High-intensity interval training is one of the most popular ways to lose weight, and for good reason.
If you do HIIT workouts for weight loss properly, they can significantly boost calorie burning and fat loss. HIIT training can also be very taxing on your body, though, which is why it’s important to follow a proper HIIT workout routine and emphasize the right HIIT exercises.
I’ve been using HIIT to lose weight and stay lean for years, and in this article, I’m going to break down exactly why HIIT works so well for weight loss, my top tips for properly using interval training for weight loss, and the seven best HIIT workouts for losing weight fast.
You’ll also learn how to avoid the biggest mistakes people make when using HIIT to lose weight and how to properly combine a HIIT workout routine with a strength training program.
Table of Contents
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HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training, which is a method of exercising where you alternate between periods of (almost) all-out intensity and low-intensity recovery.
The idea is simple: during your high-intensity bouts, you’re pushing yourself almost as hard as you can, and during your low-intensity periods, you’re trying to catch your breath in preparation for the next sprint.
You can do many different kinds of HIIT workouts by fiddling with the following parameters: intensity, hard interval duration, rest interval duration, and number of intervals.
Intensity: About 90% of your maximum effort—just shy of an all-out sprint. As your intervals get longer, you’ll need to drop the intensity to about 80% of your maximum effort.
Hard Interval Duration: Anywhere from 30 seconds to 4 minutes, though most HIIT workouts tend to involve shorter intervals of around 30 to 60 seconds.
Rest Interval Duration: 30 seconds to 4 minutes, or around the same duration as your hard intervals. These are also called “active recovery” intervals because you should keep exercising but at a lower intensity (a jog vs. a sprint, for example).
Number of Intervals: If you’re using HIIT for weight loss, 4 to 6 hard intervals tends to work best. It’s enough to burn a fair number of calories without burning you out.
Thus, a typical HIIT workout might involve a brief 5 to 10 minute warm-up, and then 4 hard intervals of 30 seconds each, with 1 minute rest between each interval.
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The primary benefit of HIIT is that you can burn a lot of calories in a short period of time. In other words, it’s time-efficient compared to other forms of exercise.
Research shows that a ~20-minute HIIT workout (four 30-second intervals on a bike with 4 minutes of rest in between) can burn about 230 calories. That includes calories burned during and after the workout (known as “ the afterburn effect.”)
That’s about as many calories as you’d burn in 30 to 60 minutes of walking, which makes HIIT significantly more time-efficient.
Aside from burning a lot of calories in a short amount of time, though, HIIT doesn’t have any special fat-burning benefits.
Good evidence of this comes from a meta-analysis published by a team of scientists at the University of Sydney that compared the effect of HIIT and steady-state cardio on fat loss. After crunching the numbers, the researchers found “no evidence to support the superiority of either high-intensity interval training or steady-state cardio for body fat reduction.” That is, both were equally effective over the long-term.
So, if HIIT helps you burn more calories in less time than traditional, steady-state cardio, why not do HIIT for all of your cardio workouts?
Well, you can so long as you’re only doing one or two cardio workouts per week. The main problem with HIIT, though, is that it’s much harder on your body and takes longer to recover from.
If you do too much (usually more than twice per week when combined with a strength training program), you can start to experience symptoms of overtraining and hamstring your weightlifting workouts.
This is why I recommend people use a combination of both very light cardio like walking or easy cycling and HIIT, so you get the best of both worlds.
- Exercise close to your Vmax during most of your hard intervals. This is the point when your breathing becomes labored and you feel like you can’t bring in as much air as your body wants. It’s about 90% of your “all-out” effort.
- Keep your active recovery intervals very easy. When using HIIT for weight loss, your goal is to burn as many calories as possible during your hard intervals. To do that, your active recovery intervals should be just hard enough to stay focused and keep your heart rate up, but no more.
- Warm-up for 5 to 10 minutes before every HIIT workout. The best way to warm up is to simply do whatever kind of cardio you’ll do during your HIIT workout at a lower intensity. This ensures you can give your full effort during your hard intervals.
How to: Do a 20-second sprint at about 90% of your max effort followed by 2 minutes of active recovery. Repeat 4 times for a total of 9 minutes and 20 seconds of exercise.
Why: The Timmons Method is a fantastic way to get started with HIIT. It features very short, hard intervals and extra long active recovery periods, which gives you ample time to catch your breath and really push yourself in each interval. This is the easiest way to get started with HIIT as you build up to more challenging variations, like the 4 x 30.
How to: Do a 30-second sprint at about 90% of your max effort followed by 1 minute of active recovery. Repeat 4 times for a total of 6 minutes of exercise.
Why: This is just a slightly more challenging variation of the previous workout, with longer hard intervals and shorter rest intervals. This is an ideal workout for someone who’s already in decent shape and looking to take their fitness to the next level. Plus, it burns more calories!
How to: Do a 30-second sprint at about 90% of your max effort followed by 2 minutes of active recovery. Repeat 6 times for a total of 15 minutes of exercise.
Why: This is a more difficult variation of the previous workout. In this case, you’re resting longer between each interval, but doing 50% more intervals, significantly boosting the calorie burn of the workout. This is often my go-to HIIT workout for losing weight fast.
How to: Do a 20-second all-out sprint followed by 10 seconds of active recovery. Repeat 8 times for a total of 4 minutes of exercise.
Why: Tabata is one of the most famous HIIT workouts because it’s very intense and time efficient (and has a cool name). Research also shows it improves aerobic capacity to a similar degree as moderate intensity cardio (at least in people who are new to the protocol). The downside of Tabata is that it’s very taxing due to the short rest intervals, which makes it difficult to extend your workouts and burn more calories (unless you reduce the intensity, partially defeating the benefits). Save this for after you’ve mastered the previously listed HIIT workouts.
How to: Do a 4-minute sprint at about 90% of your max effort followed by 3 minutes of active recovery. Repeat 4 times for a total of 28 minutes of exercise.
Why: The 4 x 4 HIIT workout features much longer intervals than most HIIT workouts, which helps train your aerobic energy system. This specific HIIT workout has also been shown to improve several measures of fitness, including maximal oxygen uptake (also known as VO2 max), blood pressure, body fat, and total cholesterol.
How to: Do a 1-minute sprint at about 90% of your max effort followed by 1 minute of active recovery. Repeat 10 times for a total of 20 minutes of exercise.
Why: This HIIT workout allows you to do a lot of high-intensity intervals in a short period of time. This often works well for people who want a more challenging HIIT workout, but don’t like the idea of pushing themselves for 4 minutes straight.
How to: Do a 30-second sprint followed by 60-seconds of active recovery; a 60-second sprint followed by 2 minutes of active recovery; a 90-second sprint followed by 3 minutes of active recovery; a 60-second sprint followed by 2 minutes of active recovery; and a 30-second sprint followed by 60-seconds of active recovery.
Why: This advanced HIIT workout injects some variety into your intervals and keeps your workouts interesting. Each interval lasts slightly longer than the one before, making your workout progressively more difficult, until you reach the “apex” of the pyramid, after which you repeat the same intervals you did before.
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Cycling is one of the most popular HIIT exercises because it’s low-impact, which means it’s gentle on your joints. What’s more, research shows that cycling can even boost muscle growth when combined with a proper strength training program.
Bicycling outside is also a great way to enjoy the benefits of nature, although doing HIIT on a busy road or without a helmet can be dangerous. Often, hill sprints work best, as they allow you to work hard while moving at a slower pace.
Running is one of the most convenient kinds of HIIT exercise you can do, because it doesn’t require any specialized equipment. And if you don’t want to run outside, most gyms have treadmills which makes it possible to run regardless of the weather.
That said, running causes much more fatigue and muscle damage per unit of time than cycling, rowing, skiing, and other lower-impact forms of cardio. Thus, it tends to interfere with strength and muscle gain more than other forms of cardio, especially when you’re doing HIIT workouts.
So, while running is a viable HIIT exercise, just make sure you don’t do so much that it starts to detract from your strength training (which is easy to do).
Ellipticals, rowing machines, and other cardio machines are readily available in most gyms, and they offer a convenient way to do your HIIT workouts.
Ellipticals have the advantage of being low-impact, so they’re easy on your joints. They also involve both your lower- and upper-body thanks to the handles. That said, if you find the elliptical movement unnatural, pick something else.
Rowing machines (also called “ergs”) are outstanding for HIIT workouts, as they involve your entire body and are very low-impact. They also make it easy to quickly change your pace, which isn’t the case with some machines, like the StairMaster.
When using cardio machines, though, just be aware that most of them will overestimate how many calories you’re really burning.
Battle ropes are thick, heavy ropes that you swing with your arms. They’re a popular HIIT exercise because they give you a way to train your upper body and they’re new and fun. 🙂
You can also do many different exercises with battle ropes, giving you endless opportunities to vary your training: alternating waves, jumping slams, and outside circles, just to name a few.
You can adjust the resistance of the rope by changing the amount of slack. The more slack in the rope, the harder your HIIT workouts will be and vice versa. You can also make battle rope exercises harder by kneeling (so you can’t use your lower body) and by using a thicker, heavier rope.
Kettlebells are a great HIIT exercise because they allow you to improve strength and cardio simultaneously. You can also make your HIIT workouts progressively harder by using heavier and heavier kettlebells.
The main downsides of using kettlebells for your HIIT workouts are that they can be difficult or even dangerous to move quickly when using heavy weights, and they take up a lot of space.
Burpees don’t require any equipment and are a full-body exercise, which means they burn more calories than many other kinds of exercise. They can also be used for cardio—but make sure you can maintain your form until the end of your sets (don’t get sloppy!).
Jumping rope is a fun way to burn a lot of calories, it only requires the rope, and it gives you plenty of opportunities to make your workouts more challenging as you get better. For example, you can do double-jumps, crossovers, and other more complicated moves.
If you’ve never jumped rope before, make sure you take a few weeks to get your form down and practice the skill before you use it for your HIIT workouts.
Jumping jacks are a classic full-body HIIT exercise that work well with all of the HIIT workouts in this article. You can also increase the difficulty over time by wearing a weighted vest, or introducing more explosive variations like the star jump. In a star jump, you squat down then jump while fully extending your legs and arms out, forming an “X” in the air.
Mountain climbers are a bodyweight HIIT exercise performed in a plank position. You drive your knees toward your chest one at a time and keep your upper body stable like at the top of a push-up. This makes it a full-body exercise that’s more challenging than it looks, but also very low impact and easy to do anywhere.
Sled pushing is a fantastic way to boost your cardio and strength at the same time. As the name implies, it involves pushing a heavy sled a certain distance as hard and fast as you can. To make the exercise more challenging, you can also add weight to the sled or push it further.
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Thus, I recommend you do no more than two HIIT workouts per week when cutting. If you want to do more cardio than this, do the rest as low-intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, like walking.
If you want to learn more about how to incorporate cardio into your strength training workout routine, read this article:
Almost any exercise can be used for HIIT so long as you’re able to perform it at a sufficient intensity during your hard intervals.
In general, lower-impact forms of cardio, like cycling, rowing, and rucking minimally interfere with your strength training workouts compared to higher-impact forms of cardio, like running and jumping rope.
On the whole, cycling tends to work best for HIIT, but you should do whatever you enjoy and can stick to.
In order to lose weight, you have to control your calories and maintain a calorie deficit.
HIIT can help you get into a calorie deficit by burning calories, but if you don’t properly manage your food intake, you won’t lose weight.
(And if you’d like specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
What’s more, weightlifting will also improve your body composition much more than any number of HIIT workouts. Thus, if you aren’t currently following a strength training program, start one before you start doing HIIT.
If you are controlling your calories and following a well-designed strength training program, though, HIIT can accelerate your progress. A good rule of thumb is that adding HIIT will speed up your progress by around 10 to 20% in most cases. That is, if you’d normally take 12 weeks to reach your goal weight, you might only take around 10 or 11 weeks.
How quickly HIIT will speed up your fat loss ultimately depends on how many calories you burn in each HIIT session and how many HIIT sessions you do. The more intense and longer your HIIT workouts, and the more sessions you do, the more calories you’ll burn, and the faster you’ll lose fat.
Remember, though, that you can only recover from so much HIIT each week. This is why I recommend you do a maximum of two HIIT workouts per week, and if you want to goose your calorie burn further, do the rest in the form of low-intensity cardio.
+ Scientific References
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- Sabag, A., Najafi, A., Michael, S., Esgin, T., Halaki, M., & Hackett, D. (2018). The compatibility of concurrent high intensity interval training and resistance training for muscular strength and hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(21), 2472–2483. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2018.1464636
- Millet, G. Y., & Lepers, R. (2004). Alterations of Neuromuscular Function after Prolonged Running, Cycling and Skiing Exercises. In Sports Medicine (Vol. 34, Issue 2, pp. 105–116). Sports Med. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200434020-00004
- Gergley, J. C. (2009). Comparison of two lower-body modes of endurance training on lower-body strength development while concurrently training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(3), 979–987. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a0629d
- Tjønna, A. E., Leinan, I. M., Bartnes, A. T., Jenssen, B. M., Gibala, M. J., Winett, R. A., & Wisløff, U. (2013). Low- and High-Volume of Intensive Endurance Training Significantly Improves Maximal Oxygen Uptake after 10-Weeks of Training in Healthy Men. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e65382. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065382
- Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (1996). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO(2max). Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28(10), 1327–1330. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-199610000-00018
- Keating, S. E., Johnson, N. A., Mielke, G. I., & Coombes, J. S. (2017). A systematic review and meta-analysis of interval training versus moderate-intensity continuous training on body adiposity. In Obesity Reviews (Vol. 18, Issue 8, pp. 943–964). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12536
- Sevits, K. J., Melanson, E. L., Swibas, T., Binns, S. E., Klochak, A. L., Lonac, M. C., Peltonen, G. L., Scalzo, R. L., Schweder, M. M., Smith, A. M., Wood, L. M., Melby, C. L., & Bell, C. (2013). Total daily energy expenditure is increased following a single bout of sprint interval training. Physiological Reports, 1(5). https://doi.org/10.1002/phy2.131