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Categories: Cardio Training

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Best Cardio to Burn Fat

By Marc Perry / November 27, 2017

When most people think of cardio, they think of long, boring jogs, or endless hours on the elliptical.

I’ve got good news for you: there’s a method of cardio that takes much less time and is far superior to jogging to help you burn fat. It’s called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and this article will give you the basics so you can take your body to a new fitness level.

The picture to the right shows an extreme example of the different training outcomes of a marathoner (“steady state” cardio) and sprinter (high intensity interval training cardio). While these people obviously have different body types and genetics, the photo is still revealing.

What is High Intensity Interval Training?

High Intensity Interval Training alternates between high-intensity and low-intensity exercise. For example, sprinting for 30-seconds, then walking for 60-seconds is high intensity interval training. HIIT can be used both anaerobically in the gym with weights and aerobically with cardio.

Why Is HIIT the Best Cardio to Burn Fat?

Exercise physiologists used to believe that “steady state” cardio was superior for fat loss because relatively more fat is used by the body as fuel at lower exercise intensities than at higher intensities. The “Fat Burning Zone” shown on most cardio equipment as only 60%-65% of max heart rate is really a myth and is NOT optimal for burning fat. Yes, you burn more fat relative to glycogen when going for a walk, but what we care about is total fat burn. At higher intensities, you are burning far more fat, even though the fat/glycogen ratio is lower.12 In addition, interval training allows you to exercise at very high intensities for a much longer period of time than steady state, so you burn more fat.

As an added bonus, there’s also an afterburn effect known as EPOC (excess-post exercise oxygen consumption). You increase your metabolism and burn more calories for up to 24 hours after interval training, whereas going for a jog burns almost NO calories after.

My 12-Week BuiltLean Transformation Program is based on HIIT because it’s so effective at burning fat.

Other HIIT Benefits

There are a number of great benefits to High Intensity Interval Training besides serious fat burn that include:

Increased Aerobic Capacity – The amount of oxygen your body can use (oxygen uptake) is increased, so your overall aerobic capacity can increase faster than with low intensity endurance exercise3

Increased Lactate Threshold – Your ability to handle increased lactic acid buildup in your muscles increases

Improved Insulin Sensitivity – Your muscles more readily suck in glucose, instead of the glucose going to your fat stores45

Anabolic Effect – Some studies show that interval training combined with consuming slightly more calories than you burn creates an anabolic effect, which helps you put on muscle. The opposite occurs with steady state cardio, which for long durations is catabolic.6

Sample HIIT Workout

If you are a beginner, I would recommend only trying HIIT if you can do a session of cardio for 20-30 minutes at 70-85% of your max heart rate. You can still try interval training, but at a lower exercise intensity and beginners should always wear a heart rate monitor.

NOTE: Interval training should begin with a 3-5 minute warm up and end with a 3-5 minute cool down to prevent dizziness, or nausea.

Here’s a sample HIIT workout that’s simple, but effective:

30 Seconds Sprint/Fast Jog
60 Seconds Walk/Slow Jog

I do this HIIT workout all the time on a treadmill, jumping rope, or doing kettlebell swings. The duration of “work” is 30 seconds, and my “rest” is 60 seconds. The work/rest ratio in this case is 30/60, or 1 to 2. I shoot for 5-10 cycles, depending on the type of cardio I’m doing and if it’s right after strength training. The better shape you are in, the higher intensity you can handle and the higher the work/rest ratio. For example, well trained athletes can use a 2 to 1 work /rest ratio, so they are training hard for 30 seconds and only resting for 15 seconds. That’s tough!

Any type of cardio can be used with interval training, but I would caution against running more than a few times per week, because the demands on your metabolic system and joints are significant. For beginners, I recommend the elliptical, which is lower impact. Swimming, jumping rope, cycling etc. can all work well as training modalities.

I rarely go for just a jog unless I just want to clear my head, or get a little sweat. Jogging is child’s play compared to HIIT, which is substantially more effective to help you burn fat in less time and take your body to a MUCH higher fitness level.

Show 6 References

  1. Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism” Metabolism, vol. 43, no. 7, pp. 814–818, 1994.
  2. Talanian JL, Galloway SD, Heigenhauser GJ, Bonen A, Spriet LL. Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. J Appl Physiol. 2007;102(4):1439-47.
  3. Gibala MJ, Mcgee SL. Metabolic adaptations to short-term high-intensity interval training: a little pain for a lot of gain?. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2008;36(2):58-63.
  4. Tjønna AE, Lee SJ, Rognmo Ø, et al. Aerobic interval training versus continuous moderate exercise as a treatment for the metabolic syndrome: a pilot study. Circulation. 2008;118(4):346-54.
  5. Perry CG, Heigenhauser GJ, Bonen A, Spriet LL. High-intensity aerobic interval training increases fat and carbohydrate metabolic capacities in human skeletal muscle. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008;33(6):1112-23.
  6. Meckel Y, Eliakim A, Seraev M, et al. The effect of a brief sprint interval exercise on growth factors and inflammatory mediators. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(1):225-30.

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119 Comments

  • Ajay from india says:

    hello marc , I am 25years old 5'3 and 160lbs . I am a general physician(sedentarylife style) I really and badly want to get thin and lose fat . dont want to put bulky muscle and need to workout in home itself .give me some workouts schedule and workouts to get thin , thanks in advance.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      I would suggest searching around this site and using the search bar in the header. I also suggest for you to check out my free Get Lean Guide. It's a great starting point for you. Keep in mind nutrition will help you lose the fat and exercise will help you keep muscle - and that's from a purely aesthetic perspective.

  • Ivi says:

    Hi Marc. I'm thinking about starting your program. I need to lose a lot, around 70 kg to get to my ideal weight. Can you tell me your thoughts on this
    http://www.bodyfatguide.com/LooseSkin.htm?
    I am really scared of loose skin, to be honest, and would really appreciate an advice.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Ivi - If you lose weight in a way that's healthy, you will be able to decrease the impact of excess skin. In addition, you will also be able to identify if it will become a problem. It's something to discuss with your doctor. In addition, if you are under 30 years old, it's likely your skin elasticity can be restored over time.

  • JR says:

    My trainer started me on HIIT and I lost 5% body fat in a little over 2 months (combined with weight training and a healthy diet). We do it a bit differently, I started at a 3:1 ratio and moved to a 2:1 after 5 weeks. also, on bike or elliptical, I sprint for 30 seconds but the rest time is the same.

    I am a woman and started at 26% body fat, 5'8", 160 lbs. I'm now at 21% body fat, 150 lbs.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Awesome. Congrats JR!

  • Ben says:

    Hi Marc, I did my first HIIT work out today on my Treadmill. I did 3 minutes warm up on 5mph, then I sprinted on 9 for 30 seconds and walked on 3.5 for 45 seconds, then I warmed down for 3 minutes on 3mph.

    I feel fine afterwards (although I only did it today so I'll see how I feel tomorrow :P). Is this a good exercise routine to stick to for losing body fat? And how often should I do it a week?

    I'm 18, weigh 154lb and my height is 5'9.5.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Ben - I wish I could answer that question definitively, but without an in depth analysis, it would not be possible. With that said, I would read over the article again and pay particular attention to the concept of progression where you slowly over time make the intervals more challenging by a combination of decreasing rest and increasing volume and intensity.

  • Mike Smith says:

    Marc-

    8 weeks into struggling at gym but have lost 25 pounds....i am 5 foot 7 265 now and love doing the elliptical...I have done interval training for 60 min at a time with setting on 15 out of 25....the machine spaces it out to hard 1 min and no resistance a min....when I am done it says about 1000 calories burned..i am in no way "sprinting" during any of it...I would like to try HiIt but what setting should i have machine on and do i change it for the 120 seconds of slow down?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Mike, congrats on the weight loss so far. That's very, very impressive. Keep up the great work.

      Personally, when I do interval training on a treadmill, I just change the resistance manually. FYI, all ellipticals have different settings and resistance, so it's not possible for me to give you a specific suggestion. With that said, you can max out on a resistance that is difficult for you to handle for 60 seconds, then go lighter for 60-120 seconds. If you are doing interval training intensely, it shouldn't last for more than 20-30 minutes MAX. It's all about intensity and as you get in better shape, you will be able to push it harder and increase the resistance. Then after the interval training workout is done, you can do steady state training for another 30 minutes if you choose.

  • craig says:

    Hey Mark. I'm a high level athlete looking for some advice. My main goal in the offseason is too get lean and add muscle. I have my workouts nailed down but I have some questions about cardio. I do sprints and heavy lifting on mondays and thursdays and want to do abs and more cardio on tuesdays and fridays. Can i trim down too a low body fat percentage by doing longer distances (20-40 minute jogs) on tuesday/friday, or should i do hiit? Just thinking if im sprinting on mondays and thursdays that i could burn fat by long distance running the other two days. I'm also wondering that if by running long distances a couple times a week will actually hamper explosiveness (train slow twitch fibers), or is this just the case if you are just running long distances and quite often.

    Any input would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Craig - As an athlete, the 20-40 minute jogs a couple times per week will make little difference in terms of fat loss. Losing fat comes down more to your nutrition program. I'm assuming you are already getting plenty of exercise. From a performance perspective, if you were doing like 1-2 hours of "steady state" cardio per day like jogging, that may affect explosive performance, but I'm hard pressed to believe only 20-40 minutes a couple times per week will have any impact. I have come across studies where strength/explosiveness were hampered, but again, it's usually because of substantial endurance training. I also would reconsider your "abs" workouts. It sounds like you don't have a professionally designed program. There is a top strength coach Eric Cressey is the real deal and he has a program you should look into - Show & Go Training. Good luck!

  • Jon says:

    Hi Marc,

    Great article! I've got a question that I'd be really grateful if you could answer for me.

    For the past few years now I've been jogging 3km once or twice a week for 20 min until I heard about HIIT a few months back. So now I've added sprinting for 30 sec 6x and resting in between for 2-4 min. I'm going to try your variation now i.e. 60 sec and resting 120 sec for 5-10x.

    My question is I've always done my jogging/sprints on an empty stomach i.e. prior to breakfast. Sometimes I might take a protein drink just before. I want to know, however, am I burning more fat by doing my jogs/sprints on an empty stomach and then having breakfast or will I burn more fat by eating breakfast (or lunch) and then going out for a jog/sprint?

    Cheers!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @jon - We have an awesome article in our company drafts folder by Kevin Deeth that answers your question in depth. The short answer is that any difference in fat loss from working out while fasted is negligible. The most important thing is that you have high energy, so however you get the most energy, that's what you should do. Keep in mind most of the calorie burn/fat burn comes AFTER the sprinting workout. For more on this concept of the afterburn effect, check out this article - Afterburn Effect. I wouldn't worry about all the minutae, if you want to lose fat, worry about the total amount of calories you are eating and make a quick estimate of how many you are burning. For more, check out this article - How many calories you should eat to lose weight?

  • Diego says:

    Hey Marc

    So I got 24 days left, if I start today, how much weight can I actually loose ? I want to loose 6 kilos, that will be like 12 lbs I think ! How long will it take me to loose that much using this new method you've come out with :D ? I'm turning 19 btw !

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Diego - I think you should shoot for MAX 2lb of fat loss per week. If you lose much more than that, it will VERY likely be water weight and muscle weight.

  • Nick M says:

    Hey Marc,

    Just had some questions. Im 24 years old, Im 5 10 and i weighed 217 in december (way higher than it should be) and I started working out and dieting, im now down to 183-187. Ive been eating 6 small meals a day, whole wheats, lean meats and beef, and other healthy foods. I havent been able to get the definition I want. I eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, I lift 3 times a week, and play bball 2 times a week. Im wondering what to do next. Should i scrap the bball and do HIIT sprints instead? Do i need to eat more/less, lift more, or what would it take to shred out and get the definition I want. I dont care what the weight is. Im guessing I need to just shred out the last 10 pounds and Id be shredded at 175? What do I need to do to get rid of that extra body fat and get an ideal body fat %.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Nick - I think basketball is great and I wouldn't sacrifice sports and social interaction for doing HIIT. Yes, taking your workouts up a notch can help you burn a few more calories and increase your metabolism a bit, but my bet is that if you nail your nutrition, you will get to where you want to be. In other words, as you get leaner, it becomes harder to lose fat. You have to eat even less calories (1800-2000 calories if you are not there already), (keep your carbs around 150 grams as long as you have energy - I find that to be a sweet spot), and eat enough protein. For a lot more detail, check out this article - How to Get Ripped & Cut. Consider tracking your nutrition with a calorie tracker/counter online for a few days, or as I mention in the article creating a nutrition spreadsheet. Combined with a structured exercise program like my BuiltLean Program (only 3 workouts per week), you can get to where you want to be.

  • LK says:

    Hi, I am a lady who is 5ft3 and keen to build muscle and lose fat.......in time for Summer! But importantly I want to do it to have a healthy heart and a longer life...for my childrens sake...they too can adapt a healthier lifestyle...

    I am doing HIIT more recently after completing my first 5k run, I am doing 2.30 mins at level 9 on treadmill and then 30 sec rest at walking speed of 6.5 - completing over a 30 min period...I plan to do this 3 times a week .... do you believe these are resaonable ratios for what I am trying to acheive??

    Thanks

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @LK - those ratios sound very tough to do for 30 minutes. If you can do that workout, then you are in VERY good shape. What you may consider is doing 9 on the treadmill, then hopping off for a minute, then going back on for another minute in a 1 to 1 ratio. Then do that for 5 to 10 rounds (10-20 minutes), whatever feels comfortable for you. As you get in better shape, you can increase the speed, or decrease the rest period, but I wouldn't go above 10 rounds. As you are resting, you can do additional stretching, or grab some water.

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