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Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 250 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Is High Intensity Interval Training Safe?

Before I talk about specific HIIT exercises, I want to first address the issue of safety. The American College of Sports Medicine, considered by many to be the authority on all things exercise, does not consider HIIT safe for those that they consider “high risk.” These include individuals with pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Those that would be identified as high risk also includes folks that experience cardiovascular-related symptoms when they exercise, like chest pain, or pain in the muscles in their limbs that goes away once they stop exercising.

For the longest time, researchers were afraid to push anyone with a history of chronic disease to perform HIIT for fear of them having a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack, during exercise! But now, researchers have been studying these high risk groups and are discovering that HIIT may be safe for most people–even those living with cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Before jumping right in (pun intended) and starting a HIIT program yourself, it’s always a good idea to double-check with your doctor to be sure.

For now, let’s assume you were cleared to perform HIIT and talk about specifics.

HIIT Workouts for Beginners

For those that are just starting out, I like to recommend movements that do not require a lot of gym-related equipment–basically moves that you could perform comfortably in your living room. Most of the exercises I recommend use the person’s body weight and gravity as the main forces of resistance.

I also like to incorporate large muscle groups. By using large muscle groups, you will actually end up recruiting smaller muscle groups at the same time. This is because we recruit smaller muscles to help move the larger ones. For example, when you do a pull-up, yes you are definitely using the muscles in your back, but you are also using your shoulders, forearms, and biceps to help with the movement. It’s like getting a total body workout without having to do all of those specific isolation exercises (like doing sets of just bicep curls).

Here are the exercises I like to encourage folks to start with:

  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Plank (sometimes called Forward Leaning Raise)
  • Squats
  • Skipping rope (you actually don’t even need a real jump rope – I’ll explain in a moment)

That’s pretty much all you need to get started. What if performing a pull-up or push-up is too difficult? That’s ok. There are simple ways to modify these moves.

The Pull-Up and Modified Move

For example, if you can’t do a single pull-up, put a very stable chair or step-stool below the pull-up bar. Then, place one foot on the very stable chair as you pull your body up to the bar. When your back and arms start to struggle and you are unable to lift your chin over the bar, push off the chair with your leg to help give you that extra height. Remember that this is not a leg exercise; it’s supposed to be a back and arm exercise, so don’t let your legs do all the work!

The Push-Up and Modified Move

What if you can’t do a push-up? Variations exist here as well. As we know, a push-up should be performed starting in a plank position, with your hands planted firmly directly beneath your shoulders, your arms in a locked position, and your back, bottom, and legs flexed and in a straight line. Your toes should also be flexed and making contact with the ground. This position can be challenging for some, so one variation is to drop the knees down to the floor to remove some of that extra resistance. If this is still too difficult, stand up, find a flat wall, and use that to do wall push-ups! When you actually perform the move, go as low as you comfortably can, then as you come back up to the top of the movement, be sure your arms are straight.

The Plank and Modified Move

The plank (or Forward Leaning Raise) is basically the starting point of a push-up like I just described. Instead of allowing your body to move towards the ground, you hold that starting push-up position for as long as you can. When you’re just starting out 10 seconds will feel like an eternity. Keep at it and you will get better! A variation of the plank is to go down to your elbows instead of keeping your arms locked in a straight position.

The Squat and Help for Beginners

For the squats, you don’t need any weight. For beginners, I put a chair, a bench, or an ottoman behind the person. I have them stand with their feet about shoulder width apart and toes pointed just slightly out. Then I tell them to push their bottom out as if they are going to sit on the chair (or bench or ottoman) I placed behind them. As they do this, I have them lift their arms straight out in front of them for balance. Once their bottom touches the chair, I encourage them to engage their glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abs to stand back up, and bring their arms down to their sides simultaneously. That would count as one squat.

Skipping Rope and Modified Move

What about this skipping rope thing? First, I only recommend this for those with no underlying knee or back issues.

The reason I like a little bit of jump training is that it strengthens our bones. Just as it sounds, if you have a jump rope, use it! But if you don’t, or just don’t trust yourself to be coordinated enough to use it, you don’t need one to perform this move. We’ll call it “invisible jump rope.” It works like this:

Stand with both arms at the level of your hips as if you were really holding jump rope handles in both hands. Start to move your wrists as if you were actually swinging the jump rope. As you do this, start to gently hop up and down, imagining that a rope is sweeping below your feet. That’s all there is to it!

HIIT Number of Sets and Reps

How long should you perform each exercise and how many rounds of each should you do? This is more difficult for me to answer, because there are so many variations. But I will give you some examples to get you started. Feel free to modify as needed and get creative!

HIIT Routine 1

  • 20 push-ups
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • 20 squats
  • Rest for 30 seconds
  • 5 pull-ups
  • Rest for 30 seconds

Then start over with push-ups. Repeat the entire cycle 5 times.

HIIT Routine 2

  • 100 push-ups
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • 100 squats
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • 25 pull-ups

Then, you’re done. No need to repeat the cycle.

HIIT Routine 3

  • 1 minute of “invisible jump rope”
  • 15 seconds of plank

Repeat this cycle for 15 minutes.

How Do You Know You Worked Out Long Enough?

As you can see, the number of reps for each exercise, the rest period, the number of rounds, etc. can vary greatly. No matter how you choose to mix things up, here are 2 ways to help you decide whether you got in a good HIIT workout:

  1. While you’re performing the workout, you find it difficult to speak because your breathing so hard.
  2. When you’re done, you feel pretty wiped. I tell my students, if you’re otherwise healthy, the walk back to your car after your workout should feel tiring. Or, if you’re working out at home, the walk to the shower should feel exhausting.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 250 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.