Beginners Welcome: A HIIT Workout Plan for First-Timers

Updated 09/11/17
Urban Outfitters

We're often going on about the benefits of breaking out of your workout comfort zone. While the idea sounds great on paper, it isn't always so easy in practice. Trying out a new fitness class can be a bit daunting—you're exposing yourself and your body to something entirely new, not to mention just showing up can be quite intimidating. One particular workout that's gained something of a cult following but whose name alone is enough to make beginners wary is HIIT—or high-intensity interval training.

A week after my first HIIT workout, once I had finally caught my breath, we had Rob McGillivray, co-founder of Retrofit in West Hollywood, give us the lowdown on everything a first-timer should know about HIIT. He patiently explained everything from how to best prepare for the class to what you'll be up against during the session to what results you can expect to see moving forward. If you're interested in taking on your own HIIT workout plan, here's everything you should know before getting started.

On What Exactly HIIT Is

Before taking my first HIIT class, I admit I had little knowledge of what exactly it was. "High-intensity interval training" could lend itself to quite a few exercises, but McGillivray explained that essentially it comes down to "a set amount of time on a piece of equipment" (interval training) with the goal of "raising and lowering your heart rate." He admits that the first part of the name—high intensity—"can have a little bit of an intimidation connotation," but he encourages first-timers to look past that.

On Why It's a Total Body Workout

"HIIT can be segmented, but I think for a more well-rounded workout you really want to encompass the body as a whole to keep it as balanced as possible, hitting every major muscle group at the same time," says McGillivray.

Each gym might put their own spin on just how they set up their interval training, but at Retrofit, McGillivray explains that the trainers program their circuit "so you're getting a total body workout in every class—you don't just show up on Monday and do chest and arms."

Even the cardio equipment at Retrofit forces you to switch up which muscle groups are working at each station. "We wanted to have the variety and versatility in the equipment provided both in the resistance portion of the workout and the cardiovascular portion," notes McGillivray.

It's supposed to be just as much a fun experience as it is supposed to be a diverse and effective workout

On How to Prepare for a Class

"I would say fully hydrate and bring a spare T-shirt for after," McGillivray advises. "I think the most important thing is coming in with an open mind, to not feel intimidated by the terminology of the class—the high-intensity aspect of it." He assures that beginners need not feel intimidated, especially at a place like Retrofit where they try to make every class as fun as possible. "It's supposed to be just as much a fun experience as it is supposed to be a diverse and effective workout," says McGillivray.

"Eat beforehand, stretch beforehand, and hydrate beforehand," he insists.

On What Exactly to Eat Before and After

McGillivray advises having some food in your stomach before coming in. "Even if it's just a small snack—a small package of nuts 45 minutes to an hour before a workout." He notes how this is especially important for individuals who are not as regular with their exercise or getting back into a routine after not working out for a while. "It is really important to give your stomach something to work on—without filling your stomach—to give you energy," he notes, explaining how it helps curb the acids that will begin moving around.

McGillivray also says to make sure there's consistency with the hydration—"not overloading yourself with water where it feels like you're bubbling over with fluid during the workout but still making sure you're not dehydrated." This is especially important for beginners. "If you haven't done that kind of exercise before, you'll feel that buildup of lactic acid quite quickly," he notes, and these measures will "help the body detoxify." Post-workout, McGillivray suggests a smoothie. Retrofit has seven different options made up of primarily plant- and hemp-based proteins to help restore the body.

Anybody can do anything for 60 seconds.

On How HIIT Is Customizable

"In each system, you can push yourself to the level you feel comfortable with," explains McGillivray. "It's on the individual themselves if they want to push to a certain level of comfort or ability. Even if the buddy next to them is going full, all-out, you can still go to your own body's ability level." The short intervals and spurts of exertion also help each individual to work toward their goals. "By breaking it down into stations the way we do, even if you hate a particular station, you only have to do it for that 60 seconds and you're onto the next," notes McGillivray.

"Anybody can do anything for 60 seconds."

On the Health Benefits Specific to HIIT

"Everybody's always looking at the external benefits, but that constant raising and lowering of the heart rate is helping to pump blood around the body so that the extremities are getting a lot of the nutrition," explains McGillivray.

Another surprising way HIIT can benefit your body is by helping with the digestive system. "You're working at such a rate that your body is crushing food," he says. "You've got the ability to burn an exceptional number of calories in a very short space of time." He notes that with HIIT you can burn anywhere from 500 to 1200 calories (depending on the amount of intensity), as opposed to the 200 or 300 calories you might burn at the gym just focusing on a couple of body parts.

On Making Working Out Fun Again

"There are a lot of people who find it more of a chore to come to a gym or go to a class [but do it because] they know they have to for their own health," observes McGillivray. "We're trying to put the enjoyment back into these classes." His studio builds off the idea of camaraderie with every station set up to be done in pairs of two. "Obviously there is that worry going into a class format that it's going to be this extreme, insanity workout," he says, but when really experiencing it you realize it's less about being competitive and more about being a part of a community.

"The way I formatted the class is that every station is in a buddy system," McGillivray explains. "Bring a friend or meet someone there to become your exercise buddy. You can help push each other through the workout." This cultivates a team environment without going overboard in the actual competition. McGillivray's goal is to "get out the best in each individual," noting that the best competition is internal. "If you know you can push a little bit harder on a certain station, you have that buddy next to you."

Next up, find out why HIIT is the workout that gives the fastest results, according to science.

Related Stories