Interval Training – Kick Your Ass and Kickstart your Metabolism in 20 Minutes

I have a confession to make.

Unlike this awesome dog here, I’m not a fan of running.

I used to run cross country in high school, and I’ve tried to get excited about running about a dozen times since then.  After reading Born to Run, a fantastic book, about running, I even had myself convinced that I was going to LOVE running.  Every time I get started, about ten minutes into my run, I just get bored as hell!  I know some people love running, it makes them feel good, and it’s their primary form of exercise – I’m happy for you (and the info here will help you too!)

I’m here to tell you that if you don’t like running, you don’t need to be spending hours a day on a treadmill or out jogging around your neighborhood to lose weight. In fact, those hours of running could actually be causing you a litany of healthy issues that I can help you avoid.  There’s a type of advanced training that not only burns calories more efficiently than straight cardio, but it can also increase your aerobic breathing capacity MORE than straight cardio while also increasing your a capacity for max sprinting ability.

(warning – interval training shouldn’t be done by people who haven’t exercised before.  You should be in somewhat decent shape before attempting interval training).

What do I have against cardio?

Other than being boring, I find steady cardio to be highly inefficient: I simply don’t have time to go out for runs that last longer than hour.  Not only that, but I always found myself getting injured (shin splints like whoa) or sick when running long distances over a long period of time.  Rather than go into the remaining reasons why I don’t like cardio, I’ll hand the reins over to Mark from Mark’s Daily Apple, who presents the best argument I’ve ever read on the subject – A case against cardio (from a former mileage king.

Now, if you LOVE running and think I’m an ass for even suggesting that running isn’t the greatest thing ever, this article will still provide you with some solid information, I promise.  If you have no interest in running but still want to burn calories and get in shape efficiently, maybe today’s Interval Training post will get you started down the right path.

What’s Interval Training?

Interval training is when you vary your speeds and intensity throughout a shorter run. So, you might jog for three minutes, and then push yourself hard for a minute, repeating this cycle for a certain amount of time (usually around 20 total minutes).

This type of training not only burns calories and builds up your oxygen capacity while exercising, but it can also produce an ‘afterburn’ affect
that can leave your metabolism operating at a higher level of efficiency for hours and hours and hours after you’re done exercising.

This means you’re burning calories while you’re sitting on your butt watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia reruns on Comedy Central.

Why interval training?

Your heart is a muscle: if you keep it beating at a constant rate, never expanding it outside of its comfort zone, it will never grow.   If you do 100 benchpresses with 10 pounds and don’t feel it, your chest will never develop.  Same thing with your heart…if it’s not feeling the exertion, it doesn’t have to work harder, and nothing has changed.  However, when you throw some intervals in there, your heart will have to work harder, pump more blood, and work harder to return to normal levels.  Have a high stress job?  Wouldn’t you rather have  a heart that is used to rapid changes in blood pressure and needs?  That’s the kind of heart I want.

Interval training promotes a healthier physique.  I know this is pretty superficial, but who doesn’t want to look good?  Compare the best sprinters in the world to the best marathon runners in the world – which would you rather look like?  One is super muscular, built for speed, and looks like he could outrun a cheetah at a moment’s notice…while the other looks like a stiff breeze might blow him over.  Obviously there’s more too it than just sprints vs. distance – weight training also plays a HUGE rule.  However, it’s a lot easier to get weight training in when you don’t have to run for 2-3 hours a day.

Interval training improves both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity. As referenced in this post from Mark’s Daily Apple, Dr. Tabata’s “famous study on moderate and high-intensity interval training helped legitimize a movement – away from chronic cardio and toward high-intensity workouts. This studies showed that high-intensity intermittent training actually improves both anaerobic (intensity and muscle building) and aerobic (slower, oxygen consuming) body systems, while aerobic exercise only improves aerobic systems.”  Two for one!

note: Tabata training is highly advanced – you’ll still see similar results with interval training compared to Tabata training, but perhaps not to that extreme.

How to interval train

Let’s take you through a sample running guide for interval training.

Three  days a week of running is sufficient – if it’s done right, your body will need 48 hours to recover between exercises, and actually burn fat on your off days, when you’re sitting at your computer or playing videogames.

This will be your routine for three weeks:

  • 5 minutes of warmup...light walking, bump the speed up a little bit to get your legs warmed up…then stretch.  Don’t stretch until you’ve warmed up.  Think of your muscles like rubber bands…you quickly pull a rubber band that hasn’t been used yet and it’ll snap.  Warm it up, get it used to activity, then stretch it, and you’re golden.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (70% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (75% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (80% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (85% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (90% of maximum effort)… 2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 30 seconds of increased pace (100% of maximum effort)..2 minutes of decreased pace.
  • 5 minutes of light jogging and stretching. When you stretch afterwards, your muscles expand, allowing the nutrients you’re about to eat to fill in the gaps that are now empty from exercise.  Also, it keeps your muscles loose, so there’s a far less chance for injury.

Now, because this is your first time doing intervals…it might be tough to get through the routine.  If it is, concentrate on doing the intervals as strongly as possible (really push yourself on those 30 seconds fast sections)…and if you can only get through 3 or 4 intervals, stop there.  The next time, aim for 5 intervals, then 6, then 7.

The reason I don’t tell you how fast to run for either, is because it’s different for each person.  If you’re really out of shape, your 90 seconds might be walking, and your 30 seconds might be jogging.  If you are in shape, your 90 seconds might be jogging and your 30 seconds might be sprinting.

You should be close to death by the time you complete this cycle…okay maybe not that bad, but you should be dripping in sweat.   If you’re not, then you were faking it, and you’re only screwing with yourself.

Applying interval training to things beyond running

If you’re on a treadmill, running intervals becomes slightly more difficult. Most of them have an “interval setting.”  If not, you’re going to want to aim to set the speed in your down time to something safe, and be CAREFUL on setting your top end speed.  If it’s too quick, you’ll end up looking like Bam on Jackass shooting yourself off the thing into the wall.  Make sure you have a camera on hand in case this happens.

If you’re on a exercise bike, even better.  just try to really really push yourself on that 30 second segment, whether its with increased speed and/or resistance.

Now, this is only 15 minutes of heavy exercise, and when you think about it…it’s really only three minutes of HEAVY exercise.  Add in another 5 minutes of cool down, walking/jogging 25 minutes total.  After two weeks at this routine, cut your “decreased effort” time down from 2 minutes to 90 seconds.




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  • Ethan Porter

    sexier as in being in better shape physically and being healthier overall

  • flab2fit

    Did it today. Though I am really out of shape, at the end 20 minutes my shirt was soaked and my face, red. 🙂 I did 45 seconds of jogging and 1 minute of walking x 10.

  • JayJay

    How about doing swimming laps. – is that good interval training?

  • Sam D.

    Is it ok to do this interval training on the same day as your weight training? I’ve heard from a variety of accredited sources that you should aim to get a sustained active heart rate (for me, 155 bpm) for 30 minutes, three times a week. I’m not sure what your take on that philosophy is, but because of my busy schedule, I need to make my workout times as comprehensive as possible.

    Currently, I’m planning on going on the Paleo diet, doing either the Beginner muscle-building workout you’ve suggested OR the other beginning weight training regimen I was referred to, which involves basic weight exercises using machines at my college’s workout center, and at least 15-20 minutes of this interval training or comparable cardio. So the workout would look something like this:

    1. 8 laps around 200 meter track for warmup
    2. Beginner weight training regimen
    3. 15 MAX minutes of cardio, I.E. treadmill, bike, stairstep with interval suggestions.

    Does this look ok? I’m at an acceptable body fat percentage right now (14-17%) but want to buff up and get that number a little closer to 11-12%. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    Thanks so much for providing this awesome site! You’re truly doing everyone who’s looking to get more fit a great service.

  • SlimCharles

    “When you stretch afterwards, your muscles expand, allowing the nutrients you’re about to eat to fill in the gaps that are now empty from exercise”
    I have never heard this. Do you have a source for this information? Not trying to be a jerk, just curious! Love your site, btw.

  • ehsan

    you can do this with a bike right

  • ehsan

    and what are some good stretches to do afterwards

  • Nicholas Terrill

    Hey Steve what would you recommend as an alternative for interval training? Because I have what they call Plantar Fasciitis on my right heel from being on my feet for eight hours everyday, so needless to say when I put too much impact on it, it stings like the dickens!

  • Jack

    After the exercise, can I suddenly sit. As I heard that when we do so, our butt will become big

  • Charlie

    I have a question, when steve says if your only able to do 3 or 4 intervals does he mean doing the full list above 3 to 4 times or just doing each step above? Also whats a good warm-up for interval training and good stretches to do afterward?

  • BRO

    I started doing HITT with jump rope, I started 30secs jump 30 secs rest for 10 minutes, and now I’m going to start 40-20, 10 minutes of jump rope burn more calories than 1hr in a treadmill.

  • AD

    I have been running for over a year, building up from a n00b into doing 2-3 miles per run a few times a week. I lost 40 lbs this way, then hit a major plateau. I have some more weight to lose – I enjoy running but am not really interested in expanding my runs to an hour. I’m about to start your bodyweight workout but also have started running intervals similar to what you describe here. In one year of running steady, I’ve never injured myself, but since I started doing intervals I inevitably hurt my knees during one of the sprints. Any ideas for how fast is too fast or how to avoid that? Thanks for your site!!

  • Bbx

    I have this mountainside forest road/trail close to where I live with lots of steep but fairly short (40-80m) up and downs along the trail. The trail itself is maybe 10km total..

    I would like to increase my stamina and oxygen capacity (not in very good shape) and was wondering if it would work as interval traning if I sprint up the uphills and then lightly jog the flats and downs..?

    How would this compare to what is explained on this page..?

  • Francisco Sala

    Would you really risk it and just interval as far as you can to avoid him? Hahaha.

  • Jen

    This may be further down in the comments thread, but what’s maximum effort? Do you mean the same thing as what’s calculated with target heart rate zones?

  • Extimes

    Max effort is, quite literally, giving it your all. If you could have gone faster, then do another interval. The build up in % of maximum sets the stage for this. You know you’re done when you can’t do any more intervals, or, tap out after a couple (10 intervals? 30 min? whenever you’re done with it). Next time, try harder or run faster, try adding another interval.

  • Extimes

    I love this kind of training, and kind of terrain! If you’re able to keep pace on the up hills, you’re probably hitting intervals. Guage for yourself whether you’re hitting the % max (of your individual effort) and step up the pace as necessary.

  • Extimes

    The interval is going from steady (warm up jog) to the increased rate. There’s 6 intervals listed above. The goal is to step up to your individual max. If you do a bunch of intervals and don’t hit it your first time out (or take forever doing it, or just get bored), stop and come back in 2 days with a little more speed, a little more intensity.

  • Extimes

    Try something like swimming, rowing, speed bag or other exercises that get your heart going without the impact to your feet.

  • Extimes

    Swimming is a great exercise. I know from my own experience that the difference between going at baseline and 100% is a lot of splashing and flailing and not much more speed. Make sure you’re focusing on your form and not sacrificing it trying to go faster/harder. An injury could set you back physically and mentally!

  • Extimes

    Yes! Any full body aerobic exercise works with HIIT.

  • Alisha Bale

    I don’t know how to differentiate percentages of maximum effort when I am working out. I have comfortable mode and uncomfortable mode. Advice? =/

  • Jane Sturges

    I guess my question is: I like to do weights (not circuit-style, strength-style). How do you balance that with HIIT? Do weights 3xweek and then HIIT twice or something? I’m worried about the recovery issues you mentioned, but I do want to get some form of cardio in, to get an overall balance.

  • Geo Fan

    IF (Intermittent Fasting) plus HIIT (Interval Training) is a miracle! Thanks for the info!

  • Geo Fan

    Diet + Exercies? IF (Intermittent Fasting) plus Interval Training (HIIT) works!

    My annual update

    Thanks for all the useful info, Steve, as always.

  • Geo Fan

    Diet + Exercise? Wow… IF (Intermittent Fasting) plus Interval Training (HIIT) works!

    My annual update

    Thanks for all the useful info, Steve, as always.

  • Dillip Mohanty

    I am a 5’11” guy. 68 kg.I can be considered skinny. I want to build up stamina and endurance. Should i do interval training??

  • Anthony Silva

    So could I do this on the off days of my body weight routine?

  • Elisabeth

    I want to do cardio, I actually love running but I have arthritis in both of my knees and I’m not sure what type of cardio I can do that won’t aggravate them. Any thoughts?

  • Nick PeterBurn

    After two weeks at this routine, cut your “decreased effort” time down from 2 minutes to 90 seconds….Do we also increase our “increased effort” time?

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  • Klassy

    That’s funny considering cross country runners are like the thinnest people I’ve ever seen lol.

    Circuit training is the best, and it’s pretty much all I do anymore, but if losing weight is your primary goal, go run a long and as far as you can as often as you can without hurting yourself. You will lose more weight than you think.

  • What if your warmup/cooldown is more like 10-15 minutes? My track is about 1.5 miles away, so I normally run there. Am I losing any of the metabolism benefits, particularly on the cooldown, if I’m running 1.5 miles to get home from the track AFTER my intervals?

  • rob

    Should that read the infamous tabata study?

  • Defected Salvations

    but if im bulking woul this be a no no?

  • Scott D. Kalter

    Steve, your article says “This will be your routine for three weeks”, but I didn’t see any reference to what comes next. What do you do after three weeks?

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  • Ryan

    I plan on doing the Beginner Bodyweight Circuit Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Would you suggest me doing the Interval Training Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays? Or do the Interval Training everyday after the Beginner Bodyweight Circuit?

  • Rosanna Hill

    Just starting .Up to now I have just been walking (4miles a day )and watching my calories .In 8 weeks I have lost 30lbs. But my scales have stalled so I feel I need to add something more to my “workout ” .Don’t know where to begin. Need to tone . Not much of a runner. Alternate interval and strength every other day ? Can’t wait to start with your program !!

  • RityS

    I’m going to give this a shot this afternoon 🙈 Should be great!!

  • Deep

    Is it for beginners , Steve ?

  • Deep

    Is it for beginners ??

  • Rodrigo

    one question, why is the program for 3 weeks?? If i have a bodyweight program, can i mix it with this?

  • sirpatrick

    I’ve done this on a treadmill 4 days a week for the last 18 months . I start out at a 3.5 mph( fast walk) for 3 minutes, go to 4.7 mph( slow jog) for 2 minutes, then back to 3.5 and then switch back every 2 minutes for 23 minutes total. I end going about 1.55 miles each session. I’ve lost 15 pounds and feel great. I wasn’t overweight to begin with but I have really toned and lost the fat around my midsection. 3 days a week I add 110 push-ups and 240 crunches after these sessions. I normally take Thursday, Saturday and Sundays off.

    My blood pressure is down to 112/70 and my resting pulse is always in the high 50’s and low 60’s. Not bad for a 63 year old man.

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  • Luvstosmile55

    I love to do hiiT on the upright bike. The best. I’m dripping in sweat after!
    Should I lift first, then hiiT? I definitely do all work outs fasted in the early AM

  • E

    Better shape physically so you can last longer and be healthier to make sure it never ends for the kids? Righto.

  • Mathieu Buchard

    So you said to only do this 3 times a week. Is it ok to do the “beginner body weight and excersises” on the other days?
    so 1 day interval training and the next day beginner body weight and keep doing that over and over.

  • David kdr

    Swimming was a costly venture, toss in travel time, pool membership and occasional road rage and you have fertile ground for change. The Max 5 Trainer is always waiting for me in my basement, there are no membership fees, it never smells like a diaper (pool), Just 15 minutes and prepare to receive endless benefits. It’s a deal I will never ignore.