Let’s cut right to the core: high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been fartlekking around for well over a century. But what is HIIT, exactly? This buzzworthy acronym refers to short bursts of pulse-pounding exercise alternated between low-intensity recovery periods. The staggered work-to-rest ratios (1:1 or 1:2) let you pack rapid-fire muscle movements into tiny temporal timeframes, kicking your metabolism into high gear — one of the reasons it's one of the 5 cardio exercises that burn more calories than running.
While most heart-healthy folks may prefer prolonged cardio over hardcore bodybuilding, HIIT represents the cardio-centric yin and strength-building yang of holistic health; when executed properly, you’ll find nothing but positive benefits from a good HIIT program. Speaking of which, here are the best beginner HIIT workouts to get your rear in gear, designed for Tom’s Guide by Mecayla Froerer, Director of Training for iFit.
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Warm-up (5 minutes)
Before diving headlong into one of these HIIT workouts, you’ll want a good warm-up under your belt. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water in between sets/circuits, and stretch as necessary.
Here are a few sample warm-ups to get that blood pumping. Perform each exercise for 30 seconds each (5 minutes total):
- Jogging in place
- Jumping jacks
- Bodyweight squats
- Standing toe taps
- Leg swings
- Monster walk
Remember to pay close attention to overall form as you transition from one exercise to another. As you get used to this style of workout, you’ll find a smooth flow between these fundamental calisthenics; find the right warm-up sequence that works for you.
Beginner HIIT Workout 1: Running (31 minutes)
30-second push / 90-second recovery (repeat 8 times)
30-second push / 60-second recovery (repeat 6 times)
30-second push / 30-second recovery (repeat 4 times)
30-second push / 15-second recovery (repeat 2 times)
HIIT-style running workouts comprise short 30-second bursts of sprinting interspersed with a rest period, which decreases as you progress through the workout. During the high-intensity part, you want to crank your heart rate up to 80 percent of its maximum capacity. After each push, take your pace down to a brisk walk while you catch your breath.
According to iFit’s Froerer, “On a scale of 1 to 10 [for effort], pushes should be around an 8 to 10. You should feel breathless, not able to hold a conversation, and can only say a word or two at any given time. If you want to make [the workout] more challenging, add incline or resistance with each push.” This last part requires a treadmill if you're a city-dweller.
During those 30-second pushes, pay close attention to your running form; keep your shoulders down and relaxed; your head upright; your knees high; your arms loosely held at right angles (fists unclenched); and your feet landing underneath your body with every stride. Practice makes perfect, and in the long term, improper form is a potential injury waiting to happen.
Beginner HIIT Workout 2: Cycling (34 minutes)
Speed Focus / Quick Cadence (repeat 2 times)
- 1-minute push in saddle / 3-minute recovery
- 1-minute push out of saddle (ie, standing up) / 3-minute recovery
Resistance Focus / Slow Cadence (repeat 2 times):
- 1-minute heavy watts in saddle / 3-minute recovery
- 1-minute heavy watts out of saddle (ie, standing up) / 3-minute recovery
Choice of Speed or Resistance Half-Tabatas (repeat 4 times):
- 20 second push / 10 second recovery
Cycling is another HIIT mainstay. You can use any exercise bike (see our picks for the best exercise bikes), and you can also incorporate HIIT into any neighborhood bike ride, too. This beginner cycling routine gets you in and out of the bike saddle (ie, standing up vs. sitting down), which brings the pain to your quads, calves, and glutes — and how. During each high-intensity push, crank your bike up to the highest gear you can handle for 60 seconds, then dial the resistance back for each recovery period. When done properly, your shoulders and core will be feeling the burn, too.
If 34 minutes sounds a little intimidating for your first cycling session, there are plenty of gentler HIIT routines to ease you in, like this 15-minute workout from Kaleigh Cohen Cycling.To give you an idea of what more intense HIIT cycling looks like, though, check out this training video from the Global Cycling Network.
Bonus tip: Keep the bike pedals near your toes to put more emphasis on your calves, or closer your heel to emphasize the glutes/quads. Mix it up accordingly, depending on your fitness goals.
Beginner HIIT Workout 3: Elliptical (20 minutes)
20-second push / 40-second recovery (repeat 8 times)
30-second push / 30-second recovery (repeat 8 times)
20-second push / 10-second recovery (Tabata) (repeat 8 times)
Similar to treadmills, many ellipticals have adjustable incline settings to simulate hilly terrain; higher inclines put more focus on your calves and glutes, similar to stair-stepping machines. Ellipticals have skyrocketed in popularity over the past year, and they’re an excellent cross-training option for anyone with arthritic joints or back issues. (Since your feet never leave the foot rests, your back, hips, and knees get much more stabilization during each workout).
Beginner HIIT Workout 4: Bootcamp / Home Gym (25 minutes)
Circuit 1: 30 seconds of work; 15 seconds of rest (repeat 3 times)
~ Rest 2 minutes ~
Circuit 2: 30 seconds of work; 15 seconds of rest (repeat 3 times)
~ Rest 2 minutes ~
Circuit 3: (30 seconds of work; 15 seconds of rest (repeat 3 times)
One of the best things about HIIT workouts is their refreshingly low cost of entry. For example, your favorite sneakers, sports shorts, and a comfy tank top is all you really need to jumpstart that new HIIT running routine; your own body weight takes care of the resistance.
As you transition between exercise, look for natural movements that flow smoothly from one motion to the next (not unlike yoga). HIIT is all about getting as much work done in the shortest possible amount of time, and wasted movements means wasted work.
Here are some other fitness guides to help you get in shape:
Best treadmills | Best exercise bikes | Best adjustable dumbbells | Best home gym equipment | Best yoga mats | Best workout apps | Best running apps | Best sports watches | Best smartwatches | Best smart scales | Best Peloton alternatives | Best resistance bands | Tonal vs Mirror
How to lose belly fat | Best arm workouts with dumbbells | Best resistance band workouts | Use this 3-day lifting routine to get jacked | The best 10-minute ab workout to get that six-pack | How to train for a half marathon | How to train for a marathon | Best arm workouts with dumbbells | Best tabata workouts