How to Interval Train at Every Level

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Whoever said "slow and steady wins the race" didn't have a full-time job, a slowing metabolism, and an endless to-do list. When it comes to staying in shape on a tight schedule, there's probably no better solution than interval training

Research suggests that by alternating bursts of high-intensity work with complete rest (or low-intensity movement), interval training can supercharge fat-burning, boost metabolism, and improve cardiovascular fitness.Eight weeks of a combination of high intensity interval training and conventional training reduce visceral adiposity and improve physical fitness: a group-based intervention. Giannaki CD, Aphamis G, Sakkis P. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 2015, Jan.;():0022-4707. High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. Boutcher SH. Journal of obesity, 2010, Nov.;2011():2090-0716.

What's more, HIIT training is incredibly versatile. It can incorporate bodyweight movements, weights, TRX training, running, and more. It’s easy to continuously mix things up so you won't get bored.

Below, we've rounded up more ways you can get the most out of HIIT with tips from three NYC-based trainers. Bonus: They also each provided a quick (but intense) HIIT circuit. Get ready to find your next workout addiction. 

Make the Most Out of Your HIIT Workout

  • Start slow. Go all out for 20 seconds, and then recover for 40 or even 60 seconds, says Noam Tamir of TS Fitness. You may feel like that’s not hard enough, but building slowly decreases your risk of injury and prevents you from burning out. 
  • Don't skip your warm-up. Because you'll be racing through moves, it's important your body is primed for action. Warm up all of your major joints (neck, shoulders, wrists, hips, legs, and ankles) with circular movements, Tamir says. Then move on to jumping jacks or a light jog in place or on a treadmill.
  • Aim for reps. If you're looking to improve (and who isn't?), keep track of your reps during a given interval and try to beat it next time, says Julia Avery, a trainer from The Fhitting Room. For instance, if you're doing Tabata, aim for 20 bodyweight squats in 20 seconds. 
  • Use an interval timer. If you're working as hard as you should be, it’s going to be tough to keep it together while glancing at a watch, a wall clock, or your iPhone, says Adam Rosante, author of The 30-Second Body. Instead, use an interval timing program, like Deltaworks Interval Timer app. You'll set it once, press start, and get to work.
  • Don't train on back-to-back days. At most, try HIIT two to three times per week on nonconsecutive days, Tamir says. On non-interval days, do some steady-state cardio, or try another type training like yoga or Pilates
  • Just add weight. If you need to make your workout harder, try adding weight to any bodyweight movement, or add more weight during the first round of a circuit, Avery says.
  • Keep the intervals short. Three to five minutes is not an interval. Twenty to 60 seconds is. Remember: The intervals are short so you can push yourself to the max. "The shorter a workout is, the more I dread it!" Avery says.
  • Use the "talk test." Not sure if you're pushing yourself? During the intervals, you should be unable to speak in full sentences, Rosante says.
  • Work out with a partner. Alternate your work and rest intervals with a partner, Avery says. So you'll rest while your partner works, and vice versa. While "resting," your job is to cheer on your partner and keep him working extra hard.

Pick Your HIIT Plan

Our three trainers suggested HIIT routines at varying levels of difficulty. One of the workouts requires no equipment, and the other two only require a set of dumbbells or kettlebells. All of them make it easy to get started—now!

The Moves

Here's a detailed breakdown of all of the moves mentioned above.

From a standing position, with feet shoulder-width apart, bend at the waist and place hands on floor. Walk hands out, one in front of the other as far as you can (the farther out you walk, the more core and shoulder strength you’ll need to use). Pause, then walk hands back to feet. Repeat.

Kettlebell Swings
Check out our guide to mastering this move.

Squat with Overhead Press 
(This move is also sometimes called a Kettlebell Thruster.) Holding either dumbbells or kettlebells at your shoulders, push hips back and lower into a squat. As you stand, push the weight up overhead and fully extend arms. Lower the weights and lower into your next squat.

Check out our guide to the perfect burpee.

Bent-Over Row 
You can perform this move with either two dumbbells or two kettlebells. Start with knees slightly bent and bend forward at the torso, keeping the back flat and straight. Try to look up (not at the ground) as you draw the weights up, keeping your elbows close to the sides of your body. At the top of the move, pause for a moment and squeeze your shoulder blades together before slowly releasing the weights down.

Jump Rope
Sprint in place drawing your knees up toward your chest as you swing an imaginary rope.

Get into a plank position with hands directly under your shoulders. Lower your chest to the floor, keeping your abs tight, then push back up to the starting position.

High Jumps 
Jump straight up reaching fingertips to the sky as if you were blocking a volleyball spike. Land softly. Repeat. 

Mountain Climbers
From the top of a push-up position, drive knees forward and back, alternating sides and moving as fast as possible. You can vary this move by starting in a low lunge with your hands on the ground, and then hopping to switch your lunge. 

High-to-Low Plank
From the top of a push-up position (high plank), lower one forearm at a time into a low plank position. Then, one hand at a time, push back up into a high plank. Continue alternating. 

Lateral Burpees
Perform a regular burpee by squatting, jumping feet back, doing a push-up, and hopping feet back to hands. Now, jump up and over to the right while clapping hands overhead. Do another burpee, but this time jump up and to the left. Continue alternating. (Note: You can also place something on the ground, like a towel or dumbbell, to jump over).

Originally published in July 2011. Updated July 2015.