We all need to exercise; even frail older folks benefit!1 It strengthens the heart and muscles, boost immune function, improves mental health, lowers stress, lowers your risk of just about every disease and will help you live a longer, happier life. In fact, there are no negative side-effects of exercise, aside from people doing more than their body can handle. We know we should do it, but it’s really hard to take the time to actually do it. There’s work, driving the kids all over the place and don’t forget all the binge-worthy series’ on Netflix. We don’t all have time to exercise like we should because getting real exercise is time consuming. We could trade sleep for exercise, but then our health suffers for a different reason.2,3,4 But then there is what I call a Quick HIIT Workout, so you have no excuses! First some background:
Cardio vs. Weightlifting
There are two categories of exercise that are important. First, there is cardio. This is accomplished by keeping your heart rate elevated for at least 15 minutes. Common cardio exercises would be jogging or biking. Second, is weight training. This involves much shorter ‘bursts’ of energy directed toward moving heavy things. Obviously weightlifting is the most common way to do this type of exercise.
Because cardio involves forcing your heart to work harder, the greatest benefits are associated with a stronger, more efficient heart and blood vessels. Strength training does far less for your heart, but much more for muscle strength and efficiency. It also improves your brain’s connection with muscle contraction. Of course, cardio does provide limited muscular benefit and weightlifting does improve your heart health a bit. Both types also help you burn excess fat, but in different ways. And let’s be honest, this is the most important benefit for most of us.
It is recommended that you should exercise both ways regularly. In a perfect world, if you were only exercising for the health benefits (not training for a particular reason such as a race or bodybuilding competition), at least a 3 mile jog 2 times a week and 45 minutes in the gym 2 times a week would be in order. I say at least, because much less and you just could not expect significant results. But again, who has time for that besides exercise fanatics?
Correlation between duration and intensity
Before understanding how to exercise for a short period of time and still actually get good results, it is important to understand the relationship between duration and intensity. Cardio exercises tend to be low on intensity and high in duration. Think about jogging. At any given moment, it usually isn’t that tough, but you do it for quite a while. On the other hand, weightlifting, especially if done most effectively, is very explosive. You lift a heavy weight 5-10 times, expending a large amount of energy fairly quickly.
But keep in mind that you can’t do both. There is no such thing as high energy exercise that lasts a long time. In other words, you can’t sprint for 45 minutes or lift a heavy weight 100 times in a row. Its just impossible. So, the longer the exercise, the smaller your intensity must be. Likewise, the shorter the exercise, the greater your intensity can be. Longer duration, lower intensity tends to be most beneficial to your heart. Short duration with high intensity tends to provide more benefit to the muscles.
What a Quick HIIT workout is and how it maximizes intensity
High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to get the most benefit in the least amount of time. It is not ‘as good’ for your muscles as weight training nor is it ‘as good’ as cardio for your heart. However, it is the best way to get the most benefit in the least amount of time.
I warn you that HIITs are hard. You must be willing to give 100% effort when you do them. It is short-lived but requires every ounce of effort that you can muster. In fact, just a single HIIT should make you feel completely spent and maybe even nauseous. But don’t worry, the ‘pain’ is also short-lived.
Most commonly HIITs involve sprinting. You could maybe do them with other exercises like boxing or biking, but sprinting is usuallythe most effective. A single HIIT only takes 10-30 seconds but is a 100% effort sprint for the duration of your run. I cannot overemphasize that this must be a ‘balls to the wall,’ no holding back, ‘running from a lion’ type of experience. Between each HIIT you should rest for a minimum of 2 minutes to allow your body to recover. Then you can do another HIIT at full strength.
Pros of a quick HIIT workout
As I said previously, a quick HIIT workout is the best exercise you can do in a short period of time. While it burns fat only a little better than ‘traditional’ exercise, it is much shorter in duration. But aside from the time savings, the next best part is its ability to burn fat. 5 In fact, a single 30-second HIIT, done correctly, can, over the course of the day, promote the equivalent of jogging for 30 minutes. Think about that. A 30 second all out sprint, burns as much fat as a 30 minute jog!
Since it is a high intensity, explosive activity, there are some muscular benefits too, particularly for your legs.6 You are likely familiar with the fact that the fastest long distance runners have legs like a stork and sprinters have legs like a god. Why is that? It is because cardio exercise is not of the explosive, intense, short-duration type. This is what builds muscle size.
Don’t forget either that a HIIT will seriously ramp up your heart rate, albeit for a short time. While the heart gets the most benefit from working harder for at least 15 minutes, it still benefits from a short burst of energy release.7 It becomes a little stronger and more efficient as does the flexibility and function of your blood vessels.
Cons of HIIT
While HIIT is a superior marriage of cardio, muscle training and time-savings, it still cannot provide the same benefits of standard cardio or weightlifting. I do not mean to minimize the benefits of HIIT, just to say that it will never make you a marathoner or a bodybuilder. HIITs only have a limited benefit on your endurance and muscle-building, although there is some. The biggest benefit is how it keeps you lean. In fact, bodybuilders do them all the time to cut weight without the normal muscle wasting tendency of cardio.
But again, if you can only spare a little time for exercise, HIIT is by far the most effective. Jogging or weightlifting for 10 minutes would accomplish almost nothing, but 10 minutes of HIIT carries some great benefits, particularly when it comes to fat-burning.
Easing into it
Now if your typical day consists of limited activity, don’t go out and start doing a full quick HIIT workout. The truth is, HIITs are for people in good shape already. As they require such intense physical output, unless your body is in the kind of shape to withstand that kind of beating, you’re just gonna hurt yourself.
So, if you are ready to start doing a quick HIIT workout, you need to ease into it. Rather than doing an all-out sprint, you should begin with simple jogging and then eventually running for 30 seconds at a time. Depending on your physical state, you might do this for a couple months. Just keep doing it faster and faster until you get to the point that you don’t need to hold back anymore.
A Quick 20 Minute HIIT Workout
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. You now know HIITs will get you the best workout in the least amount to time. So, what does that look like?
Obviously you need to warmup before a HIIT, even if you are in incredibly good shape. You will injure yourself otherwise. You can stretch, jog, do jumping jacks, squats, whatever you need to do to warm up. Warmups vary from person to person, but the main point of warming up is to get your blood flowing. The best way though is to just do a moderate jog. This should take about 5 minutes.
At this point you do your first, ‘balls to the wall’ sprint for 20 seconds. Then you ‘walk it out’ to allow your body to re-energize for your next one. This should take about 5 minutes. Now follow this for as many more times as you desire. Let’s say you just do 4. Now do a brisk walk for 5 minutes as a cooldown. And you’re done. You just burned as much fat as jogging for over an hour, including your warmup and cooldown and it only took 20 minutes!
A boost for your HIIT workout
Supplements can give you a positive boost to your workout. They can increase your energy, motivation and recovery. Here are 3 of the best options:
Caffeine is a great energy booster as you probably already know. Especially given that HIITs are so hard, it can really make a difference in your ability to go all out. An excellent, natural source of caffeine is green tea. There are many benefits to green tea, but for HIITs, it really boosts your energy level.8 This is my personal experience, but also backed up by research.9 It is best to take about 30 minutes before your workout for the best results. Don’t take it within several hours of bedtime though, or it will likely keep you awake.
Another excellent choice is creatine. While the name strikes fear into some, it is all based on misunderstanding. Creatine is actually very safe and provides many benefits.10 In fact, it is one of the safest supplements out there. It is not a steroid or anything like it. Found in every muscle cell in your body, it simply helps recycle ATP, the energy molecule. Each time you use an ATP, and you use millions, maybe billions a second, it is used and your cells must either recycle it or make new ATP. Either requires energy and time. However, just the presence of creatine, allows ATP to reform automatically. The more you have in your cells, the quicker you can recycle energy. This is not such a big deal for long, slower energy outputs like jogging, but is huge for powerful bursts of energy like HIITs.
Another excellent choice is beta-alanine. Bodybuilders often use it to squeeze out additional energy as well. However, it works differently than caffeine or creatine. As you may already be aware, whenever we use our muscles in exercise, they produce lactic acid. This is a natural waste product, but the more there is, the more it inhibits additional muscle contraction. In fact, this is why you sometimes get so sore a day or two after a hard workout. You have built up a lot of lactic acid. Beta alanine though, produces an amino acid called carnosine that neutralizes it. This allows your muscle to exert more power and thus see better results.11 Plus, you will avoid some soreness and stiffness, especially if you take beta alanine before and after your workout. Beware however, it does make your skin feel prickly for a little bit. It just means it’s working.
Now the truth is that if you want to become a marathon runner or bodybuilder, HIITs should not be your focus. But if you are like most of us and just too busy, HIIT workouts provide the most effective all-around and especially fat-burning workouts in the least amount of time.