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I have read some good things about high intensity interval training (HIIT) programs, and wanted to give one a try. The problem is I don't know how the structure of one works, so I cannot build one custom to my own needs.

Is there a standard structure or any considerations I should take into account when building a custom HIIT routine? Are there any popular or well tested programs that I can take inspiration from?

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A popular structure in terms of timing and effort is "Tabata", see fitness.stackexchange.com/search?q=tabata. If you do any sports with high intensity moments (e.g. martial arts, team sports), you can structure exercise part of the program around them. –  FredrikD Nov 18 '12 at 19:56
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3 Answers 3

For Inspiration, here are some popular and well tested ones. i am a graduate of the first two and trust me, they work!

  • Beachbody Insanity
  • Beachbody Asylum
  • Beachbody Asylum Volume 2
  • Turbo Fire

Basically, the structure of an HIIT program involves going as many reps as you an, for a specific period of time, like say...30 seconds (you may want to do 4 exercises back to back, so you go for at least 2 minutes without a rest) and then come to a complete rest for 30 seconds before you go at it again.

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You didn't describe any of those programs, and since they are all for-profit dvd programs, any description of them online is behind a paywall; in other words, it does little to describe what a HIIT looks like. Also, your description left me with a lot of questions, for instance: How many exercises/rests are in a set? How many sets per workout? Should I be doing super sets or avoiding those entirely (seems difficult at 30s no rest)? Is 30sx4 + 30s rest the standard, or just what BeachBody does (I thought it was 20s + 10s rest)? –  Moses Nov 20 '12 at 2:37
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up vote 9 down vote accepted

After scouring the web for resources on the subject, I have come to the following conclusions:

High intensity interval training ("HIIT") programs are typically defined by a 2:1 ratio of work to rest/recovery periods, with anywhere from 4 to 10 cycles of work/rest, for a total workout session between 4-15 minutes depending on its structure ([source]).

An example program would be: 30 seconds of hard sprinting alternated with 15 seconds of walking, repeated 6 times for a total workout time of 4 minutes 30 seconds.

Another example would be the Tabata method (one of the more popular forms of HIIT), and is structured as 20 seconds of intense cardiovascular work followed by 10 seconds of rest, and repeated continuously for a period of 4 minutes or 8 total sets.

The primary benefit of HIIT/Tabata style workouts is a substantially improved VO2 Max, compared to that of gains from moderate intensity long duration aerobic activities. Additionally, it is thought that HIIT also improves fat loss compared to standard cardio ([source]) via the "afterburn effect," although critics cite that while HIIT has the highest caloric burn / exercise time ratio, traditional exercise can provide a much higher caloric expenditure at the expense of increased exercise duration.

As for specific exercises to do during HIIT/Tabata, that largely depends upon your goals. HIIT is best designed for aerobic activities such as boxing, sprinting, jumping (rope, boxes), so it is best to pick one or more of your preferred exercise and iterate between those during your 4-6 minute session. Some programs recommend barbell/dumbbell exercises, however those are not ideal because HIIT is an endurance/aerobic workout, and thus does not translate well into either the strength training or body building world ([source]).

Finally, when starting a HIIT program you should be mindful of the fact that--if you are doing it correctly--the exercise will be extremely intense; so much so, people often vomit after the first couple of sessions. Due to the intensity of the program, it is recommended that you consult your doctor first, and that you incrementally buildup intensity over time. For example of the latter, instead of starting Tabata off as 20/10 x 8 (20 work seconds, 10 rest seconds, 8 total sets), you build up to that instead. For example, below is a incremental HIIT structure taken from t-nation:

  • Week 1 — 10/20 x6 (10s work, 20s rest, 6 sets)
  • Week 2 — 15/15 x4
  • Week 3 — 10/20 x8
  • Week 4 — 15/15 x6
  • Week 5 — 20/10 x4
  • Week 6 — 15/15 x8
  • Week 7 — 20/10 x6
  • Week 8 — 20/10 x8
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The Tabata training website seems to be expired. Perhaps the Tabata protocol website is a good replacement for it. –  René Van Belzen Jun 21 at 11:31
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Besides the answer from Moses, I would like to add:

  1. Ratio of work to rest. The 2:1 isn't typical for all sorts of HIIT. The Wikipedia article in the source also mentions the "Little method" where you have more of a 1:1 relationship. Personally, I have been exposed to "2 min run - 2 min rest"x10 or "15s run-15s rest" x10x2 protocols, depending on goals and where you are in a yearly training cycle.
  2. Besides increasing VO2max, HIIT can also be used to practice "game"/"real" situations.
  3. Some strength training work-out routines, e.g. "New rules of Lifting", have for variation purposes work outs with weights where the weights are relatively heavy (deadlift, squats, lunges) and the rest periods short. If you execute these and measure your pulse, you will see that you get close to a HIIT session.
  4. Consulting a doctor first is a must, I would also recommend a pulse watch. For beginners so that they during the work out, work hard enough and for formerly active and now aged, so that they don't get carried away and die from cardiac arrest.
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