HIIT: Choose the right workout for you

Not all HIIT workouts are created equal, but whatever your training experience and goals, there’s one for you...

HIIT workouts are like compression t-shirts: every personal trainer’s got a bunch in their store cupboard, but some of them – sorry – stink. Anyone can tell you to do burpees as hard as you can for a random amount of time, but to make sure you’re training smarter, not just harder, you’ll want to use protocols proven by science…or used by the pros.

Here’s a selection of the best, from entry level to extreme.

If you’re new to training… use the Timmons Method

Developed by professor Jamie Timmons and his team at Loughborough University, this one’s very low on volume, making it perfect for anyone aiming to get back into training.

Do 20 seconds of high-intensity work (the exercise itself doesn't matter), followed by about two minutes of active recovery (still moving, just at super low-intensity e.g. walking after a sprint) or complete rest. Repeat as many times as you can while still keeping up full intensity for the 20-second work period. 

If you’re pushed for time…use Tabatas

You might have heard of the Tabata protocol before – the miraculous-sounding regime that allowed pro cyclists to make gains in just four minutes a workout, now adopted by gyms across the globe.

Tabatas are just 20 seconds of ‘work’ and 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times. The secret is to choose a full-body movement that pushes you to the limit. Burpees or jump squats are a good shout. Warm up for five minutes, then hit it hard. Be warned: in the original study, some of the cyclists hated it so much they wouldn’t get back on their bikes…

If you’re aiming for power…use reverse Tabatas

This doubles the rest and lowers the work intervals to shift the focus to anaerobic fitness, allowing you to push harder. Use it if you’re preparing for a sport that focuses on short bursts of speed (like five-a-side) or if you don’t have the fitness for an all-out Tabata. Warm up for 5 minutes, then do 8 rounds in total. 

If you love the outdoors…do hill sprints

Sprinting is a great way to do HIIT, allowing you to exercise at maximum intensity with minimal kit, but there’s a caveat – if your running mechanics aren’t on point, it’s also a great way to ping a hamstring.

Hill sprints, which force you to slow down while working even harder, are a safer option and come with a built-in cooldown – choose a steepish hill, sprint up it for 20-30 seconds, walk back down while you get your breath back, then repeat 5-10 times. 

If you want to be athletic…use EMOMs

Many HIIT workouts emphasise output over everything: thrashing away on a rower, spin bike or running track without worrying too much about technique. That’s fine if fat loss is your only goal, but if you’re aiming to get technically better at a few movements, use a training technique favoured by CrossFit champs: the Every Minute, On The Minute plan. 

To do it, pick one or two exercises: press-ups and squats work well together, as do kettlebell swings and burpees – then choose a number of reps to do every minute, for 10-15 minutes. The faster you get them done, the more rest you get before the next set – now, that’s motivation!

If you want lean muscle…use HIRT

HIIT’s lesser-known cousin – the ‘R’ is for resistance – does what it says on the locker. Using a combination of super-sets, tri-sets and giant sets, and very brief rests HIRT workouts push you past the point of muscular failure, increase Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption and burn fat while building muscle…while, er, hurting quite a lot. 

Try a ‘rest-pause’ superset to taste the pain: do as many press-ups as you can, rest for 20 seconds and crank out a couple more, then repeat once. Now, without resting, move straight onto pull-ups and do the same, resting for 90 seconds afterwards. That’s one round: do three. 

If you want functional strength…use HIFT

This variation of HIIT focuses on ‘functional’ movements, using resistance training exercises to produce similar benefits in aerobic and anaerobic fitness to HIIT, while also improving key measures of muscular strength and athletic performance. 

It’s a bit trickier to do if you haven’t got a gym full of strongman kit available, but nothing’s impossible when you’re prepared to improvise. Fill a rucksack with books and carry it ‘Zercher’ style – like you’d hold a baby – and walk with it, or carry a large water jug in each hand for an at-home version of the farmer’s walk. Once you’ve picked your movement, do 30 seconds of work and 30 seconds of rest for 10 minutes. 

HIFT study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6162410/

HIRT study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3551736/