How to get started with HIIT workouts

Do you want to up the intensity but not the impact of your workouts? Our personal trainer has the tips you need.

High intensity interval training (HIIT for short) is often considered an advanced way to exercise, but it can be enjoyed by beginners. You might associate HIIT with images of people sweating profusely and jumping around – and yes, some HIIT workouts can be along those lines. But HIIT exercise covers a broad spectrum and, done correctly, it can be suitable for most people.  

HIIT has its fair share of devotees, but also those who loathe it – like most forms of exercise. Some people say it’s dangerous but, in all honesty, it’s only dangerous if you don’t do it right or try to push beyond your capabilities. If you’ve been relatively inactive for years, it’s not a good idea to suddenly start doing burpees and box jumps, but you can introduce intervals of intensity into your workouts, which is essentially what HIIT is.   

Woman with one leg out to her left in a speed skaters' positionCredit: Saga Exceptional

It’s a good idea to consult your GP before beginning a new exercise regime, especially if you have any preexisting medical issues or injuries. If you have any questions, please email me using the button on my profile below. 

What is HIIT?

Put simply, HIIT is exercising intensely for short bursts, followed by a period of rest. How long the intervals and rest periods are, and how intense the exercise, can all be tailored to the individual. As the acronym HIIT became more mainstream, its meaning changed somewhat.  

HIIT in its truest sense would be used only by high-level athletes to improve their performance in specific sports, such as sprinting. It would involve pushing their heart rate as much as possible for a very short period, such as 20 seconds, before resting. Nowadays, you’re likely to see HIIT tailored to the masses, and adapted in the following ways:  

  • A HIIT class – these are run at a gym and often involve exercises such as sprinting, jumping, or push ups for short intervals (such as 30 seconds) followed by rest periods.  
  • CrossFit – CrossFit gyms are known as boxes, and they use HIIT principles for their training. Exercises are often quite intense – although they can be adapted to different levels – and you will sweat!  
  • Spin class – a high-intensity indoor cycling class that has sprint elements and longer, slower climbs.  
  • Boot Camp – these outdoor classes can be structured in many ways and often have elements of high-intensity work.  
  • Running training – if you train with a regular running group or athletics club, you’re likely to integrate some form of HIIT into your sessions, such as hill sprints.  

It’s a good idea to get familiar with heart rate zones in exercise if you want to do HIIT, since you’ll need to pay close attention to how hard you’re working, and make sure you also recover properly. You may want to invest in a fitness tracker – our fitness tech writer Steven Shaw recommends Fitbit Charge 5 

Above all, HIIT can be a hugely rewarding form of cardio exercise (if you enjoy it, of course). It delivers a huge endorphin rush, and you’ll end up with a massive smile on your face. I have had the pleasure of teaching HIIT for many years, and there’s nothing else like it!  


Who can do HIIT?

Mainstream HIIT essentially means doing some form of exercise with an added element of briskness, and this can be tailored to a level you’re comfortable with, meaning it can be suitable for absolute beginners. For example, you might take a 20-minute walk, and introduce five periods of walking briskly for 30 seconds. Intermediate exercisers might change this to a jog/sprint combination.  

If you’re looking to advance beyond this, and perhaps try a HIIT class, or more intense interval training, you’ll need to take your health and fitness into account. Because of the intense nature of some HIIIT workouts, they should be avoided by anyone with heart issues.  

Woman pressing a pair of dumbbells overheadCredit: Saga Exceptional

Some HIIT classes will have a lot of jumping. This can nearly always be modified by rising to your toes instead, and low-impact HIIT is just as effective. But those with joint issues (especially in the knees) might like to try another workout instead. The bottom line is, most people can make HIIT work for them, but what you do and how you do it will vary for each individual.  

How to do HIIT

The following offers ideas on how to build HIIT into an existing routine or create your own. Always make sure you warm up before exercise – our running warm-up has some great ideas and is suitable for using before a HIIT workout too.  

For each, check how hard you’re working in one of two ways:  

  • Heart rate – using a device that will monitor your heart rate, aim to push to around 80% of your max heart rate (MHR) during HIIT, and 60-70% the rest of the time.  
  • Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) – a scale that indicates how hard you’re working based on how out of breath you are. An RPE of one would be lying down in bed, for example, while 10 would mean a pace you could maintain only for a few seconds, all out max effort. For HIIT, intervals should be an RPE of eight or even nine – the point where you’re out of breath and conversation is in short bursts between breaths. The rest of the time should be around six or seven – moderately out of breath but still able to speak in sentences.  

Adding HIIT into a walk, run or bike ride

  • Decide how long your activity will be – for example, 30 minutes.  
  • Give yourself five minutes at the start and end to exercise at moderate intensity, leaving you the rest of the workout to add high-intensity intervals (20 minutes in this example).  
  • Decide how many high-intensity intervals you want to add and how long they’ll be, and space them out accordingly – for example, eight 30-second intervals, so one interval every two minutes.  
  • Use a fitness tracker or smart watch to keep time, and whenever your interval rolls around, push at a harder intensity. 
  • Monitor how hard you’re working using the methods above.  

HIIT exercises at home

  • Build your own circuit of HIIT moves from the suggestions below.  
  • I would suggest five moves, performed for 45-60 seconds each, with one minute of recovery between each.  
  • Keep moving during recovery – walk around, march on the spot or do a light jog. Let your heart rate come down so you’re ready to go again.  
  • Repeat your chosen circuit three times.  
  • Don’t forget you can take out any jumping by rising to your toes instead.  

Push up

Woman doing a pushupCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Line yourself up in a plank position.  
  2. Squeezing the glutes (bum muscles), lower your body towards the floor in one motion.  
  3. Elbows should flare out at about 45 degrees, hips and shoulders stay in one straight line.  
  4. Push yourself back up to the starting position.  

Top tip: Follow our guide on how to do a push up for various options, including wall push ups and knee-down push ups.  

Squat jump

Woman doing a squat jumpCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.  
  2. Bend the knees to squat down.  
  3. Push feet firmly into the floor, then explode up in a jump.  
  4. Land with feet flat, knees bent, and repeat.  

Top tip: Make this a low-impact HIIT exercise by rising to the toes instead of jumping.  


Reverse lunge no weightCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. From a standing position, lunge back on one leg, bending the knee.  
  2. Your front knee should be at a 90-degree angle.  
  3. Drive through the front foot and come back up to standing position, then lunge on the other leg.  

Top tip: Keep your balance by not stepping back too far. You can also make these into jump lunges (jumping up to switch legs) for an ultimate HIIT session.

Mountain climber

Woman in plank position walking feet in towards hands - mountain climberCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Start in a plank position.  
  2. Keeping your hips down (don’t push your bum in the air), walk or run the knees in, crunching your core.  

Top tip: Keep the hands and shoulders in line to avoid hurting your neck or back.  

Squat thrust

Woman squatting and pressing a pair of dumbbells overheadCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells at (not on) the shoulders and stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width.  
  2. Squat down, bending your knees, then drive up, using the power in your legs to press the dumbbells towards the ceiling.  
  3. Bring the dumbbells back to shoulder level, then repeat.  

Top tip: Keep the dumbbells relatively light so you can keep going for the whole 60 seconds.  

Tricep dip

Woman doing a tricep dipCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat.  
  2. Place your hands by your hips, fingers pointing towards the toes (your elbows will be bent and facing backwards).  
  3. Push into the feet and hands, and extend the arms, pushing your body upright.  
  4. Bend the elbows and use the triceps to lower yourself back down.  

Top tip: Follow our guide on how to do a tricep dip for detailed instructions and modifications.  

Side lunge

Woman doing side lunges holding a pair of dumbbellsCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Optional – use a pair of dumbbells for this exercise (as shown) or just use bodyweight.  
  2. Standing with feet together, take a large step out to the side with one foot, pushing the hips back and bending the knee.  
  3. Bring your torso over with you (as shown).  
  4. Push into the foot on the bent leg and come back up to standing. Alternate sides.  

Top tip: Make sure your feet stay flat on the floor, even if that means reducing the size of your lunge.  

Sumo squats

Sumo squatCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Optional – hold a pair of dumbbells at (not on) the shoulders (as shown) or just use bodyweight. 
  2. Stand with the feet wider than the hips, toes turned out.  
  3. Squat down, keeping the back straight and chest lifted.  
  4. Push into the feet and come back up to standing.  

Top tip: You can rise back up on to the toes for an added balance challenge, if you like.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky is passionate about Kettlebell training, and runs a regular kettlebell club in the local community. Prior to this, she worked as a Fitness manager in a local gym. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain.

Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

Away from work, Becky unsurprisingly enjoys exercise, with a focus on lifting weights, kettlebells, and Olympic rings. She loves watching theatre, swimming, and reading a good book. She has three teenage children and enjoys spending time with them, preferably on a Cornish beach.

  • twitter
  • instagram