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What is HIIT Cardio? The Ultimate Workout!

High intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio is essentially what has replaced long, grueling cardio sessions. Gone are the day of running, and running, and running, forever.  Here are the days where you can get a tremendous cardio workout in just 20 to 30 minutes. That sounds a lot better than on hour or two of running when your goal is to get lean or lose fat, right?

With HIIT, you can realistically get an entire workout and cardio session in in 45 minutes to 1 hour. The time you spend in the gym each week is essentially cut in half, without any drop-off in results. Just 4 to 6 hours are enough to get cut with HIIT.

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What is HIIT?

If you’re still reading, let’s take a look at what, exactly, HIIT is. HIIT is a way to work out your cardio vascular system on over-drive with sessions of balls-to-the-walls intensity mixed with lower intensity recovery periods. Effectively, when you’re exercising at a high intensity level, you’re pushing your body almost as hard as it can go. And when you’re exercising at a lower intensity you’re trying not to die (or trying to catch your breath).

What’s the Ideal HIIT Workout?

The great thing about HIIT workouts is that anyone can do them. While “high-intensity” is different for everyone, everyone is capable of operating at 90% of his or her maximum capability level. Thus, HIIT works for everyone.

When it comes to creating a HIIT workout, we have to examine five components:

  1. Cardio type
  2. Total Workout Duration
  3. High-Intensity duration periods
  4. Low-Intensity duration periods
  5. Frequency of your workout

Let’s take a quick look at each of these components.

What are the Best Types of Cardio for HIIT Training?

Research has shown that the best cardio options for HIIT training are sprinting, biking, and rowing. These three exercises will improve your cardio while preserving your muscle mass when combined with proper nutrition.

Now, keep in mind that these three cardio workouts are not the end-all of HIIT training. Other options like a stairmaster, jump rope, elliptical, or swimming won’t rapidly deteriorate your muscle mass. However, studies have shown that athletes who perform cardio which mimics the same, or similar, movements as those performed when lifting weights increase their ability to add muscle mass.

How Long Should Your HIIT Workouts Last?

Most HIIT sessions will include a workout lasting approximately 2 minutes, followed by 20 to 25 minutes of training, and capped off by a 2 minutes cool down. So the average HIIT session lasts 25 to 30 minutes from start to finish.

However, we like to reverse engineer our workouts. First, determine how much time you have to work out. Life happens, so if you can’t commit 25 to 30 minutes to cardio on any given day, keep in mind that some level of exercise is better than not exercising. So, instead of saying “we’ll I can only hit the gym for 15 minutes today, why bother?” realize that a 15 minute workout is better than a zero minute workout. HIIT can, and has been, done in as little as ten minutes. The shorter the workout, the higher the intensity needs to be. This means, shorter HIIT sessions will have shorter recovery periods.

What’s the Ideal High-Intensity Interval Session?

We’ve already covered that you should aim for an ideal high-intensity level of 90% of your maximum output. Pushing yourself to 100% could lead to overtraining and the inability to complete the workout due to exhaustion. The other caveat is that you should not be aiming to reach 90% during your HIIT training session. Every single high-intensity HIIT interval should be at 90% of your maximum output from the first interval to the last.

To determine how long your high-intensity interval should be, you must determine how long you are physically capable of performing the exercise at 90% of your maximum capability level. Then, your intervals should be kept to 50 to 60% of that time period. For example, if you’re capable of running in an all-out sprint for 60 seconds the high intensity interval portion of your workout should be approximately 30 to 36 seconds.

As your cardiovascular endurance improves, you will need to modify the workouts to remain within 50 to 60% of your new maximum capability. This will force your cardiovascular system to continue to improve instead of reaching a plateau.

Remember, the goal of your high-intensity session is to go at full speed. If you’re using a machine such as a bike or elliptical, you do not want to go against so much resistance that you’re moving at a slow speed.

What’s the Ideal Length of a Low-Intensity Recovery Period?

If you’re just starting to add HIIT training to your workout routine, start with a low-intensity recover period that is twice as long as your high-intensity period. In the sprinting example above, the high-intensity session was 30 to 36 seconds. This means that your recover period would be 60 to 72 seconds. As you continue to perform HIIT training, shorten your lower-intensity sessions and try to spend the same time at a high-intensity level as you do at a lower-intensity level.

It’s important to note that the recovery periods of HIIT training are low-intensity, not no-intensity. Keep moving while you are actively recovering.

A Quick Note

In the HIIT training session we’ve outlined that’s based on sprinting, we’ve determined the following:

  1. Your workout should be 20-25 minutes with a 2 minute warm up and a 2 minute cool down
  2. You should sprint for 50-60% of the time in which you a physically capable of performing at a 90% maximum exertion
  3. Your low-intensity recovery session will be between the same to twice as long as your high-intensity session

In our example, if you’re physically capable of sprinting for 60 seconds at 90% of your maximum output, you would sprint for 30 to 36 seconds. In the beginning, you would recover for 60 to 72 seconds. This means that on the low end, you would sprint for 30 seconds and recover for 60 seconds a total of 13 times during a 20 minute workout. Or on the high end, you would sprint for 36 seconds and recover for 72 seconds a total of 11 times.

How Frequently Should You Do HIIT Workouts?

As with seemingly all fitness related questions pertaining to frequency, the answer is it depends. It depends on what you’re aiming to accomplish and what your other training sessions pertain.

To lose fat, and maintain and build muscle mass, three to four sessions per week will suffice. This is ideal as you combine HIIT training with resistance training.

Contrary to what seems logical, when cutting, the amount of HIIT training you do will decrease. This allows you to adjust to your diet of decreased calorie intake and helps you avoid overtraining your body and losing muscle mass.

What Should HIIT Training be a Part of Your Routine?

HIIT training is an increasingly popular way to obtain an effective cardio session in a much shorter time period. With HIIT training, there is no more spending countless hours at the gym each week doing long-distance cardio training. You’re getting the same, or better, results in a fraction of the time.

When combined with proper nutrition, HIIT training will produce results. Keep in mind that when losing weight or cutting, the diet plays a huge role in your success. Be careful not to combine an enormous caloric deficit with a HIIT training program. Instead, keep your caloric deficit level moderate. HIIT training requires fuel and it will burn those excess calories. Also, remember to eat a high-protein diet. Your diet should consist of 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per pound of your body weight. This means that a 150 pound person will consume 180 to 255 grams of protein per day. This will allow your body to build and maintain muscle mass and prevent your muscles from deteriorating.