High-Intensity Workouts: Burn Calories Better, Longer

From the WebMD Archives

Things are about to get really intense. But just for a little while.

It’s called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. You vary your pace or how hard you work, pushing your limits, and then drop back down to a more comfortable zone. Then you do it again -- rev it up, recover, and repeat.

The payoff: You'll torch calories far more than if you kept at a steady rate.

The catch? “HIIT can be tough, and it requires a lot of effort,” says Mike Young, PhD, owner and founder of Athletic Lab Sports Performance Training Center in Cary, NC.

You’re up for the challenge. Right?

How Hard Is It?

“High intensity means using as much energy as you can during exercise in a small amount of time,” says Laura Miele-Pascoe, PhD, a professor of coaching education for Ohio University online.

Your cardio blasts should be 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on how fit you are. The goal is to get your heart rate up to 80% to 95% of its maximum rate.

You can make your workout short or long. Either way, you’re going to feel it.

“You need to train hard enough that the workout is at least moderately uncomfortable,” Young says. “If you're able to hold a conversation during the work periods, you're probably not training hard enough.”

What It’s Like

For Katie Dugdale of Hendersonville, NC, HIIT gave her energy that thyroid disease had sapped from her for years.

“I’ve never been a morning person,” she says. “But about a year after I started, I realized... I was ready to get up and get moving every day.”

Dugdale also started to lose the 50 pounds she’d gained during her four pregnancies. Her results inspired her husband, a runner.

“When he noticed the changes in me, he started incorporating some of the intense training exercises into his workouts,” Dugdale says. “Pretty quickly, he dropped 40 pounds, and the struggles he’d been having with his sciatic nerve disappeared.”

How to Push Yourself

“This type of exercise isn’t for everyone,” Miele-Pascoe says. For example, it’s not for you if you have heart problems, she says. Ask your doctor first if you’re not active now.


Once you’ve got the green light to hit the HIIT, heed these expert tips.

Take it slow. “Don’t attempt exercises that you haven’t built up to,” Miele-Pascoe says. You need to learn the moves and manage how intense you make it. “Be mindful of how much to push yourself and when to refrain.”

Let your body recover. “Because your body’s working harder, it needs more time in between workouts for muscles to heal,” says Lance Dalleck, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise and sport science at Western State Colorado University. Dalleck recommends taking at least 2 days off between sessions.

Don’t overdo. Two HIIT sessions a week is plenty, in addition to your other workouts. “It’s easy to get carried away with interval training,” Dalleck says. “But actually, we’ve found that simply adding 1 day a week of interval training to a moderate-intensity program yielded better gains in fitness than doing moderate-intensity exercise alone.”

Use tools. You could wear a heart monitor so you know whether you’re on track. Devices like that help you have more effective, safer workouts, Dalleck says.

4 HIIT Workouts

1. HIIT on a Bike

Cycling is a low-impact way to get your heart rate racing. Miele-Pasco recommends this pedal pusher:

  • Begin riding at a comfortable level.
  • Ride at this speed for 1 minute and 30 seconds.
  • Boost the intensity. Then pedal as fast as you can for 45 seconds.
  • Go back to your first speed.
  • Repeat.

Try to go for 20 minutes. Gradually increase your time and intensity. Don’t have a stationary bike? Hit up a local track.

2. Tabata Squats

The Tabata method is named after a Japanese researcher who found that exercising in high-intensity bursts improves how your body burns energy. Young shares this squat set:

  • Stand with your feet a little wider than your hips. With your chest lifted, squat until your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor, arms raised in front of you as you sink down. Keep your weight on your heels.
  • Do as many of these body-weight squats as you can for 20 seconds.
  • Rest for 10 seconds. 
  • Repeat 8 times.


3. Burpee-Run Intervals

How to do a burpee: Start standing. Squat down and place both hands on the floor. Jump your legs back into a plank position. Jump your legs back up to your hands. Then stand and do a vertical jump with your arms raised.

Young says for every 3 minutes, you should:

  • Do 10 burpees.
  • Run 400 meters.

Use any remaining time after the run as rest. Do 4 to 6 rounds.

4. HIIT Boxing Workout

Miele-Pascoe created this drill. You’ll need a jump rope and a punching bag.

  • Jump rope for 1 minute. For the last 30 seconds, jump as fast as you can.
  • Do 40 crunches quickly.
  • Move on to 20 push-ups.
  • Do 15 jump squats -- lower into a squat position, jump up quickly, and go back to a squat. Repeat.
  • Rest for no less than 30 to 45 seconds.
  • Jump rope, same as above.
  • Hit the heavy bag for 1 minute.
  • Do 15 push-ups.
  • Go straight to 25 jumping jacks.
  • Finish with 25 crunches.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on February 25, 2016



The American Council on Exercise: “High-intensity Interval Training for Clinical Populations,” “Bodyweight Squat,” “Burn Calories: Supercharge the Squat Thrust.”

Petrofsky, J. Journal of Applied Research, 2012.

Mike Young, PhD, owner and director of training, Athletic Lab Sports Performance Training Center, Cary, NC.

Laura Miele-Pasco, PhD, sport, fitness and recreation expert; professor, coaching education, University of Ohio online.

American College of Sports Medicine: “High-Intensity Interval Training.”

Katie Dugdale, Hendersonville, NC.

Tabata, I. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 1996.

Lance Dalleck, PhD, assistant professor of exercise and sport science, Western State Colorado University, Gunnison, CO.

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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