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Taking HIIT to the Next Level!

30/10/2007 UPDATE: This article has been featured in Australian Fighting Fat Magazine, Issue 2007 p58-65.

15/05/2009 UPDATE: This article has been featured in Australian IronMan Magazine, Issue 14-12 p148-152.

Cardiovascular exercise plays a very important role in achieving both an outstanding physique and a high level of fitness. Whilst many of us would prefer to stick to the weight's room (as determined by one of our previous polls), it is undeniable that cardio can improve your physical appearance, fitness levels, wellbeing and overall health. A recent newsletter was published documenting how cardio can directly aid your improvements in the weights room by improving your lactate threshold. Ultimately, integrating cardio into our training routine can mean achieving our goals faster.

Last year I published an article entitled "The Fat Burning Zone" which was published in Australian Ironman magazine, Fighting Fat magazine in addition to the Amino Z website. This article compared low-intensity to high-intensity interval cardiovascular exercise. A couple of studies quoted were conducted by Tremblay et al (1994 & 1996). Here they concluded that high intensity interval training (HIIT) resulted in nine times more fat loss and a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity when compared to endurance (or low-intensity) exercise. For these reasons, HIIT can be a key component in your cardio regime whether you are seeking to lose fat, improve fitness or simply to train your body to become more efficient when lifting weights.

HIIT is intense - there is no doubt about it. The rationale behind interval training is to provide intermittent breaks to allow the body to recuperate between working periods. These breaks are known as small periods of "active recovery" where you are able to regain your breath and lower your heart rate slightly. With these small recovery periods, the intensity can therefore be significantly enhanced throughout the sprint sessions. Quite simply, an increased intensity can lead to increased results. In other words, the harder you push your body, the more you will force it to adapt (of course, within reason). I discussed this rationale in a previous article, "The Art of Adaptation", published in Australian IronMan magazine and here on Amino Z.

Whilst HIIT is a very effective format for fat loss and increased fitness, the approach one takes to this style of exercise is equally important. You can have a good session and you can have a GREAT session. The great sessions are what will assist you in making the most progress possible. In order to make a session great, you need to focus on the specifics including your warm-up, the length of intervals, listening to music, cool-down, stretching and so on.

So how do you go about obtaining optimal results from your HIIT session? Let's go into some detail.

What machine?

One of the most important factors here is to find a machine that you enjoy using. If you enjoy using it, you will most likely be able to push yourself just that little bit harder during your session.

Another important factor is safety. The treadmill does pose some issues when it comes to interval training. You will be pushing yourself hard during the workout. This means you could lose your balance. Hence, the bike, recumbent bike, rower and cross trainer machines are excellent tools for HIIT training. Since balancing isn't a major issue, this means that you can push yourself to the absolute limit.

If you are not a gym member, then outdoor running can be a great form of HIIT exercise. However if you are training for hypertrophy (ie. bulking up), try to avoid high-impact exercises such as running. The impact can induce microscopic muscular damage (along the Z disc) which can inhibit protein synthesis within that muscle cell.

Finally another great idea is boxing. There are so many different drills in boxing that can be integrated into a very effective HIIT workout.


Breaking down HIIT

On the surface, your HIIT cardio session is just like any other workout. You have three major parts:

  1. Warm-up
  2. The workout itself (or the condition period)
  3. Cool-down

All three sections are absolutely vital in assisting you to get the most out of every HIIT cardio.


1. Warming Up

A warm-up is universally an extremely important part of any workout. This is the period in which you prime your mind and body for maximum output. It is also a very important tool to avoid injury during your conditioning period.

Let's assume that you plan on using the stationary bike for your HIIT session. Your warm-up will therefore be on the stationary bike. There is no point in warming up on the treadmill - this machine uses a completely different motion and selection of muscle groups. You warm-up on the machine that you intend to use.

Begin at a relatively slow pace and gradually increase the intensity to a point where you feel warm without exerting yourself. Your heart rate will increase as a result. During this time, you need not perform anything extreme here.

Apart from warming up your body, you need to also warm up your mind. The mind is an extremely powerful tool in determining your success or failure when striving for new personal bests. In this period of time, focus on what you want to achieve. Fire yourself up and forget about the outside world - this workout is about you competing against yourself. The actual conditioning section will be short, excruciating and intense - so you need every ounce of mental energy that you can summon in this warm-up period.

Music can be a very important mental aid during your warm-up. As soon as you throw on your headphones, this will send a "no-not-disturb" message to others in the gym. Listen to music that gets you fired up and mentally prepared. This could be anything from classical music right through to heavy metal - whatever works for you. During this initial phase of your workout, don't have the music up full-blast, but rather at a slightly lower volume.

A good period of time is 5 minutes, however this will vary with each individual. Too long and you will become fatigued, detracting from your results in the conditioning section. Too short and you will increase the likelihood of physical injury. Ultimately, you need to find a period of time that works best for you.


2. The workout

You're primed, the adrenaline is pumping and you're ready to go! The conditioning section is the part of the workout is where it all happens - get ready to turn your body into a fat burning machine!


HIIT means intervals. That is, sprint, rest, sprint, rest, sprint etc. Fairly straight forward. Each sprint should be the equivalent time of each rest - generally between 30-60 seconds. The workout length should be somewhere between 10 - 20 minutes. Any shorter and you are probably not going to obtain the full benefits of HIIT training. Any longer and your intensity will decrease significantly (as intensity is inversely proportional to workout duration).

Whether you begin on a sprint or a rest period is totally up to you. Beginning on a rest period can be a good opportunity to work at 75% to really get yourself ready for the upcoming sprint session. But by beginning on a sprint, this means you can go all out while you're still fresh. The key is to finish the workout on a sprint. When you finish on a sprint, you have to give it EVERYTHING you have left to get that new personal best. That's when the intensity really kicks in!

The Sprint

The sprint is the period in which you are working to your MAXIMUM capacity. You need to push as hard as humanly possible. This period will test your limits - both physically and mentally. You will be in absolute agony and want to give up - but you have to find a way to push past this and quite simply toughen up.

During this period you will have added resistance (or incline) on the machine of choice. You may choose to maintain your resting RPM or increase your RPM, depending on the amount of resistance/incline added.

Your heart rate will sky-rocket during the sprint period. If it doesn't, you're not pushing hard enough!

The Rest

This period of time is a chance for you to regain some of your breath and prepare for the next sprint. Have a sip of water (or sports drink) too. This period of time should be on a light resistance/flat incline at a pace that you can recuperate at. DO NOT stop exercising! Keep your body moving during this period, remember that this is active recovery.

Your heart rate should come down a little during your rest period. If this is not the case, you are pushing too hard and not allowing your body to recover effectively. This is an important aspect to consider during the rest period - without an adequate rest, the intensity of the upcoming sprint will be significantly affected.


Variety can be extremely important in your workout to avoid boredom and keep the novelty alive. Try 30 second intervals and then try 60 second intervals - there is a HUGE difference which really keeps the challenge alive and the body guessing. Try varying the levels of resistance. For example, sprint 1 may be level 6, sprint 2 level 8, sprint 3 level 10 etc.

Even alternate between different machines - Monday on the bike, Tuesday on the cross trainer, Wednesday on the rower. If you really wanted to be creative, try 5 minutes on the rower, then jump to 5 minutes on the cross trainer and then 5 minutes on the bike all in the one workout!


Music can be extremely important during your conditioning period. Turn your music up to really get you really fired up!


Very importantly, keep your breathing deep and controlled. As soon as you begin taking quick, shallow breaths, your heart rate will go through the roof and less oxygen will enter your lungs.


Setting goals for the conditioning section is also vital for HIIT cardio. You need to push yourself to the limits...but what incentive would you have without a goal of some description? The best goal is to set a new personal best, to beat your previous maximal effort. This could include a new distance, a higher maximum heart rate, a higher RPM/speed or a higher resistance/incline. You are in a competition against YOURSELF!

3. Cooling Down

The cool down is a vital component to the cardio workout in order to gradually reduce the rate at which your body is working. The hard part is now done!

Begin by cooling down for approximately 5 minutes on the machine (or activity) that you were performing. As with your warm-up, if you were running, then jog at a much slower pace in order to cool down.

Once the cooling down period is up, finish if off with some stretching. You should be effectively stretching all the muscles that were being used.

Of course, if you consume a post-workout protein shake, it is often most effectively consumed immediately after your workout. So slip in a quick shake and then move on to your stretching routine.



How Often?

Due to the very taxing nature of HIIT cardio, it is generally not recommended that more than 6 sessions be performed in any one week (max. 1 per day). It will place significant strain on your body and as a result, your systems will need time to recover from the high physical demands. In certain circumstances, you may need to perform more cardio however.

For general health purposes and body fat maintenance, 3-4 HIIT's per week is a good idea. If you're seeking to lose fat, try 5-6 sessions per week.



HIIT is not for the faint hearted and nor is it for anyone with medical concerns or injuries. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise regime. In some cases, HIIT can induce more harm than good if you have a medical condition.

Because of the very intense nature of HIIT, if you are just beginning a new exercise routine it is often not the most effective method of training. Rather than going from a sedentary lifestyle to an all-out training regime, it is best to gradually increase the intensity until the point where your body is equipped (mentally and physically) to handle high intensity interval training.

If you do lack the experience necessary in order to determine what form of training is most suitable for you, hire a personal trainer to develop an effective training program. We offer comprehensive online personal training services.



So there you have it, high intensity interval training is much more than meets the eye. Until you actually perform a session, it is very hard to envisage the physical and mental energy required to create a highly successful cardio workout. As always, consistency is the key - so 1 session out of the blue is not going to do wonders for your goals.

Finally, remember this. No matter how great a session may be, you can always do better!

- Don't forget to bookmark Taking HIIT to the Next Level!

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