Home Full-Body Workout

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Excuses be damned—you don’t need equipment, or hardly any space, for this burner.

Nellie Barnett, CPT, packed everything you need in this quick 20-minute workout you can do right from your living room.

Work for 40 seconds / rest for 20 seconds / repeat each block twice

Block A:

Block B:

  • Hip switch
  • Hand release pushups
  • V-ups

Block C:

  • Toe taps
  • Up and overs
  • Donkey kicks

Lower Body Tabata-Style Finisher

With only 20-second working periods, this workout from David Pegram, C.P.T., Obė Fitness instructor, will have you panting. Add it to the end of a leg day to get your cardio in while finishing off the lower body. You’ll need just a single dumbbell and kettlebell.

Work for 20 seconds / rest for 10 seconds / 4 rounds / rest for 1 minute between rounds


Men’s Health 30-Day HIIT Challenge Workouts

Designed by MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., the following provides a sneak peek at our 30-Day HIIT Challenge. These 10-minute workouts are designed to keep you moving even when your schedule is at its busiest, from just a handful of exercises that you can do anywhere.

AMRAP #1

Complete as many rounds as possible of the following circuit. Rest as needed between reps and sets.

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Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM) #1

Complete all of the moves in order as fast as you can in each minute, then rest til the start of the next minute. Complete 10 rounds.

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Interval Workout + 2-Minute Finisher #1

Do each move a minute, working for 40 seconds, then resting 20 seconds. Alternate back and forth for four rounds. After you’ve completed the fourth round, do as many touchdown jacks as possible in two minutes.

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Double-AMRAP #1

Spend five minutes attacking Circuit 1 below, aiming to complete as many rounds as possible. Rest for one minute, holding a plank. Then take on Circuit 2, aiming to complete as many rounds as possible in four minutes.

Circuit 1:

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Circuit 2:

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EMOM Ladder #1

Complete the entire circuit in each minute, working to move as quickly as possible. Rest as soon as you’re done, and then begin the next round at the start of the next minute. After each round, add one rep to your each exercise in the circuit. Do 10 rounds (or work until you can no longer complete all your work in each round).

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Buy-in to Intervals #1

Start with one full minute of mountain climbers. Then repeat the three exercises below in order, working for 40 seconds on, then resting for 20 seconds. Do three rounds.

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Light Intervals #1

Do two rounds of the below circuit. The first time through, do each move for 30 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. The second time through, do each move for 40 seconds, then rest 20 seconds. Finish with a one-minute wall-sit and a one-minute plank.

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AMRAP #2

Complete as many rounds as possible of the following circuit. Rest as needed between reps and sets.

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EMOM #2

Complete all of the moves in order as fast as you can in each minute, then rest til the start of the next minute. Complete 10 rounds.

Odd Minutes:

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Even Minutes:

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Interval Workout + 2-Minute Finisher #2

Do each move for 40 seconds, then resting 20 seconds. Do two rounds. After you’ve completed the second round, do as many touchdown jacks as possible in two minutes.

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Double-AMRAP #2

Spend five minutes attacking Circuit 1 below, aiming to complete as many rounds as possible. Rest for one minute, holding a plank. Then take on Circuit 2, aiming to complete as many rounds as possible in four minutes.

Circuit 1:

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Circuit 2:

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EMOM Ladder #2

Complete the entire circuit in each minute, working to move as quickly as possible. Rest as soon as you’re done, and then begin the next round at the start of the next minute. After each round, add one rep to your each exercise in the circuit. Do 10 rounds (or work until you can no longer complete all your work in each round).

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Buy-in to Intervals #2

Start with one full minute of mountain climbers. Then repeat the three exercises below in order, working for 40 seconds on, then resting for 20 seconds. Do three rounds.

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Light Intervals #2

Do two rounds of the below circuit. The first time through, do each move for 30 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. The second time through, do each move for 40 seconds, then rest 20 seconds.

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AMRAP #3

Complete as many rounds as possible of the following circuit. Rest as needed between reps and sets.

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Headshot of Mitch Calvert, CPT

Mitch Calvert, CPT, is a body transformation coach for men, having helped more than 350 guys transform across the globe. He discovered his spark for fitness when he tipped the scales at 260 pounds 14 years ago – and now works specifically with men like his former self who have weight to lose and confidence to gain. Get Mitch’s 2-page “” to simplify your diet and drop stubborn fat.

Headshot of Cori Ritchey

Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.

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