Is HIIT the Only Workout You Need?

by Brittany Risher
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Is HIIT the Only Workout You Need?

Lately it seems as though high-intensity interval training has taken over, replacing steady-state running, swimming and cycling in popularity at the gym. And perhaps for good reason: HIIT boosts cardiorespiratory fitness, improves insulin sensitivity and produces that afterburn effect where your body keeps burning calories for hours after you wrap up your sweat session.

It also provides these benefits quickly  — you can be in and out of the gym in under an hour. Although experts say it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison, you can do an efficient HIIT workout in roughly 20 minutes and get cardio benefits similar to a  steady treadmill run that’s at least twice as long.

So do you even need traditional cardio? Can HIIT really be everything for your fitness routine? Let’s break this down further.


Steady-state running, cycling and swimming can all be turned into HIIT training, so you can still do the activities you love, just in interval sets. “If you just want to do HIIT, you can get the benefits of steady-state cardio in less time,” says Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, assistant professor and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Lehman College. And since our 24 hours in a day are busy enough, making our workouts quick and effective seems ideal.

That said, to reap those benefits, you need to truly be doing HIIT. Hard. That means alternating periods of super-intense activity with periods of less-intense exercise. During the intense rounds, Schoenfeld explains you need to be really challenged — at about an 8–9 on a scale of perceived exertion —1 (sitting on a couch) to 10 (running like a rabid dog is chasing you).

However, doing that too often can take a toll on your body. While there is no ideal amount of HIIT to do, experts say about three days a week is a good number to aim for. Cross-train on other days, rounding out your fitness routine with things like strength training and yoga.


“Interval-style workouts that involve resistance-based movements like pushups, pullups, air squats, etc. can certainly be an effective way to boost both strength and cardiovascular fitness,” says Martin Gibala, PhD, the chair of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario. “You can get a cardiovascular boost and get strength benefits as well. It’s not as good as heavy weight exercise, and the cardio is not as good as a high-volume approach, but it’s a good middle ground. It’s a very effective, efficient and practical way to boost or maintain fitness.”

For the greatest strength benefits, though, you have to overload your muscles and go heavy. “With exercises like squat thrusts or pushups, you will build some muscle, but will that build as much muscle as a good lifting routine? Probably not because you’re not able to overload the musculature to a great extent,” Schoenfeld says.


But maybe you’re not as concerned about maxing out your strength. Or maybe you really, really love steady-state cardio and aren’t a fan of HIIT — or vice versa. That’s OK.

“Certainly intervals can be mentally demanding and fatiguing,” Gibala says. “Intervals are an excellent strategy, but they aren’t the only way to go, and the best exercise is one that people enjoy and that keeps them exercising over the long term.”

There’s no reason you have to do just intervals or steady cardio. Mix it up. “You can do HIIT one day and steady-state cardio one day,” Schoenfeld says.

Bottom line: Keep exploring to find what you like, because that’s what you’ll stick with. If that’s just traditional cardio, great. If that’s just HIIT, go for it. Or if you want both, consider adding some strength training for a well-rounded approach.


  • I’ve had tremendous success with HIIT five days per week + a healthy meal plan, losing 47 pounds in 20 weeks. I think I’ll stick with what’s working. ☺️

    • Ire

      Hi Elizabeth, will you be willing to share what kind of hiit workouts you do, and how often. I’m trying to take a leap an I have no idea how to go about it. Thank you

      • I go to Fit Body Boot Camp. It’s a fitness program, a 30-minute HIIT workout. I have now lost 80 pounds and am finally at my lifetime fitness peak.

  • Jes

    Then why isn’t there an option to enter a HIIT workout in MFP as an exercise? It would be nice if this were added as an option instead of having to choose aerobics or calisthenics or weights or strength training or some weird combo.

    • K

      I have it in there as a tabata actually; same thing, just a different name 🙂

      • pwrmacbob

        I don’t see that option under either cardio or strength.

      • Special K

        Tabata is a very specific HIIT style protocol, but not necessarily the same thing. Tabata should be absolutely brutal for the 4 minute window. If you’re doing 20 minutes of HIIT, you’re almost certainly not training at Tabata levels.

    • CanB

      And why can’t MFP sync with Orangetheory?

      • davedave12

        and why can’t everything I want be given to me for free

        • CanB

          Well since I pay for the MFP upgrade, I don’t expect it given to me for free. With MFP promoting HITT, it’s not illogical to expect them to recognize that as an exercise. But thanks for your rude snarky comment that added no value to the conversation!

          • davedave12


  • Mo rahman

    I do hiit. I think you should all try. I eat really fast then slow down for one minute. Eat really fast then slow down for one minute. Pizza tastes so good when i do that. Follow my instagram page @takingthingsseriously for more hints and tips

  • Terri

    Give us real things women 65 and older can realistically do.

    • Kathy

      I agree! I’ve had back surgery and can’t do some things. I’m not opposed to working hard but I need to do it safely. I’m not sure HIIT is one of them.

      • Anonne

        All it really means is that you challenge yourself a little harder for short periods of time during your workout. If you walk, pick a point and jog for a little while, and then get back to walking. If you can’t jog at all, then pick a point and pick up the pace of your walking and then slow back down. Don’t do anything that causes acute pain, but do things that will challenge you. Add weights to what you are doing, a little 3 or 5 pound weight set to your walking.

      • Sissy

        See my post for beginning HIIT

    • Sissy

      See my post!

      • davedave12

        Sissy post

    • Jill Kraczon

      I go to Hiit classes 5-6 days per week. You know who goes even more than me? A 75 year old grandma, and she’s my idol! Often times she goes twice per week. She’s lost over 50 lbs!

    • iolani64

      Go ’til you throw up and then go some more. Worked for the last 45 years.

      • davedave12

        throwing up is not your body’s way of saying “this is really good for me”

        • iolani64

          I’m 71 and have worked out that way whether jumping rope, body surfing, weight lifting, etc since the late 60s and it’s worked for me. More fun and more challenging than the go at an easy pace workout.

      • Special K

        If you want to do that, fine. Don’t tell other people to, though.

        • iolani64

          As a former track and field coach and teacher I like to motivate my students and they have been successful over the years. A student told me he became a teacher because of me. A late athlete I coached told his wife when he introduced me that I made practice fun. So don’t ever tell me what to say. Go back to your closet again.

          • davedave12

            Yes, but you said throw up and then you admitted that was a lie

          • TastyWheat

            Ok, you made your point, you can go back to your basement now.

          • davedave12

            OK, you are super brave as an anonymous poster on the internet — remember to get mommy to change your sheets

          • TastyWheat

            Ok….. Oh Dave’s mommy?….. Can you come and tuck me in and read me a bedtime story?

          • TastyWheat

            Lol don’t get your panties in a bunch…..

    • Jeremy

      I see people 65 and older doing HIIT all the time when I’m at the gym.

  • Sissy

    I am 60 and I do HIIT. I do it on the recumbent bike. I drink plenty of water while doing it.

    Start with a 2 minute warm-up.
    Then, 20 seconds as fast as you can go.
    Lower intensity for 2 minutes repeat.

    Repeat. Stopping at 5 minutes.

    I did that as a beginner and after 1 week had most 7 pounds.

    This week, I am going to shorten the less intense time to 1 minute.

    You can pick ANY movement you like. Any cardio activity or strength training or body weight exercises.

    I passed out last year and injured myself so badly that I had knee and foot surgery.

    So, now that my knee and foot feel great, I don’t want to injure them. Hence, the recumbent bike.

    Don’t be afraid. The 20 seconds only has to be fast for you. Leave the “so hard you get dizzy and nauseous” to others.

    Oh, no more than 2 to 3 per week. These are intensely fatiguing. But, effective!

    Y’all can di anything for 20 seconds!

    • rodgerM

      Hi, Sissy. I’m a 59-yr-old man, & my knees won’t stand running or an elliptical machine any more, but I hated exercise bikes because it’s more difficult to get to my Target Heart Rate of 120 beats per minute.

      HIIT was the answer. Set my wristwatch timer for “X” seconds, pedal at moderate speed until watch alarm goes off, pedal MADLY for the ten seconds the alarm sounds (“rinse-lather-repeat” for 15-20 minutes). Monitor hrt rate with chest strap pulse monitor. As I got in better shape, I’d reduce the “X seconds” gradually.

      Similarly, I do low-impact circuit training, gauging my progress (& when to increase intensity) by my heart rate.

  • Luci Gabel

    How little time and how much you get really depends on how high your intensity is. True Tabata, for example, requires you be at your MAX, that’s 100% effort, for your intervals in order to get the benefits it claims. So, are you really getting 40 minutes worth of workout in 20 minutes? It depends on if you’re really working hard enough. That being said, higher intensity will always burn more calories, so if you pick it up to a pace that feels high enough for you for a little bit, you’ll be getting more out of your workout. And THAT being said, the body needs more recovery time for harder work so, other types of workouts still have their place if you want to stay active daily, or at least most days per week, which is recommended for reducing risk for all kinds of disease, longer life, and lower weight.

  • R Bailey

    I’m 59, male.
    My HIIT Routine on an eliptical:
    Warmup: 4 minutes at comfortable but good clip to get heart going to +/- 110.
    Crank elliptical to highest resistance (20 on the machine), and go as fast as I can for 30 secs. By the end, my heart gets close to 150.
    Crank resistance down to 1, and go slow/rest/walk speed for 2 minutes.
    I do 5 sets like that. By the end my heart reaches about 150-154, on the 30 sec stretch, and gets down to 125 at the end of my 2 min stretch.
    Cool Down: 4 minutes.

    I used to do 9 sets, 3 times per week, but I was always dragging. (My wife says that I always overdue it when I get into exercising). So I dropped the sets down to 5, and that seems about right. I may even drop down to 4.

    I will say that after doing that in the morning, I feel like I’m on a runners high most of the day. Just feel “mellow/good.”

  • Spencer Mooar

    Was the man in the newsletter pic for this article Emmanuel Mudiay? lol

  • Jeremy

    I do HIIT at Orangetheory Fitness and since June I’m down 12 inches and have lost 60 pounds. It’s really the best workout for me. Not only are the classes fun, they change daily, and anyone can do it at any fitness level.

    • Dave N

      Wait, 8 months of HIIT and you’re a foot shorter? This article didn’t mention anything like that…

    • Special K

      Orange Theory is interval training, but not HIIT. The point of HIIT in its various incarnations (like Tabata) is that you’re working extremely close to your maximum capacity for a solid interval, backing off and then going at it again. Not many people could sustain true HIIT for more than 20 – 30 minutes. If you can make it a full hour, it’s probably not HIIT.

  • Special K

    The question here is incomplete. It HIIT the only workout you ever need? Need for what? Weight loss? Improvement of strength? Cardiovascular health? The question can’t be answered without understanding a person’s goals.

    If we’re just talking weight loss, no one *needs* any particular method. Generally any method will do, provided the person’s nutrition is right. HIIT is very time efficient, so it has a place in a well rounded toolbox. If you’re looking for general, sustainable fitness and health, though, as the article states you’re going to want several tools in the box, and never just one. The title is clickbait-y, but the point (though it was not particularly well expressed) is good.

    • CanB

      Excellent points. As a therapist, the #1 component of wellness that gets ignored is stretching. I encourage all my patients and athletes to incorporate at least 1 yoga class per week and an additional 2 sessions of stretching that have been composed specifically to counteract any issues caused by their other activities.

      • Jim B

        first smart thing anybody said

  • Eric King

    I practice miit, medium intensity intervals. I do this because the high intensity ones weren’t working they made me feel terrible. this is probably because I already do weightlifting that is taxing.

    I see no reason you can’t do a thirty minute routine of four minutes medium intensity followed by three minutes rest four times or so and not benefit, I keep my heart rate under 120 with the medium intensity intervals.

    the point is simply yo turn up your metabolism and improve your cardiovascular fitness, if this works less quickly I really don’t care as long as it works.

    They say you have to go as hard as you can but offer no evidence for this, they are comparing steady state and HIIT but they have not examined miit at least that I have heard

  • summer2323

    Ok, I would love to start a HIIT program. Here’s the thing I am completely aware that the first time will suck and be very difficult but I also know me. I could maybe make it through the first day but quit on the second day. Is there a program where us normal people can start out slow (not slow but at a beginner level) and move up? Please don’t berate me and tell me to suck it up. Im 40 and I know myself pretty well at this point. I don’t work out with others so that won’t help me, either. I am truly interested in this but I need to set reasonable goals for my self and move up. Thank you in advance.