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High Intensity Interval Training: Getting Started with the Right Work to Rest Ratio

Interval training, also known as high intensity interval training, or HIIT, are workouts where you alternate high-intensity and low-intensity activity. This is the “secret sauce” when it comes to burning fat. No matter what your sport, or preferred exercise routine, you can take advantage of interval training to get that lean, ripped, look.

The basic concept is your workout moves from sprint to rest and back again. The “sprint” should be full-on or close to it. The “rest” phase is also called the “recovery” period. It consists of a lowered level of activity, so if you were running for your sprint, you now would jog or even walk.

Do interval training no more than 3 times a week. Of course every workout will begin with a light warm-up and conclude with a cool-down. The middle section will be in the 5-20 minute range and will consist of your intervals.

Think of the interval as a short block of time, such as 1 minute, that you will repeat up to 15 times, to make up the middle section of your HIIT workout. That block will be divided into 2 parts, the sprint and the recovery. The amount of time you spend in each part is called the “Work to Rest Ratio,” with the recovery period typically being longer than the sprint period.

Minute blocks are easy to calculate, whether you are using your own watch or a pace clock, so for this article I will refer to 1 minute block intervals, but the block can be shorter or longer. When beginning HIIT, the work to rest ratio may be 1:3, meaning you sprint for 15 seconds and rest for 45 seconds (3x15.)

As your cardio-vascular condition improves you can adjust your intervals to 1:2, where your sprint time would be 20 seconds and your rest period 40 seconds. Then you can get your intervals to a 1:1 ration, each segment being 30 seconds in length.

Another way you can increase the workout level is to maintain the sprint time and just reduce the recovery. In that case your intervals will get shorter as your body is able to recover more quickly. You progress from intervals of 15 seconds sprint and 45 seconds rest (1:3), to intervals of 15 seconds sprint with 40 seconds rest, then 35 seconds rest, then 30 seconds rest. When you are at 15 to 30 you are at a 1:2 ratio, but the entire interval is 45 seconds long.

It is important to keep in mind the purpose of this workout is the interval. It isn’t about doing a single minute, it is about repeating the process: if a 15 second work period is too long, then you cut it in half and have each interval be 30 seconds long.

Also, it is critical you reduce your intensity during the sprint phase, instead the length of time of the sprint if you need to. You are looking to work yourself to near maximum for the entire sprint period. It is more important to get the intensity up and repeat the intervals than the actual length of the block.

A 15-20 minute workout is a good goal for someone starting with high intensity interval training:

  • 3-5 minute warm-up: very low level work, gradually increasing to the end of the warm-up period.
  • 15 seconds maximum exertion followed by 45 seconds lower intensity. Repeat 5-15 times.
  • 3-5 minute cool-down: low level work, gradually decreasing to the end of the cool-down period.

Do this 1:3 workout this week. If you are so tired at the end of the recovery period that you can’t sprint during the next interval then cut down the length of the interval block.

If you are finding this easy then either you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough during the sprint, or your cardio-vascular system is already in pretty good shape and you can extend the sprint period. In that case, your interval may be longer than 1 minute, or you may change the ratio to 1:2.

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