By Tom DiChiara
In an ideal world, we'd all have time to exercise for an hour each day, burn enough calories to indulge (guilt-free) in our favorite foods, and fit in all of the 8,000 other things on our to-do lists. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world. So when we do find time to squeeze in a workout, we want to get the greatest bang for our buck. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) -- which consists of alternating bouts of high-intensity exercise with low-intensity recovery periods -- might be just what the personal trainer ordered.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Physiology found that HIIT is a "potent and time-efficient training method" for achieving both cardiovascular and muscular gains. And according to exercise physiologist and upwave review board member Dan Zeman, M.S., interval workouts can provide fitness and calorie-burning benefits in both the short and the long term.
Sounds great, right? It is... but not all interval workouts are created equal. Here are three ways to suck the marrow out of your HIIT.
Good: Conquer The Four-Minute Workout
If you're really pressed for time -- as in, you have five or 10 minutes to get in a workout -- you're a prime candidate for the form of interval training known as Tabata. Inspired by a study that found that just four minutes of HIIT four times a week could yield big gains in cardio strength and muscle development, Tabata can be incorporated with running, biking, rowing or other forms of cardio. To complete a four-minute Tabata workout, go really hard for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat that scenario eight times.
Better: Try A 30-Minute Workout
One flaw of Tabata? You're only exercising for, you know, four minutes. So you're not exactly going to earn that doughnut for dessert -- no matter how intense your workout.
Zeman recommends aiming for a 30-minute cardio workout that maximizes the time spent on intervals (and thus your calorie burn). "If you start off with a one-minute interval but do it so hard that it takes you five minutes to recover," he says, "you're only going to get in five minutes of hard running in half an hour. That's not an efficient use of your time." Instead, shoot to do a one-minute bout of high-intensity exercise, followed by a minute to a minute and a half of recovery.
For those who are either overweight or new to interval workouts, Zeman suggests tackling a form of training that takes body weight out of the equation, such as using an elliptical machine or riding a stationary bike. "When you're overweight or out of shape and you do a body-weight exercise like running, the difficulty increases because your body is your workload," he notes. "On a bike, you don't weigh anything -- so you can work out longer and with less recovery than you would doing a weight-bearing form of exercise."
Best: Climb The Pyramid
Once you've become comfortable with the one-minute-hard, one-minute-easy interval format, take things up a notch: Do hard intervals of 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes, three minutes and four minutes, with a recovery after each high-intensity bout of equal or lesser time. Then work your way back down with intervals of four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, etc. (For an added challenge, try doing the workout with just one to one and a half minutes of recovery between each interval.) This technique maxes out your exertion over extended time periods, and it'll burn plenty of calories to boot.