A beginners guide to HIIT training: From exercises to workouts to programs

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Simon Long

Simon Long

Simon is a highly experienced personal trainer and behavioural psychology expert
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High Intensity Interval Training (AKA HIIT) is all the rage these days. Every personal trainer and his dog are advising you to do it. And for good reason. It’s a great way to train. For several reasons. And it is suitable for anybody. Even absolute beginners.

I wrote an article recently about how to apply HIIT to treadmill workouts. Today I wanted to give a more overall look at HIIT. So that you can apply it to any type of exercise you like.

Step one is going to be breaking down why it’s such a good way to train. Then we’ll have a talk about how you can build a beginner’s workout with it. Finally we’ll address how to progress it from beginner to more advanced as your ability improves.

Let’s begin!

So what’s so good about HIIT?

High intensity interval training is chock full of good sides. The greatest? It provides the same benefits as long workouts in a much shorter space of time. This is due to the challenging nature of the training.

Think of it this way. If you are training at 50% of your ability (say a light walk) then your body won’t need to spend many calories. The exercise just isn’t that difficult. So it doesn’t need much energy. But more importantly it won’t have been pushed. So it won’t spend the calories after the session to make you stronger. The only way to combat this is to do a much longer session, causing high amounts of stress to your muscles.

But if you are training at 90+% then your body will spend a huge amount of calories. It feels it needs to help you adapt for the next time. This causes a large spike in your metabolism. Meaning that for 24 to 48 hours after the session you’ll burn far more calories than normal. Even when you’re just sitting on your but watching the TV. It’s this increase in metabolism that really makes the difference for weight loss.

Another great advantage of HIIT is its ability to be applied to nearly any type of training. Anyone who follows me closely will know that my whole belief is that we should all take a new approach to weight loss. And this approach should focus on doing what we enjoy. As this becomes a lifestyle change we are happy to adopt. HIIT is versatile enough to be applied to any type of physical activity you enjoy. You can literally build entire workouts and training programs around it.

A third benefit of High Intensity Intervals is that it can truly work for anybody. It doesn’t matter if you are a complete novice to exercise, or an elite athlete. HIIT is so versatile that all you need to do is find out what your personal ability is and set it there.

The final tick in the box for HIIT is that motivation is far easier. If I tell you that you have to go and do a 60 or 90 minute session 5 times a week you will probably think ‘Yeah I don’t think so’. But if I advise you to do the same number of training sessions with a length of 15 to 20 minutes you will be more inclined. Or you may still tell me to jog on. But to be fair the fact you’re even reading this article makes me think that your committed to your change. So props to you!

What kind of exercises can a beginner use for HIIT?

The exercise you choose just needs one requirement. You have to be able to do an intense version of it. This doesn’t limit your options very much. Which is great! It means you can use whatever would get you excited.

Maybe you like the idea of piggy backing your kid as you run around the park. Perhaps you watch step up (or one of the other billion dance movies that came out in the 2000s. Then use street dance. Or swing. Or ballet. Or tap. You watch the worlds strongest man and aspire to move atlas stones? Pick up something heavy! It really doesn’t matter.

I’ve got some suggestions for you. In case you can’t think of anything right now. One option is cardiovascular exercises. It doesn’t matter which. Go with what you like the look of. Possibilities include jogging, cycling, elliptical trainer, rowing machine, jogging on the spot, running up stairs, star jumps or burpees. Basically anything that is a repetitive movement and gets your heart rate up.

On the other end of the scale you have resistance (or weighted) exercises. This is any movement that requires you to lift some kind of a load (or weight). It could be an external weight, like a barbell. Or it could be an internal weight, also know by the common term ‘your body’.

Weighted exercises can be broken down into many more categories. You have weight machines, barbell and dumbbells, medicine balls, sand bags, kettlebells and so on. You can also split them by type. Examples include endurance training, power training, 1 rep max, Olympic lifts and more.

Maybe your big focus is to have abs that are made of rock. Sounds great! Hit the core exercises. Planks, sit ups, Russian twists, leg raises…… There are easily a couple of hundred options.

This list is not even close to completed. Literally think of any type of physical activity. If it can be done with a difficult variation, then its worthy. (I just thought of another couple. Hiking up hills. Kayaking sprints. The list never ends!).

How do I design a beginner’s workout with high intensity interval training?

Your first step is to work out what your current ability is. The way I have usually done this with clients in the past is for them to use their chosen exercise and do it as hard as they can for as long as they can. So lets say you chose to do step ups on your bottom step. You would aim to go as fast as you can (Don’t slip off. No socks!) and time yourself.

Once you have the time work out what ¾ of that would be (Just multiply the time by 0.75. E.g. 20 secs x 0.75= 15 secs). That is your interval length. You’re going to do 3 of those intervals. Repeat this process for all of the different exercise types you have chosen to use. I suggest having at least 3, but the more the better. It keeps boredom at bay if you can switch up what you’re doing. Nobody wants to be doing lunges every time. It would be mind numbingly dull!

Of course this is just a suggestion. Every element of your set up is up to you. It’s the beauty of HIIT! If you feel you are more of a beginner then maybe you would like to do ½ of the interval time. Or only 2 intervals instead of 3. If you’re a beginner only in the sense that you haven’t exercised for a long time, but used to, then do more intervals. There is no ceiling to the number. 100 intervals of 5 seconds are fine if that’s how you want to go about it.

This suggestion is also a very basic set up, using just one exercise. Circuits are a great addition to your plans. They often hit your muscles in different ways, so you can make each interval longer. One example would be to do press ups (chest) followed by squats (legs) followed by a rowing machine (cardio back).

The number of exercises in a circuit will depend on two things. Firstly how closely related are they. If they are hitting similar muscles then you will be able to do less. Secondly your capability. If you’re an absolute novice then 2 to 4 exercises will probably be enough. If your more advanced then the sky’s the limit!

The next thing to consider is the rest. The oh so beautiful rest. Believe me you will love these more than fresh sheets. I often get asked if you should keep moving lightly during rests or stop completely. As with everything around HIIT the choice is yours. However I would suggest you stop completely. The rests are there for just that. Rest! They are meant to be used to get your heart rate down as low as possible, ready for the next interval. This will work far better if your body hasn’t got to deal with walking slowly around the room.

As for how long you should rest. Well. You’ll be knocked over with a feather! It very much depends on you. Some people aim to have a high heart rate throughout and so take very short rests, Maybe 25% of their interval length. These people are crazy! But only in the sense that it’s really difficult. I suppose on the plus side it does make your workout even shorter so…..

For someone looking at it from a beginners perspective I would suggest doing rest that are between 1 and 2 times your interval length. So if your interval is 30 seconds then your rest would want to be around 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Finally decide on your frequency. How often are you going to do your workouts? Your best bet is to aim for an absolute minimum of three times a week. But if your cycling your exercises, so your hitting different muscles each time, then there is nothing stopping you going for 5 or even 6 (Go on. Push yourself! You might like it!!).

How do I progress me HIIT training plan once I’m no longer a beginner?

As you use HIIT more you will find that what you started with becomes easier. At this stage you have to progress it! If you don’t then welcome to plateau city. Population: You. Your body will adapt to such a level that any weight loss will be stopped in its tracks.

If you continue to progress your HIIT program though you’ll find not only that the weight loss continues, but speeds up! If you’re doing 3x 30 second intervals then your metabolism will take a spike. But if you progress over a couple of months to 6x 45 second intervals, now that first spike will look insignificant compared to your all new mega spike!

You can progress your plan in several ways. They are all pretty simple. Choose 1. And feel free to mix up how you progress each time. I’ve listed your options below:

  1. Longer intervals. Instead of doing 15 seconds roll it up to 20. Or 25 (Go on….I bet you could do it. Test yourself).


  1. Shorter rests. Bring your rest times down. Don’t be too drastic though. 10 seconds will probably be the max you would want to drop each time.


  1. More intervals. Easy peasy this one. Just add an extra interval.


  1. More workouts. This is the best choice in terms of progression as it gives your body another chance to spike its metabolism.


  1. Harder exercises. If you used to do side steps then go for side hops. If squats then lunges. If carrying a kid, carry two kids. Etc etc.

My last advice on progression is when you should progress. And it should be whenever the workouts seems easier than before. Usually this will occur around the 3 to 4 week mark.


So there you go. Your beginners guide to HIIT training. Just for a closing note. You must keep in mind that the intervals have to be at the top of your ability. Going for a 60% intensity will not have the desired effect on your metabolism. But if your hitting 90%+ then you will reap all the rewards that I’ve promised you here. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training remember) does not work if you don’t find it challenging. That doesn’t put it into the realm of the trained only though. It’s all relative. A beginners challenging may be lower to start with. But it’s still challenging for you. And that’s perfect. So go get that heart pumping!!

In between your workouts make sure you stay up to date with all of my latest weight loss tips and tricks. I upload articles every couple of days and videos every day. Jump on to my Facebook and Youtube profiles and give me a like to get everything delivered straight to you.

Thank you for your time. I hope you have a wonderful day. And I shall see you again soon.

Best wishes,