Woman doing high-intensity workout

What are High-Intensity Workouts? Health Benefits, Types and Ideas

"Ugh, I just don't have time to work out," says everyone everywhere. Thankfully, there's a solution: high-intensity training. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a time-efficient approach to exercise. You get your heart rate up quickly but safely, doing a lot of work in a shorter period of time. It's not just for gym rats, either. Anyone can do HIIT, even if they were previously inactive.

Remember that staying healthy is a multifaceted approach! You need great nutrition, regular physical activity, and the right fitness supplements. If you're not looking to spend a ton of time in the gym, high-intensity training might be a great fit for you. Let's dive into all the details!

What are high-intensity workouts?

When we're talking about high-intensity interval training, it refers to performing short bursts of exercises followed by short rest periods. You alternate between the two (work periods and rest) for the duration of your workout.

A great example of a HIIT workout is the standard tabata. In a tabata, you do 20 seconds of intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. You repeat this eight times, for a four-minute workout. While some people stop here, others choose to extend it further. To make your workout even spicier, you can do this for four rounds, with one minute of rest in between each. This gives you a 20-minute workout—be prepared for your lungs to burn!

To be clear, just about anything can be turned into a HIIT workout—it's not just tabatas. Ten seconds of sprinting followed by 45 seconds of rest is HIIT. So is 15 seconds of all-out peddling on a stationary bike followed by 30 seconds of rest. HIIT workouts often use only the weight of your body. However, they're incredibly versatile. And if you want to increase intensity even more, throw in some dumbbells! Yes, even traditional weight training can have an aerobic twist and become more high-intensity.

Because high-intensity workouts demand that you give your max effort, they're typically shorter in duration—usually somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes. Make no mistake, though. These will get your heart rate up.

Are high-intensity workouts good for you? Health benefits

Why should you consider adding HIIT workouts to your weekly fitness schedule? Here are just a few health benefits.

1. HIIT workouts can promote fat loss

HIIT isn't like other types of cardio. Research suggests that HIIT can trigger fat loss. In one clinical study with 44 female university students, four weeks of HIIT significantly decreased their BMI, body fat percentage, and total body fat mass. It also increased their muscle mass.

(Friendly reminder: This isn't about the number on the scale. You're already beautiful! It's about your overall health.)

2. You can add muscle to your frame

HIIT isn't only aerobic. If you haven't been that active and want to get stronger, high-intensity exercise is your friend. One study using hockey players showed that HIIT triggered positive effects in the thickness and power of their muscles. The study mentioned above with female university students also showed a marked increase in muscle mass over the four weeks.

How does this happen, exactly? Well, research tells us that HIIT can stimulate the cellular responses that encourage muscle mass, along with increasing the expression of proteins involved in muscle growth.

3. High-intensity interval training can promote already-healthy blood pressure

One study showed that HIIT is better at maintaining already-healthy blood pressure compared to more moderate-intensity exercise. Another study came to a similar conclusion, noting that people who did HIIT compared to endurance training (meaning the HIIT group exercised less) were able to similarly support blood pressure already in normal range. In other words, they did less work for similar benefits. Another 2022 meta-analysis of 10 articles using 266 participants who were 60 years of age or older showed that those who participated in more than four weeks of HIIT were better able to promote already-healthy blood pressure compared with the control group.

Even low-volume HIIT (meaning less than 15 minutes of high-intensity exercise) can support already-healthy blood pressure and healthy glucose metabolism.

Get your heart rate up, challenge your lungs, and support your health.

4. HIIT can encourage already-healthy blood sugar levels

Want to keep those glucose levels healthy? Listen up! Research suggests that HIIT supports healthy insulin sensitivity better than continuous exercise. And a 2022 meta-analysis examining 19 clinical studies found that there was significant support for already-healthy fasting glucose, HbA1C and insulin levels in groups that did HIIT versus the control group.

In other words, HIIT can, support already-healthy blood sugar levels.

5. HIIT is good for the brain

It's not just about the physical benefits. Exercise can improve your memory and cognitive ability. (Psst! If you want to boost your memory even more, try supplementing with taurine.) High-intensity exercise specifically can improve how fast you process information.

And, it's great for your mental health! One systematic review from 2022 showed that HIIT can improve your mood and mental well-being, while fighting perceived stress.

Move your body and your brain will benefit.

How does high-intensity training (HIIT) work?

High-intensity interval training works by putting you through periods of high-intensity exercise followed by low-intensity rest periods. You perform this for rounds and end up with a shorter workout that's miraculously more effective than many longer programs.

Is high-intensity exercise designed to burn fat?

HIIT is a great way to shed body fat. Because of the nature of high-intensity workouts, they demand more of your body in less time. You're working harder, faster. So, your body ultimately burns more calories during—and after!—your HIIT workout.

If you need an aerobic workout that's a serious calorie-torcher, a HIIT program can support healthy weight loss.

Can you build muscle with HIIT?

Yes, you absolutely can! Bear in mind, though, that the impact will be greater for individuals who weren't previously very active. High-intensity interval training is always good for cardiovascular gains. But if you want to build muscle mass, eventually, you will need more traditional strength training that focuses on lifting heavier weights for reps, like bodybuilding.

Types of high-intensity workouts

As you can now tell, there are infinite ways to tackle your HIIT training. When coming up with your programming, note that there are four training variables you want to address.

  • Intensity

    : Intensity refers to a few variables, including how fast you move, how much weight you lift (if applicable), and for how many reps, in a single workout.
  • Duration

    : This refers to how long your HIIT workouts last. As we mentioned, they typically range from approximately 10 to 30 minutes.
  • Frequency

    : How often do you perform your HIIT workouts in a week? That's frequency!
  • Exercise recovery

    : Exercise is nothing without recovery. Your HIIT workouts are when you stress your body and break it down (in a good way). Recovery is when it builds back up to be stronger than before. We call that a win!

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4 popular HIIT workouts

Beyond this, there are various types of high-intensity training.

  1. HIIT

    : We've covered this one a lot already because it's a commonly used term. But taking it a step further, there are endless variations of high-intensity interval training. You can do a full-body HIIT program, weighted HIIT exercises, or bodyweight HIIT exercises, as an example.
  2. Tabata

    : We've touched on this one already, as well. Tabata-style workouts are a straightforward way to do maximal work in minimal time.
  3. AMRAP

    : "As many reps/rounds as possible"—this type of high-intensity training is common in the functional fitness community. During these workouts, you're given the exercises to do and the reps and rounds to perform them in. You're also given a set amount of time. Your goal is to complete as many reps/rounds as possible. For example, you might do an AMRAP of five box jumps, five burpees, and five squats in 10 minutes. So, you'd cycle through those exercises, at those reps, until the timer stops.
  4. EMOM

    : "Every minute on the minute"—this is another one that the functional fitness community loves. An EMOM workout tells you to perform a certain exercise (or exercises) for a specific number of reps, at the top of every minute, for a designated amount of time. For example, you might do five burpees at the top of every minute for 10 minutes total. As you progress, you fatigue and move more slowly, so you have less rest time between rounds. That's why EMOMs can get so spicy.

3 ideas for at-home HIIT training

Ready to jump on the high-intensity training bandwagon? Cool! But what if you're training at home with no equipment? Don't worry—you can still get your HIIT on with nothing but bodyweight exercises (like push-ups) and simple cardio/strength-building movements. Here are three ideas for zero-equipment HIIT workouts:

Workout #1

  • 15 seconds of jump squats
  • 45 seconds of rest
  • Complete for five rounds

Followed by

  • 15 seconds of burpees
  • 45 seconds of rest
  • Complete for five rounds

Workout #2

  • 60 seconds of sit-ups
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • 60 seconds of tuck jumps
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • 60 seconds of air squats
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • 60 seconds of lunges
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • 60-second plank position hold
  • 30 seconds of rest

Workout #3

  • 10 push-ups (scaled as needed)
  • 10 seconds of rest
  • 10 mountain climbers
  • 10 seconds of rest
  • 20 lateral hops
  • 10 seconds of rest
  • Complete for 5 rounds

How often should you do high-intensity workouts?

There's no magic number when it comes to HIIT workouts. What matters most is that you give your body enough rest in between workouts.

Some high-intensity workouts won't be quite as demanding as others. So, a day of rest might be enough. However, other workouts might have you sore for a few days. Listen to your body and rest accordingly!

As a general rule, many people opt to do high-intensity training two or three times a week and often incorporate other training methods in between, for variety (like strength training or endurance cardio/steady-state cardio). Even if these other training modalities don't get your heart rate up, there offer many other health benefits—resistance training, in particular.

Variety is the spice of life. Mix up high-intensity, moderate-intensity, and low-intensity training for optimal results.

Could high-intensity training be dangerous? Health tips

Just about any type of training can be dangerous if you go about it the wrong way. The same goes for HIIT-style workouts.

If you're being monitored for any health condition—especially involving your heart—speak with your doctor first. You should also speak with your provider first if you haven't been active for a long period of time.

However, also note that one systematic review of 23 studies with 1,117 participants found that HIIT has a low rate of major adverse events. Another clinical study with 29 participants showed that HIIT was safe, effective, and enjoyable. It even supported already-healthy blood pressure and mood improved.

Don't forget warm-ups, cool-downs, and ample recovery periods between workouts.

Time to HIIT the gym!

Regular physical activity, a healthy diet, and the proper supplements can work wonders for your mind and body. Why not give HIIT a try? It's a straightforward way to get your body moving and do some serious work quickly and efficiently.

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About the Author: Megan Grant has a degree in communications from University of Michigan. She has been writing professionally for 15 years, with a focus on nutrition, fitness, and general health. A lifelong competitive athlete, she's fascinated by how the human body responds to food and movement.