Interval Training For Beginners

HIIT (high-intensity interval training) was recently ranked the number one fitness trend in the American College of Sports Medicine’s 2018 worldwide survey. Little surprise to any of us who have been here a while.

People love high-intensity interval training because it’s a quick, efficient way to reap the same (or even greater) fitness benefits as a long, traditional cardio session—with generally less wear and tear, less physical stress, and (much) less time investment. It’s a core part of the Primal Blueprint approach to fitness and a consistent part of my own routine.

But I find it still intimidates beginners…particularly older men and women, those who have been inactive for years and those who are overweight.

Just a little refresher on the comparative benefits. The often quoted landmark 1996 study comparing the effects of HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio found that performing HIIT five days per week was more effective for improving both aerobic and anaerobic fitness than performing traditional cardio five days per week. The HIIT workout from this study was eventually dubbed the Tabata protocol and consisted of alternating seven to eight 20-second sprints with 10 seconds of rest.

Since then, we know interval training is effective in less frequent schedules. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity reveals three weekly HIIT sessions helped female participants lose as much as 7.3 pounds after 15 weeks. Meanwhile, moderate-intensity cardio led women to gain nearly three pounds over the same time period.

As for fitness gains, in one study, two weeks of sprint interval training, for a total of six sessions, were enough to increase muscle oxidative potential (resting muscle glycogen content) and aerobic endurance capacity in trainees. In a 2007 study, researchers discovered that the metabolic adaptations produced by low-volume sprint training are remarkably similar to those produced by traditional endurance training. Although long distance Chronic Cardio has always been touted as the best way to improve heart health, another HIIT study showed that sprint interval training is just as effective at improving arterial stiffness and flow-mediated dilation, two markers of endothelial function and helpful ways to predict heart health. And how about actual performance outcomes? Another study found that low volume sprint interval training conferred rapid adaptations in skeletal muscle and exercise capacity – similar to those obtained via high volume endurance training.

If this is you, it might surprise you to know that HIIT is way more doable than you think it is. Doable doesn’t mean easy (interval training inherently needs to feel hard), but it does mean entirely attainable. Virtually anyone can make it work with appropriate transitioning.

Yes, those with heart conditions may be concerned that intense exercise will trigger a heart attack. Indeed, if you have a history of heart disease, heart attack or stroke, you’ll want consult with your primary care provider before starting HIIT or any exercise program. (You’ll also want to check with your doc if you have an underlying health issue such as diabetes, arthritis, hypertension or osteoporosis.) However, it’s worth noting that HIIT is considered a viable alternative to moderate-intensity cardio in cardiac rehabilitation programs.

Perhaps you’re worried you simply won’t enjoy the intensity of HIIT? Consider this: When researchers from the University of British Columbia tested the overall enjoyment level of moderate-intensity cardio, HIIT and sprint interval training (SIT) with 30 inactive adults, they found that the men and women ranked HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio as equally enjoyable. What’s more, 79 percent of the men and women went on to do HIIT on their own once the study was over.

The options for HIIT are practically endless. In fact, you can do an effective HIIT workout with low-impact activities. Remember, it’s the intensity of your efforts that separates your inclined walk or bodyweight exercises from a traditional workout. With HIIT, you’re working anywhere between 85 to 100 percent of your maximum heart rate, alternating short bursts of activity with brief recovery periods.

Ready to give HIIT a try? Assuming your doc gave you the go-ahead, here are a few ways to ease into HIIT.

Start With Equipment (If It Makes You Feel More Comfortable)

I’m not talking box jumps here. I mean the basic machines a lot of people identify with regular gym workouts. (While I think most are unnecessary in the long-term, they have a role to play for many folks.) Most HIIT studies use stationary bikes—for good reason. They’re a bit safer for the average person who’s working on mobility as well as fitness capacity to start out on a bike or elliptical or inclined treadmill or rowing machine than to suddenly max out on running. Look at the many alternative options. Purists don’t get extra points here.

Go For Multi-Joint Exercises/Activities

Moves that recruit a lot of different muscle groups will distribute the work more evenly across multiple joints than isolation exercises like biceps curls. Great options include squats, walking or jogging at an incline, push-ups (elevate your hands as needed), elliptical sprints, swimming, crawling, jumping jacks and walking lunges. Begin by using your bodyweight only and add light resistance when you’re ready.

Scale Back (and Up) When Needed

Burpees may be great for people who are already working from good form and solid fitness, but for others they can be a poor choice and ruin the whole endeavor just as these folks are getting out of the gate. Don’t be afraid to modify exercises as needed. If a workout calls for burpees, try omitting the push-up and the jump at the top. If you find jumping exercises (ex. squat jumps, jumping lunges, jumping jacks) hard on your joints, shorten the jump height so end up doing little hops instead. If you have a hard time lowering into a full bodyweight squat, only go as low as you can. As you gain strength and fitness, scale up the exercises.

Progress Slowly

Take things slow and easy—especially in the beginning. Start with one HIIT workout per week and build up to no more than two or three. It may take you a few workouts to get the hang of things, so don’t be afraid to slow your tempo and experiment with different exercises to find the most appropriate ones for your fitness level. How quickly you progress will depend on your current fitness level, the time you have available to train, and whether you have any underlying health issues. And remember, what works for someone else may not work for you. Listen to your body and progress according to your own timeline.

Thanks for stopping by, everybody. Who’s been putting off including an interval component in their workouts? I’d love to hear more about your concerns. And those who were hesitant but took on the challenge, how did you manage the transition? Have a great week.

TAGS:  mobility

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “Interval Training For Beginners”

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  1. I’ve been doing HIIT for 4 years now, 2X per week on an outdoor stairway. It’s still a hard workout however nothing makes me feel as great afterwards as HIIT does. And if you’re trying it for the first time, that time will be the hardest session you will have. Progression is quick and rewarding.

  2. I do HIIT training too… in the shower! Speaking of showering, our tribe only uses homemade tallow soap (or) Dr Bronner’s Citrus Soap (others are estrogenic) in the ol’ pits and groin area… occasionally wash the ol’ head of hair (hardly ever)… use a shower head filter (you should too) and use an AO+ mist like that from Mother Dirt to balance the ol’ skin microbiome.

    PRO TIP: Getting out of the shower, you can continue another session of intervals as you dry off too. Nothing gets you ripped up like towel Tabatas.

    1. “I do HIIT training too… in the shower!”
      Where do I even begin to unravel this? Are you speakin’ of good ol’ sex?

    2. Most of the time I get great insight from Liver King. This one left me scratching my head. Nevertheless, I’d like to hear more insights from LiverKing perhaps on Mark/Elle/Brad’s podcast here or on one of the other ancestral health pods.

  3. At age 71 and morbidly obese with two mechanical knees I’m wondering about starting on a NuStep, which is basically a seated stair stepper. It has both a leg and an arm component but no body weight involvement. Do you think that would work?

    1. Looks like a good choice Linda, and they even have some stability related attachments you can buy. Start out easy and slowly build up your endurance and intensity. Are you on a primal and / or keto diet to help bring your weight down?

  4. Can you point us in the direction of a good HIIT workout and what it should look like?

    1. It can be pretty simple. Pick the cardio machine you want, treadmill, bike, stepper, whatever.

      And do a few minutes warmup at a normal pace. Then you can use different timings, but maybe start smaller. So say 15 seconds ‘on’.. where you go at a higher speed that is challenging to you, then for the 45 seconds ‘off’ don’t stop, but got at a slower speed for that time, and cycle it like that for a set amount.

      Start small, even if you can only do it 2 or 3 times and build up over time. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s better than overdoing it.

      I can get a really good workout doing this on the treadmill for 10 minutes, which is about 6 sprints, then a few minutes to cool down.

  5. I tore my ACL 6 months ago. Although I am walking 5-7 miles a day and doing heavy lifting for my upper body. I am only able to do ball squats carefully at this point. Any HIIT ideas for me at this point? The bike causes pain on the front of my knee still.

    1. Would heavy ropes work? I’m not sure how much pressure that would exert on your knee, as you’re stabilizing.

  6. Been doing HIIT for seven years. As I get older (62 now) I do more hill sprints so I don’t pull a hammy, but still enjoy the flat dirt road behind my house when it’s warm outside. Like to do it in the morning in a fasted state. I get a natural high the rest of the day.

    1. Yes! I LOVE hill sprints on my local trails. Being outside, running in the dirt while surrounded by trees and birds gives me so much joy. Way more pleasurable (and effective) than my former 5-times-a-week 6 mile runs.

  7. I definately like hit MORE than normal cardio. I hate normal cardio, I hate the thought of being on a bike or treadmill for half an hour. I’d rather get it done in 10 minutes doing HIIT or by doing stuff like bodyweight complexes, burpees, kettlebell swings and similar things. And i’ve also found those things got me fitter way faster than normal cardio and are more enjoyable.

    Though sometimes at the end of it i’d be laying on the floor like “ahh” and puffing, it felt good.

    I also definately recoomend people lift weights too. I know you agree, but there is some people who refuse to. I’ve actually noticed the people who have lost alot of weight by doing hours and hours of normal cardio look worse than people who have lost it while also doing weights or good high intensity type workouts.

    They make the mistake of skipping weights and don’t get all the benefits, and don’t recomposition their body as good. They would do much better lifting weights and doing a little bit of HIIT.

  8. Hey Mark, great post. It’s very true that people love to do the high-intensity training because of it very quick and efficient to get more fitness benefits as compared to a long and traditional cardio session. But thanks to the post that describes what to do and how to do in a proper way.

  9. HIT (High intensity Training/ basically 1 all out rep.) and HIIT (high intensity interval training )seem like they came out about the same time. While HIT seems to have fallen by the wayside and HIIT has taken off. I was wondering if Mark could do something in the future maybe taking another look at HIT? In theory, it seems to make sense just like HIIT. For example, pick a heavy weight that is so heavy that you can only get a few reps in 1 set and your done. Wait a specific time and your body should adapt and get stronger…..something like that. Anyway, with all the of the studies proving the effectiveness of HIIT, maybe HIT deserves a second look?

  10. It sounds crazy, but I am almost 50 and I skip for HITT! Yes, old fashioned skipping without a rope, the type little girls do around the neighborhood.

    You can add hand weights and jump as high as you want for a more intense workout. It is unbelievable how exhausting a good fast skip is on your body. I got my husband into it to, and I know we crack people up when they see a middle-aged couple skipping around the neighborhood and park. Anything for a healthy body, right?

  11. I do “sprint8” hiit on an elliptical 3x per week for the last18 months I love to hate it, however I feel great even at 61. I follow Phil Campbell’s protocol for sprint 8, he is a real pioneer on the subject, search out his videos and books on the subject, he’s another great guy very much like Mark. 8 reps of all out for 30 seconds then with 90 seconds at recovery (walk pace at lower resistance) in between, a wonderful 20 min workout. Include 2min warm up and 2min cool down. ?

  12. For those of us following the Primal Endurance (great book!) plan of 8 weeks of aerobic only training (relatively low heart rate), can/should we include HIIT workouts during this period to reap the benefits of HIIT without losing the benefits of sustained aerobic training?

    1. I’m not an expert, but I would advise against it. Done properly, HIIT is highly anaerobic, and in the adjustment phase you really want to focus on recruiting the aerobic system. Said another way, HIIT is primarily fueled by glucose, and the purpose of the 8-week cycle is to rely as heavily on fat burning as you can.

  13. Here’s the HIIT protocol that I do twice a week. It’s simple, effective, and efficient. Hard enough that I’m tired when it’s over but not too exhausted that I dread doing it again 3 or 4 days later. I can’t run due to disability so I do this on a stationary bike.
    2 min warmup cycle (level 12 on scale of 1-20, RPMs ~70-75)
    30 second sprint (level 15, RPMs ~100-110)
    2 min recovery cycle (level 12 on scale of 1-20, RPMs ~70-75)
    30 second sprint (level 15, RPMs ~100-110)
    2 min recovery cycle (level 12 on scale of 1-20, RPMs ~70-75)
    30 second sprint (level 15, RPMs ~100-110)
    3 min cool down cycle (level 12 on scale of 1-20, RPMs ~70-75)
    I forget exactly where I read about this routine – it was either here from Mark, Art DeVaney, Martin G. or Clarence Bass. Regardless, it’s a good simple protocol to do.

  14. Why is everybody talking about HIIT when it comes to interval training? What about MIIT (Medium-Intensity Interval Training)? Like alternating light running with walking? I believe it’s much easier for beginners than a full-blown HIIT-session.

    1. I’m a beginner, again. 71 and used to do ballet and ice skating. What I’m doing now is probably MIIT not HIIT, just because I am so out of shape. When I’m pushing myself (but I’m not used to ‘the burn’ anymore), the intensity is a level that I’m willing to repeat. As my muscles wake up, I’ll get more intense.
      Interval training is not new (we did it in the 60’s in ballet), but the studies showing its usefulness is what has made it popular.

  15. I started a HIIT program at my house 10 weeks ago. I’ve noticed a huge difference since week one in my mobility, strength, and balance. My split squats are performed easily now so I’m considering adding weight. I can do several full body pushups with good form before having to go to my knees, and jump squats have a little elevation now (when I started I was concerned because of my weight, so I was just going to my tippy toes). I’ve enjoyed it so much that I shared the program with a couple of friends who I’ve been telling about it.

  16. This was a great read, Mark! I coach a girls’ high school team and wanted to add HIIT into our preseason workout plan since distance running just isn’t for everyone. This will allow each player to modify as needed to achieve the 85+% target. Will research more ideas for stations to keep teens from getting board. Thanks so much!