I tried a HIIT workout for the first time in years—here's what happened

I'm a lifelong fitness lover who hates HIIT workouts. Here's what happened when I tried one after years away

Man tired after HIIT workout
(Image credit: Getty Images)

I have always believed that I hated HIIT workouts. I've tried a lot of activities over the years that I love doing, such as running, gymming, surfing, yoga, paddle-boarding, climbing, and more. But if I had to pick one activity to never do again, it would be high-intensity interval training in all its forms.  

HIIT workouts, especially those involving the best kettlebells, burpees, and more of the best exercises for weight loss, are great for you by all accounts. They're an extremely efficient way to boost your base metabolic rate, encouraging your body to torch more calories, according to research such as this Journal of Obesity paper.

Great for fat loss and cardiovascular health, it's also an excellent way to practice bodyweight moves and tone your core, with many HIIT classes placing heavy emphasis on twists, crunches, and explosive, high-energy moves like burpees and squat jumps. 

But however good it is, I don't like it. I loathed the circuit training classes that used to be run during my local gym, with overenthusiastic instructors encouraging me to "take it to the max". I hated the feeling of grinding out rep after rep against the clock, and burpees hold no sway over me.

Instead of high-energy pop or dance remixes, I prefer steady-state, long-distance running with the best running shoes for men and a good podcast or audiobook. Failing that, lifting weights to a soundtrack of heavy metal and hip-hop makes for a nice change. 

However, I've recently become conscious that by avoiding HIIT workouts, my training isn't as "complete" as it could be. Low-intensity exercise such as jogging has been found to improve aerobic endurance and heart health. It's a great way to get blood flowing into your muscles, and can even be responsible for the fabled "runner's high". 

Man doing HIIT

(Image credit: Getty Images)

High-intensity exercise, on the other hand, is usually anaerobic exercise, which depletes your body's oxygen supplies faster than it can regain them. Not only do these explosive workouts burn calories quickly, but the resulting exercise post-oxygen consumption, or EPOC, raises your metabolism to burn calories for hours afterward. This makes HIIT really convenient for people who want to lose weight, but don't have much time to work out.

So in order to get the benefits of both endurance and explosive cardio, you need to actually do both kinds of cardio.

The day I tried HIIT for the first time in years, I wrote this article covering a Tabata workout from calisthenics legend Frank Medrano, and it got me thinking. Tabata is an extreme form of HIIT training principle in which you exercise for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and do it again. These workouts can range from four minutes to eight, to 30 for the true fitness mavericks or die-hard HIIT fans. I decided to break up one of my short runs with a quick four-minute Tabata workout.

My workout consisted of the following two-minute circuit, repeated twice:

  • Lunges, left leg, 20 seconds. 10 seconds rest. 
  • Lunges, right leg, 20 seconds. 10 seconds rest.
  • Push-ups, 20 seconds. 10 seconds rest.
  • Plank with opposite knee-to-elbow taps, 20 seconds. 10 seconds rest.

I also found a Spotify playlist full of four-minute cover songs, which have in-build timers. As you're getting close to the end of your set, the voice of the cover singer will call out "three... two... one... rest!" 

This allowed me to keep time without using the stopwatch function on my watch or phone, making the whole process easier from an administration standpoint. Check out the playlist below, and see how I got on:

1. It gave my workout new purpose

That day's run wasn't to hit any particular goal, or time: I just needed to get myself moving. Breaking it up with a Tabata workout gave my formerly aimless 20-25 minute run a new sense of structure. 

The run to the nearest river, my halfway point, was a warm-up, and the Tabata was the meat of the exercise. I had planned for my run back home to be a cool-down, but I ended up being so energized by the Tabata training that I took the journey home faster, sapping any energy I had left and turning a normally sedate run into a high-intensity, multi-discipline cardio workout.

Man planking while doing Tabata

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. It was actually enjoyable

I chose Def Leppard from the playlist above and got cracking: as mentioned above, the audio instructions meant I didn't have to constantly look at my watch or phone. The first two-minute round was relatively easy, while the second was more challenging, especially the lunges. I could definitely feel the difference in my heart rate between my usual steady-state runs and this small Tabata circuit.

However, I began to really enjoy myself. I put this down to its short timeframe and coming back to the format after so many years away. Research has found novelty is a big factor in exercise enjoyment and adherance, and it was certainly a fun change of pace. The beauty of Tabata is that you can take virtually any bodyweight exercise and perform it for 20 seconds, so the combination of routines you can perform is essentially limitless.

3. Switching up your training is a good thing

These new combinations of moves can also help you break past plateaus, becoming fitter than ever. The American Council on Exercise finds that "by fatiguing the muscles in a new order or pattern, you are requiring them to adapt to a new training stimulus". It's important to vary your workout routines to avoid stagnation, as well as alleviating boredom. 

I've been training in the same way for months: one run and two-to-three gym sessions a week, with the odd yoga class thrown in. Mixing up my routine with a short HIIT workout, done on my own time without an instructor in my ear, will make for a fun bit of variety in my schedule. After so many years away, I'm already itching to try another one: perhaps a 30-day HIIT challenge?

Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.