Many of us are so busy these days, and with all the responsibilities competing for our time, energy, and attention, working out sometimes gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list or nixed all together. It’s easy to adopt the mindset that if you don’t have a full hour available to exercise, then there’s no time—and thus no point—in doing any workout. But, the truth is, gone are the days where the prevailing thinking among fitness experts was that workouts needed to be of a certain length in order to be beneficial to your health. In fact, the research shows that short, intense workouts may even trump long, continuous, moderate-intensity exercise in terms of calorie burn, metabolic impact, and fitness improvements. And, high-intensity interval training, commonly referred to as HIIT, is the epitome of this style of workout.
What Is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?
High-Intensity Intensity Training (HIIT) is a type of workout that involves alternating short bursts of vigorous exercise with less intense recovery periods, providing an effective and efficient cardiovascular workout.
HIIT improves your cardiovascular fitness and strength, and provides an efficient calorie burn compared to continuous training. While exercise is about a lot more than just burning calories and losing weight, it's nice to have an efficient way to healthily stoke the metabolism when the time you have to dedicate to exercising is limited. Part of the reason that HIIT torches so many calories is that it is very demanding for the body, so it keeps your metabolism revved up for hours, even once the workout is over. And, studies indicate that you'll reap the same cardiovascular and strength gains through HIIT as you would from traditional continuous training in one-third to one-half of the time—music to the ears of all of us trying to squeeze more that 24 hours worth of agenda activities into the day.
So, to get the lowdown on how to properly do HIIT, and the best exercises to include in a HIIT workout, we reached out to two fitness experts who provided a great workout that can be completed at home with minimal equipment. So, even if you’re short on time, you can get a great full-body, calorie-torching, cardio workout without even needing to set foot in the gym.
Have 15-20 minutes? Read on for everything you need to know about efficient and effective HIIT workouts, and learn 14 powerful moves you should be including in your HIIT routine—even in your own living room.
Meet the Expert
Safety and Precautions
“HIIT involves training at a very high intensity for a short period of time, resting to allow the heart rate and breathing to reduce, then jumping straight back into the exercises again. The intensity of how you train during these workouts is hugely important, and is what differentiates HIIT from other forms of training, although that does not mean more is better,” notes Geddes-Smith. “Be sure to train to your own body's capabilities. It’s a lot more effective to go easy at first to suss things out and then slowly ramp up the intensity as the body gets used to this style of training. Always think form over speed.” In other words, while you can engage in HIIT any point in your fitness journey—even if you’re a beginner—you must choose exercises you can do with correct technique in order to keep your body safe.
Most of the exercises described here are not safe if you have any musculoskeletal injuries. HIIT-compatible exercises are often high-impact moves, involving jumping or explosive movements. It is important that your body is healthy and that you use proper footwear and technique to prevent injury. It’s always best to nix an exercise or stop a high-intensity interval early if you start to fatigue to the point that your form suffers.
Lastly, even if you are fit and work out frequently, ease into this HIIT workout routine by selecting just some of the exercises, and gradually increasing the length of your hard intervals and shortening your rest period as your fitness progresses.
Myths and Misconceptions
To help ensure our HIIT workouts are safe and effective, our experts shared the following common myths and misconceptions about HIIT workouts and explained the facts and science to set us straight.
More is better.
Both of our experts say that when it comes to HIIT, more is not necessarily better. If you try to make the hard intervals too long, for example, by default, the intensity will have to drop, which defeats the purpose of the workout. “The goal is to get your body working anaerobically, or without oxygen. For this to occur, you must crank your heart rate to 90-95% of its max, which you cannot sustain for [very long],” says Polzak. “And, in order to get your body to work that hard, that means specific rest periods in between these intense bursts.” When you’re just starting out, try hard intervals for 30 seconds and recovery bouts of 30-60 seconds.
You should include HIIT in every workout.
Because of how vigorous HIIT workouts are when you do them correctly, it’s crucial to give your body enough days to recover between workouts to prevent overtraining and injury. “Depending on your goal, this can vary obviously, but I suggest [doing HIIT] no more than three times a week in order to give your body ample time to recover,” advises Polzak. And, Geddes-Smith says HIIT should be a component of a workout program but not the only type of training you do. “You should also include resistance training to increase muscle mass and maintain healthy bones and joints and mobility, which will help allow you to move in a full range of motion to aid injury prevention,” she explains.
It is for everyone.
Polzak says it’s important to consider whether HIIT training is in line with your actual goals before adding it to your exercise program. She says, for example, “A HIIT workout would be contraindicated for someone whose main goal is to get stronger.” Geddes-Smith adds additional qualifications. “HIIT is a style of working out that should be reserved for people who are already relatively fit because the proper form is essential to avoid injury,” she notes. “It is also not the best idea for people who are highly stressed or have limited sleep, as the body will not respond well with added stress. Low-intensity exercise is more suited in these situations.”
Any exercise can be incorporated into a good HIIT workout.
“Even though any exercise can be done intensely and has the ability to make you sweat, not all exercises are created equal,” shares Geddes-Smith. “The right exercise selection, combination, and sequence of how these are performed will make a huge difference to the workout and the results.” She likes to include both total-body exercises and isolation exercises into HIIT routines for a well-rounded workout.
Polzak agrees that selecting your exercises carefully is important, and that experience matters. “The goal for HIIT is to go hard and fast, so only choose that exercise if it’s something you perform regularly and can move through it at a sprint pace with great form,” she advises. “Pick something you can do without much room for error—something you can move through quickly, and don’t have to think too hard about form, because going as hard as you can through any movement, you will eventually break down and perform that movement with less accuracy and thoughtfulness. In other words, keep it simple to prevent injury.”
According to Geddes-Smith, “The squat is one of the most fundamental and functional moves there is, stimulating the entire lower body and core.”
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointing forward.
- Squat down by pushing your hips backwards as if reaching back to sit in a chair and simultaneously driving your arms forward.
- Descend until your knees are at 90 degrees, keeping your spine in a neutral position.
- Pause at the bottom for one second.
- Return to standing by squeezing your glutes and pushing through your heels.
One of the most common form mistakes is to allow your knees to cave in. Geddes-Smith says you can prevent this by actively pushing your knees outward, particularly when you rise out of the bottom of the squat. You can also place a loop resistance band above your knees, ensuring there is tension on the band at all times.
“Mountain climbers are considered a full-body exercise as they work the shoulders, core, triceps, hamstrings, and quads,” notes Geddes-Smith. “They are amazing at building core strength and stability as well as endurance.”
- Get in push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and do not let them travel forward during the movement.
- Alternating legs, drive each knee up/forward towards your hands under your chest and back in rapid succession. Be sure to keep your butt down and maintain a neutral spine and long straight line from your head to your feet.
“Push-ups are a great compound move, working the arms, chest, triceps, and back muscles,” says Geddes-Smith. “The abdominal muscles are also recruited through this move, as they are needed to maintain spinal stability.”
- Place your hands flat on the floor shoulder-width apart, elbows straight, and feet extended out behind you. Make sure your body is in a straight line, without your hips raised up into the air.
- Engage your core as you lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Do not flare your elbows out to the side. “Imagine taking an aerial view snapshot of yourself from above,” advises Geddes-Smith. “You want to look like a forward-pointing arrow (with your arms at 45-degree angle), rather than a letter ‘T.’”
- Push back up to the starting position by extending your arms, but do not lock out the elbows.
If you can't yet complete full push-ups on your feet, you can modify the move by lowering your body while on your feet, pausing at the bottom of the movement, and then dropping to your knees and pushing back up from the knees. Then go back to your feet, drop down, and repeat.
Explosive training like jumping, referred to as plyometrics, is great for HIIT workouts because the intensity is inherently vigorous. “Plyometrics are amazing to incorporate into any workout,” notes Geddes-Smith. “They allow for explosive power, agility, stability, and balance. They work the entire body, [training] your muscles to work more quickly and efficiently, while improving cardiovascular health.”
- Step forward and drop into a lunge, bending your front knee to 90 degrees and dropping your back knee nearly to the floor. Keep your front shin vertical, do not let the front knee travel forward beyond your toes, and maintain an upright torso with your core engaged.
- Alternate legs for each rep by pushing up from the ground and jumping upright, landing with your legs switched in position.
You can regress this exercise to walking lunges if you need an easier alternative.
- Get into a push-up position, but drop down so that your forearms are on the ground. Your elbows should line up directly underneath your shoulders and your toes stay on the ground.
- Contract your glutes and draw your navel up to your spine while keeping a neutral spine and neck for the duration of the pose. Your body should be in a straight line from your head to your feet while holding this position.
- Be sure to breathe throughout and don’t let your hips sag. Actively push your heels away from you to promote good form.
You can modify this exercise as you build your strength by performing it from your knees rather than your feet.
Prisoner High Knees
“This is one that will really get the heart racing, build lower body and core strength, and improve hip mobility and cardiovascular endurance,” says Geddes-Smith. “Keeping hands behind forces you to engage the core muscles further and focuses all the power to come from the legs.”
- Stand with your hands behind the head, elbows out to the side, and shoulder blades squeezed together.
- Keeping your core engaged, lift one knee in line with hip level and then explosively move onto the other leg, really driving the knees up as you go.
Regress this move by either doing high knees using your arms to help drive momentum or by marching in place with high knees.
In this challenging move, you’ll reap all the benefits of a regular isometric plank while also getting a cardio component.
- Get in forearm plank or push-up position. Either one works.
- Maintaining a tight core and good form, splay your legs as your jump them out to their respective sides away from your body.
- Jump them back in and out rapidly and repetitively, keeping your hips down so that you’re still in a straight line from your head to your feet.
For a less challenging modification, step the legs out one at a time instead of jumping them together.
Geddes-Smith says, “Get these right and you can build lower body explosive power that’ll help you to run faster, lift heavier, and, of course, jump further.”
- Exhale, driving your hips and arms back into a squat position, and then using your legs, explode out and travel forward in a long jump.
- Inhale as you carefully land back in that squat position, bending your knees 90 degrees into a squat.
- Keep going, making powerful, long, and deep jumps.
If you have an exercise mat, use the mat as a guide for the distance you should be traveling with each jump—try to maintain or beat that distance every single time.
One of Polzak’s favorite exercises to include in HIIT workouts is jumping rope. Try to keep your jumps light, quick, and close to the ground, focusing on speed over height.
- Find a jump rope of appropriate length. If you stand on the rope with both feet and pull it up, it should come to a little above armpit height.
- Keep your core tight and rotate your wrists to turn the rope and jump.
If you don’t have a jump rope, you can simulate the activity without a rope.
This squat variation will get your legs screaming and your heart pounding.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands up in front of you. Imagine the ground is being pulled down from underneath you.
- Let your hips sink towards the floor and jump your feet slightly wider.
- Catch yourself at the bottom of the squat with your knees at 90 degrees, touching the floor with alternate hands.
- Push back up to the top and repeat.
Resist the tendency to look down when you touch the floor with every rep because this will cause you to round your back. Ensure you keep your core engaged throughout, chest up and proud, and look straight ahead of you through every rep.
You’ll work your entire core, as well as your quads and shoulders with this move.
- Get on all fours in tabletop position.
- Engage your core and push into your hands and toes to lift your knees one inch off the ground.
- Using the opposite hand and foot together as a pair, walk forward like a bear. Be sure to keep your butt down, your spine neutral and flat like a tabletop, and your core and glutes engaged.
Reverse Lunges to Knee Drives
Geddes-Smith says this move is all about power and comes with many benefits. “These are a great strengthening exercise, working the entire lower body—the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves—and using as a plyometric movement will also help improve balance and coordination.”
- Step one foot back into a reverse lunge, then power out of the movement by driving the back knee forwards, coming into a standing position with your leg lifted at a 90-degree angle.
- Use your arms to maintain your balance, adding a jump as you rise to the top position.
- Continue using the same leg for your entire hard interval, and then switch legs during your next interval.
Think about power, not speed, with this move, really driving up to standing position and jumping up high.
This plank variation builds upper body strength and endurance, and will get your entire core working.
- Start in a forearm plank with your core and glutes engaged.
- Lift your right arm off the mat and place your palm down directly under your shoulder.
- Push up through the right hand, and then come up onto your left hand too so that you are in a full push-up position.
- Lower back down onto your forearms with control, and then go back up into push-up position—this time leading with the left hand.
- Switch arms with every rep. Be careful not to rock your hips as you go up and down. Keep them as stable as possible by continually engaging your core and glutes.
Many people have a love-hate relationship with this powerful move because while it’s very tough, it’s quite an effective full-body strengthening move and a cardio workout.
- Stand where you have plenty of space.
- Drop into a squat by really sitting your hips back as you bend your knees.
- Once you are in a squat, place your hands on the ground shoulder-width apart.
- Jump your feet back into a push-up position and lower your chest to the ground in a full push-up.
- Push your body up from the floor in one swift movement, jumping your feet back into the squat position and loading into a vertical jump.
- Jump up straight in the air as high as you can, landing back into a squat.
- Move into the push-up, and then continue the cycle as fast as you can go while still maintaining good form and technique.
Ballesta-García I, Martínez-González-Moro I, Rubio-Arias JÁ, Carrasco-Poyatos M. (2019). High-Intensity Interval Circuit Training Versus Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training on Functional Ability and Body Mass Index in Middle-Aged and Older Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 30;16(21):4205.
Schleppenbach, L. N., Ezer, A. B., Gronemus, S. A., Widenski, K. R., Braun, S. I., & Janot, J. M. (2017). Speed- and Circuit-Based High-Intensity Interval Training on Recovery Oxygen Consumption. International Journal of Exercise Science, 10(7), 942–953.
Gibala MJ, Little JP, Macdonald MJ, Hawley JA. Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease. J Physiol. 2012;590(5):1077‐1084. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2011.224725