Three HIIT Workouts to Burn the Fat and Keep the Muscle

Man doing push-upCredit: Suprijono Suharjoto 123RF.comHigh Intensity Interval Training, also known as HIIT, consists of brief, explosive exercises (i.e. sprints) followed by longer, lower-intensity exercises (i.e. slow jog or walk).  HIIT’s benefits are many, including: increased athleticism and explosiveness, fat burning while maintaining lean muscle mass, and brevity.

Low Intensity Steady State, also referred to as LISS, consists of longer, low- to medium-intensity exercises, done at a steady pace.  There is a long, on-going debate on which is better for fat-burning and overall health.  LISS and HIIT both have advantages, and both can be integrated into an overall workout regimen.  However, HIIT has the definite edge when it comes to maintaining lean muscle mass while burning fat.  Have any doubts about that?  Just compare the physiques of world-class sprinters with world-class distance runners.  Which physique would you like?

Distance Runner vs. SprinterCredit: Original images: Andy Lyons/Getty Images Sport

Again, this article’s purpose is not to bash LISS.  It does have its merits, especially if it is used in conjunction with high intensity anaerobic work (i.e. heavy weightlifting).  However, there is not much to LISS besides jogging or pedaling for a long time at a slow to medium pace.  It is straightforward and simple… and boring.  This is another major advantage of HIIT, it is fun!  Painful, but fun.  Part of the fun is the variations and types of HIIT workouts that are available.  Here are a few of them…

HIIT Workout #1 – Basic Intervals

This is the most popular type of HIIT workout.  The most popular exercise for the basic interval is sprinting.  All that is needed is a place to run, although a track would be preferable to accurately gauge distances.  Sprint intervals consist of sprints at full- or near- capacity for a short time interval, normally 15 to 30 seconds—followed by an equal or longer time interval of jogging or walking.  The ratio can vary from 1:1 to 1:4 and beyond.  Using 1:4 and a 15-second sprint as an example: one cycle would consist of a 15-second sprint followed by a 60-second walk/jog (15-seconds x 4 = 60 seconds).  A lower ratio such as 1:2 or even 1:1 would require faster recovery times and more exerted efforts.

Another way to split up the intervals is to run and jog/walk for set distances.  For instance, a sprint of 100 yards followed by a walk of 100 yards could make up one cycle.  This is excellent for hill sprints, in which the athlete sprints up an incline and then walks back down to complete one cycle.

Many other exercises can be utilized, including: stationary bicycle, step machine, swimming, jump rope, kettlebell swings, etc.  Performing HIIT on a treadmill is possible, but it can be dangerous.

HIIT Workout #2 – Increasing Intervals

Increasing intervals, also referred to as ladders or pyramids, involve increasing/decreasing the ratio of high-intensity to low-intensity work.  An example is as follows:

  • 15-second sprint
  • 60-second walk
  • 30-second sprint
  • 60-second walk
  • 45-second sprint
  • 60-second walk
  • 30-second sprint
  • 60-second walk
  • 15-second sprint

This could also be performed with varying distances instead of varying times.

HIIT Workout #3 – Tabata Method

The Tabata Method is a protocol developed by scientist Izumi Tabata at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan.  It consists of 20-seconds of intense exercise followed by 10-seconds of rest, for a total of 8 cycles.  The total time required is just 4 minutes. 

This method is very flexible because virtually any exercise can be utilized.  Examples include push-ups, squats, bag work, and burpees.  Exercises can also be cycled, meaning different exercises can be chosen for different cycles.   This is often referred to as a Tabata “Complex”.  Up to eight different exercises can be cycled in a complex.

The main advantage of using Tabata is the aerobic and anaerobic benefits that can be attained in such a short amount of time.  Short, yes.  Easy, no.  If it is, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough.

It can be difficult keeping track of the time, especially with the short 20- and 10-second turnarounds.  There are some watches that will beep at Tabata time intervals.  If you have a sound editor you could add beeps to your favorite music track and listen while working out.  There are also phone apps such as the Tabata Pro-Tabata Timer for the iPhone.

A Word of Caution

Although HIIT is highly effective, it can do more harm than good.  Novices should begin with moderate HIIT programs, such as a standard 1:5 ratio (i.e. fast-jog for 10 seconds followed by a 50-second walk), for 4 cycles.  Sufficient warm-ups are crucial.  Although a the Tabata Protocol calls for 8 minutes of work, 20 minutes of warm-up may be necessary to ensure your body is primed and ready and to prevent injury.

Also, don’t go overboard on frequency.  Too many HIIT sessions per week can negatively affect your body and performance, especially if you are hitting it hard in the gym three or more times per week.  Overtraining is always a possibility with HIIT.  Sometimes less is more.


High Intensity Interval Training is an excellent way to burn fat, build speed and strength, and maintain muscle.  It takes less time than steady state cardio and is a lot more fun to do… that is, if you equate exerting yourself to the point of unbearable pain fun.  That’s you right?  Thought so. 

Seriously though, HIIT is a powerful tool but it can also be a dangerous one.  Warm-up, build slowly, and get enough rest.  Intelligently, make HIIT a part of your workout regimen.  Don’t just settle for LISS.