HIIT to Get Fit
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is all-the-rage, these days, and it seems like you can’t enter a gym or have a conversation, without hearing about it. But is HIIT right for you? I will share benefits, risks, tools you’ll need, my experience with HIIT (as a person with physical limitations), and how to get started.
Getting Your Heart Rate Up
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training. You go hard, then rest. Go hard, then rest. And repeat. What this does is it gets your heart rate up and down, up and down, up and down. That strengthens your heart and your cardiovascular system. According to LiveStrong.com, “Your level of fitness plays an important role in how fast your heart rate returns to normal. The fitter you are, the faster your heart will recover.”
Exercises recommended for HIIT are usually ones that involve your whole body, like sprinting, jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, sprinting laps (in the pool), jumping rope, dancing really hard…basically anything high intensity enough that you have to stop and catch your breath, after a few minutes. You can lift weights, during HIIT, but you don’t necessarily have to, as long as you can get your heart rate high enough, without them.
The ironic thing is, the more out-of-shape you are, the faster you’ll be able to get your heart rate up. If you’re really fit, you might have to work a bit harder or use some extra resistance, to achieve the same kind of intensity.
Exactly how high should you get your heart rate up? Well, that depends. Here’s an article on how to calculate your maximal heart rate and your best range for HIIT.
Types of HIIT Exercises (home edition)
These exercises require no equipment, because they rely fully on your own body weight, plus gravity. Ah, gravity! It’s not always kind to us heavier folks, but in this case, it’s very useful.
Calisthenic exercises are meant to increase your strength and mobility and are often prioritized over the use of weight machines, by personal trainers.
The movements are supposedly more natural (I know…tell that to someone who’s red in the face from doing burpees) than targeting specific muscles, to the exclusion of the rest of the body.
Examples of calisthenic exercises are high knees, planks, jumping jacks, burpees, sit-ups, squats, lunges & push-ups. You might find this article from Healthline to be useful, if you’re new to doing calisthenics, or just need some reminders.
Also, don’t let yourself be scared off by these pros, doing one-armed planks. Nobody’s expecting that of you, to start off with. Besides, you can do whatever you want, or not, in the comfort of your own home. Your HIIT efforts are not for show, unless you want them to be.
Dumbbells, kettleballs (pictured here) and other weights are great if you a) are just so darned fit that you need support in getting your heart rate up high enough, b) can’t do the high impact full-body exercises, due to injuries, or c) want to build some muscle, while doing HIIT.
That’s right! You can dance your butt off and if it’s intense enough, you’ll get your heart rate up high enough for it to be considered HIIT.
The great thing about dancing is that it is naturally a start-and-stop kind of exercise that can torch a ton of calories.
You can do Zumba, Hip Hop, Soul Sweat, Ecstatic Dance…whatever you want, as long as it’s intense enough.
Make sure to take a (timed) breather after every dance song or routine. And then go again.
I really like grooving to The Fitness Marshall on YouTube. He has some great high energy routines, choreographed to fun & modern hip-hop songs.
Benefits of Doing HIIT
Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption is good stuff. It means that, even when you’re no longer moving, your body is still burning calories. It’s what makes weight-lifting so effective. And it’s what makes HIIT so effective, as well. It’s because of the start and stop thing. It takes a LOT of energy to do that. If you do HIIT properly, that EPOC could last for 72 hours+, after your workout.
With steady state cardio, you have to go and keep going for 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes at a time, to get a significant calorie burn or work up a good sweat. There are certainly advantages to doing so, of course. But, not everyone has that kind of time, to spare, or enjoys slugging it out for that long. With HIIT, 20 minutes is usually a pretty good amount of time. 30 is a lot. Any more than that, and you have to question whether you’re really going hard enough.
Burns More Belly Fat
You know that visceral belly fat that’s so dangerous? HIIT can help with that. According to the National Library of Medicine, “HIIT is a time-efficient strategy to decrease fat-mass deposits, including those of abdominal and visceral fat mass.”
As previously discussed, the goal of HIIT is to get your heart rate up, and then down. And repeat. One measure of fitness is how fast your heart can recover from being revved up. I had some major concerns about my heart, before I started doing HIIT. I’d been overweight most of my life, my father died of heart failure at 53, heart disease runs on my mother’s side of the family, as well, plus I’ve experienced some concerning symptoms, over the years. However, after having done HIIT for a few years, I am no longer as concerned about my heart. I know that it recovers quickly and is pretty darned fit, even though I’m still obese. BTW, HIIT can also be effective in helping reduce blood pressure, over time, which of course reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Variety & Flexibility
You can do HIIT with any exercise that really gets your heart rate up. At home, that could be dancing, squats, burpees, push-ups, jumping jacks, etc. If you get bored, mix things up and try a new routine. It’s best to do that, every couple of weeks, anyway, so your body doesn’t get too used to an exercise. With HIIT, you have plenty of options.
It’s Kind of Lazy
I don’t know any other form of exercises (aside from weight-lifting), where you take breaks in between reps. But, being able to stop for a minute in between sets? That’s pretty cool. Even if you tighten that up, you’re still resting a fair amount, during your routine. That’s why I think HIIT is kind of lazy.
No Gym Necessary
Unless you need a swimming pool to sprint laps or want to use weights that you don’t have at home, there’s no need to go to the gym to get your HIIT on.
HIIT Can Reduce Blood Sugar
According to Healthline, “A summary of 50 studies found that HIIT not only reduces blood sugar but also improves insulin resistance more than traditional continuous exercise (27Trusted Source).” If you suffer from insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and the consequences of it, you know how powerful that statement is. Increasing my insulin sensitivity is the main reason why I’m doing a low-carb diet and why I rely on HIIT for one of my main forms of exercise.
Not only does HIIT strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, and otherwise enhance your cardiovascular system, it can also increase your overall endurance. That could translate to you being able to have more energy to do more things.
Makes Your Mitochondria Happy
The mitochondria are kind of like the power plants of our cells. Incidentally, they are part of what makes being fat-adapted possible and why it can take a little while to get there. So, making and keeping the mitochondria happy is very important. In addition to feeding them a low-carb high fat diet, you can do moderate amounts of HIIT to keep them buzzing. I say “moderate” because too much HIIT can actually damage them. So, just keep that in mind.
Risks of Doing HIIT
Unfortunately, as with any physical endeavor on this earthly plane, there are some risks to doing HIIT. Just so you’re aware and go into HIIT with your eyes open, here’s the fine print:
HIIT Can Strain Your Nervous System: As the name suggests, High Intensity Interval Training is really intense and it’s not for everyone. If you have a fragile constitution or are frail, in any way, I would recommend sticking to more gentle forms of exercise, at least until you get strong enough to handle HIIT.
HIIT Requires a Basic Level of Fitness: HIIT is something that you might want to work your way up to, because of the intensity and the wear on your body.
If you regularly swim hard, dance up a storm, play squash, run, or do anything else at a fairly high intensity, already, you’ll probably be fine, doing HIIT.
On the other hand, if you find yourself wheezing, dizzy, or otherwise straining, just to get up a flight of stairs, tie your shoes, or do other regular everyday activities…sorry, but HIIT probably isn’t going to work for you. I would recommend starting with something gentler, like water aerobics.
HIIT Can Lead to Injury: This is why HIIT requires a relatively strong constitution and a basic level of fitness, because it can contribute to injuries. Make sure that you’re getting proper hydration and nutrition, too. If you’re doing low-carb, you might need extra sodium, magnesium, potassium, silica, and water, for your body to be able to withstand HIIT. And again, ease into HIIT, for best results.
HIIT Can Increase Stress Hormones: Because of the intensity, HIIT can jack up your stress levels, temporarily, as it does kind of induce a fight or flight scenario for your body. Do it too often and that temporary state can become a permanent one, especially if you do HIIT without enough carbs in your system. I learned that one the hard way.
As with trying any kind of new activity, it’s probably best to consult with your doctor, first. Hopefully they’ll be familiar with HIIT, already. Otherwise, be prepared to fill them in.
How Did I Get into HIIT?
In 2019, I worked out at the gym, a lot. I was swimming, walking, and weight-lifting, regularly, plus attending dance classes, when I could. When the pandemic hit and the gyms were suddenly closed, I didn’t want my fitness level to go down the drain or the weight to come piling back on. So, I bought some five pound dumbbells and I thought I’d devise a series of arm exercises that I could do at home.
I came up with five exercises, using the weights, and I would sit on a chair in my living room and do sets of those, while listening to some of my favorite music. I did get stronger, because the five pound dumbbells started to feel kind of light, so I went up to eight pounds. Then a few months later, I got some twelve pound weights. After I’d gotten used to those, I tried fifteen pounds, but that was a bit too much. I was really feeling the strain in my neck and shoulders and was concerned that I was going to hurt myself, doing so many reps. So, I went back to the twelve pounders.
I felt that I was doing well, but I didn’t know if the workout was really as intense or as effective as I was hoping for. Then I started hearing a buzzword: HIIT. High Intensity Interval Training. I was curious, so I did some research and started experimenting with it. I added even more structure to my routine. I didn’t just do the exercises, I did them as fast as I could, while timing the intervals in between them, to see how long it took my heart rate to come down. High intensity + intervals = High Intensity Interval Training.
Now, am I doing as much intensity as I possibly can? Well, I am still overweight, by about 85 pounds, plus somewhat limited by my injuries. You’re not going to find me doing burpees, lunging squats, jumping jacks, push-ups, jumping onto blocks, or leapfrogging over hurdles. Those exercises are too intense and too high impact for me. However, there are three things I can do:
Seated Dumbbell Exercises
I lift some 12 lb. dumbbells, while sitting in a chair. You might have to work your way up from a much lower weight, but there’s no shame in that! Remember that I’ve been doing this for a few years, now, and I started out with 5 pounders. At the time, that was plenty for me.
Desk Chair Squats
I’ve also come up with a squat routine (rising up out of my desk chair and then sitting back down, again) and I recently ramped up the intensity on that, by coming up on my toes, at the end, rather than driving my heels into the ground (to spare my recently injured ankle), as well as throwing my arms up, to avoid hunching over, because that was my natural tendency.
I can do sit-ups, which are actually really good for both my back and my abs, when done properly. NOTHING seems to jack my heart rate up higher than sit-ups. The only thing is that I get bored after about 3 or 4 rounds of them. Still, they’re a good starting exercise, to really get the heart pumping.
I’ve been doing the first three exercises long enough that I’ve been able to tighten my intervals from 1 minute of resting to 30 seconds. I can tell you that I definitely notice a difference in my weight and well-being, when I work these HIIT routines into my fitness schedule a couple times per week.
BTW, if you’re okay with going outside of your home, some other low-impact HIIT options are sprinting laps in a pool and racing uphill on a bicycle.
Heart Rate Monitor
The point of HIIT is to jack your heart rate way up, by going all out, allow it to come down, by resting, and then repeat. A heart rate monitor will help you gauge whether the exercises you’re doing are hard enough, or if you need to up the intensity.
Timer/Stop Watch App
If you want to have consistency, or at least be able to track your progress, you’ll need support in the form of a timer and a stop watch. The stop watch will show you how fast you do an activity and the timer ensures that you rest for the appropriate amount of time. You might already have them on your phone, via your clock app. If not, I’d recommend finding an app that has these tools.
Source of Entertainment
Keeping the mind entertained definitely makes the time seem to go by faster, while exercising…as I’m sure you know. I either watch one of my music video playlists on YouTube or put on one of my favorite episodes of Extreme Weight Loss, for inspiration.
I would encourage you to choose something that’s upbeat and high energy, though, because it might influence your intensity and ability to get your heart rate up, high.
Of course, entertainment is not required, but it can help keep your mind occupied, so you are not watching the clock.
I like to watch episodes of Extreme Weight Loss, while doing my HIIT.
I live in an apartment, so I usually wear earbuds, when I watch TV, to keep things cool with the neighbors. With HIIT, I need full range of motion and I cannot do it with wires getting in the way.
I don’t love that bluetooth technology could potentially mess with our biology, so I use them sparingly. They are just for exercise purposes and I keep them in their charger, otherwise.
I’ve tried a few kinds and these are the best of the bunch, in my opinion: Lenovo True Wireless Earbuds. You can pick up a pair on Amazon.
Depending on what kind of exercises you want to do, you might need to get some dumbbells, to make sure that you’re expending enough energy and getting your heart rate up high enough, as well as potentially build muscle.
Dumbbells are expensive, though. I have found dumbbells at thrift stores, but that’s been hit or miss. I’ve had better luck finding them at my local Play It Again Sports, which sells used sporting goods, though I’ve had to pay much more there. I feel that they’re a worthy investment, no matter what.
HIIT is intense and it can take a while to get used to. If you haven’t done HIIT, before, start small and work your way up. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Decide what exercises you want to do.
These are three types of HIIT exercises you can do at home: calisthenics, dumbbell exercises, and dancing.
2. Gather your tools.
Get your heart rate monitor, stop watch, dumbbells, entertainment, earbuds, sweat rag, yoga mat, water bottle, shoes, and whatever else you think you’ll need for the exercises that you’ve chosen.
If you want to use weights, start out with lighter ones that you know you can do 30 reps at a time with. It’s okay to feel some burn, but you don’t want to go all G.I. Jane and rip your muscles too much, starting out. While building muscle can be a side benefit of HIIT, remember that the main goal is to get your heart rate up.
3. Stretch and warm up.
Just as with any other kind of exercise, you’ll want to ease into HIIT. I’d recommend spending 5-10 minutes doing some basic stretching, first.
4. Try it out.
Go hard, until you can’t go anymore. Stop and rest. Go hard. Stop and rest. Repeat.
5. Monitor your heart rate.
You’ll want to time about how long it takes you to feel really winded and about how long it takes you, before you feel like you can go again. Allow yourself at least one minute to rest, in between sets. You can always tighten that up, later, as your heart gets more fit. But, be generous with yourself, in the beginning.
6. Keep it short.
You should probably stop at about 20 minutes, for your first workout. If you’re going hard enough, you should feel fairly winded at the end of that.
7. Adjust the Intensity.
If you feel that what you’re doing is too hard and you’re concerned about giving yourself a heart attack, slow your roll. It’s not worth dying over. Choose a less intense exercise, do fewer reps, use lighter weights, and/or take a longer break in between sets. It’s doesn’t mean that you’re weak or incapable. It just means that maybe your body needs time to catch up to your level of ambition. It happens.
On the other hand, if you’re having a Captain America moment and thinking, “I could do this ALL DAY LONG”, you’re not going hard enough. Up the intensity by doing more reps, using heavier weights, going faster, or tightening up your intervals.
8. Take time to recover.
You really should only do HIIT 1-2 times per week, starting out. And I would recommend spacing that out, as well. Resist the urge to do it two days, back-to-back. Treat it more like weight-lifting than cardio. Also, according to Insider.com, you should keep your HIIT to less than 90 minutes per week, to avoid negative health consequences.