High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has gained popularity for being an extremely effective workout which boosts heart health, improves endurance, and torches through fat faster than comparable cardio.
You may typically think of a HIIT as just a killer cardio workout, getting you results in as quick as four minutes at a time. But what about making time for muscle maintenance and build?
As a nutrition and fitness professional who understands the constant process of prioritizing whole body workouts, I wanted to conduct research to help understand — can HIIT be done with weights?
Yes, HIIT can be done with weights, and combining them is one of the most effective ways to maximize fat burn and improve heart health. When doing HIIT with weights, remember that safety is the most important, it shouldn’t be done every day, your routine needs to be switched up every couple months, and you get out what you put in.
Let’s HIIT the ground running with the strongest research on HIIT with weights.
What is HIIT?
Just like the name explains, high-intensity interval training is a form of interval training of very intense exercise alternated with recovery. It’s typically known as a cardiovascular (relating to heart health) exercise.
The high intensity portion can last anywhere from 15-30 seconds to five minutes. A HIIT workout typically includes there will be anywhere from five to eight rounds.
During the intense portion of the workout, the goal is to meet the max effort that your body can safely take. This helps your body switch to an anaerobic (without oxygen) state which results in fat burn.
Related Article: Beginner HIIT Treadmill Workout: Starting With HIIT Cardio
Benefits of HIIT with Weights
HIIT training on it’s own has amazing benefits. When combined with weights it gives a whole new dimension to your workout, allowing you to work your full body in a short period of time. HIIT with weights can burn fat and calories both during and after the workout, build muscle, and improve heart health. This style of workout is also called ‘metabolic resistance training’.
BURN MORE CALORIES
HIIT with weights offers calorie burn that extends beyond the brief period you’re out of breath and breaking a sweat. This is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).
EPOC refers to the amount of oxygen required to restore your body back to its resting state. You can think of it almost like HIIT training puts your body in a shocked state. It takes time and extra energy to replenish energy stores, regulate hormones, and repair muscles.
Related Article: How Does Cardio Burn Fat?
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), heavy resistance training with short intervals increases the EPOC effect. The research they provided showed that heavy resistance exercise had the highest EPOC when compared to aerobic cycling and circuit weight training.
HIIT training is the most effective way to stimulate EPOC. ACE explained that the EPOC effect from a HIIT workout can add 6 to 15% of the total energy cost of the exercise session.
Related Article: Sprinting On Treadmill vs Outside: Which One Is Better?
LOSE FAT (WHILE KEEPING MUSCLE)
If you’re only focusing on cardio, without any strength training, you generally lose both fat and muscle. Too much cardio can potentially slow metabolism as a result of losing lean muscle mass. This is more likely to happen while calorie restricting.
A Journal of Obesity study compared dieters who did aerobic exercise and dieters who did strength training. The dieters who did strength training four times per week for 18 months, lost the most fat.
Related Article: What Cardio Should You Do When Bulking? (3 Options)
BOOST HEALTH BENEFITS
Cardio and strength training exercises are excellent for heart health. Studies show that both of these exercises can improve circulation, helping to lower blood pressure, decrease triglyceride levels, and increase HDL cholesterol which is known as the “good” cholesterol.
The American Heart Association recommends a combination of endurance, balance, flexibility, and strength exercise for an overall healthy workout routine. They recommend strength training at least twice per week as this gives muscles the ability to perform everyday activities, protects the body from injury, strengthens bones and boosts metabolism.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted research to explore the effectiveness of combining HIIT training with resistance training. In the study, they compared muscle fitness and cardio outcomes between HIIT resistance training, and traditional moderate-intensity exercise.
For both groups, the body-fat percentag
e decreased for both groups but blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (“bad”) cholesterol decreased significantly in the HIIT with resistance training.
Related Article: Should You Do Cardio On Rest Days?
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted research found that resistance exercise improved muscular fitness and required less than half the time of regular resistance training.
Since HIIT workout is done intensely for a quicker period of time, it can be easier to include in a busy schedule. For example, planning for an hour long run or walk versus a 20-30 minute HIIT workout can seem much more manageable.
When you include a weight training aspect to HIIT, you can also be saving time by getting in strength exercise as well. Not to mention your motivation may be higher when you know you’ll be exercising for less time.
Related Article: Are Squats Cardio Or Strength Training?
Different Types of HIIT with Weights
HIIT mainly focuses on cardiovascular work while strength training focuses on muscle build. HIIT with weights can be achieved in different ways. You can add cardio in between the weight sets, compound exercise, or lift heavier with shorter rests.
STRENGTH TRAINING WITH CARDIO IN BETWEEN
Take a standard strength training workout and add intervals of cardiovascular exercise (jumping jacks, jump rope, running in place) in between each set. You can choose to take a quick 20-30 second break or just keep alternating between the strength and cardio.
Example: Two minutes of chest exercises. Thirty seconds of running as fast as you can in place.
Related Article: 30 Minute Full Body HIIT Workout: Total Body Resistance And Cardio
Compound exercises are those that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. These help you reach that max effort because more muscles are working and your heart rate is getting elevated.
They can be a single exercise that works different muscle groups (squat, deadlight, lunge, push-up) or by combining two exercises into one movement (squat with overhead press, lunge with bicep curl, deadlift with tricep kickback).
Example: With weights, squat then as you lift up, do an overhead press.
Related Article: HIIT Upper Body Workout: Workouts With & Without Weights
Lifting heavier weights for fewer sets produces quicker gains. Studies show that when well trained individuals did more repetitions with lower weights versus less repetitions with higher weights for three times per week, they found that although both routines build muscle, the high load was superior in maximizing strength adaptations.
The key when lifting heavy is to focus on pushing close to your fatigue level and taking short rests.
Example: Go for a full body training split.
Related Article: Who Can Benefit From Interval Training (Is It Good For Everyone?)
HIIT with Weights: What to Consider
Success of a HIIT with weights workout depends on doing it safely and effectively. You want to push yourself without injuring yourself. Before starting any fitness routine, and especially when it comes to a more intense exercise such as HIIT training, we recommend consulting with your physician or medical provider.
1. SAFETY IS MOST IMPORTANT
According to Dr. Dalleck, who conducted ACE sponsored research, when it comes to exercise programming, it’s essential to focus on effectiveness, time-efficiency, and safety.
Especially when you’re using heavier weights, or combining weights with HIIT training, you’re more likely to get injured. Obtaining and maintaining proper form is crucial. Try your best to be present during the workouts, focusing on your body alignment.
To encourage a safe HIIT workout with weights:
A warm-up prepares your muscles and mind for the upcoming workout. When warming up, try to focus on the muscle group that you’ll be working. For instance, if you’re focusing on a HIIT based arm workout, do arm circles and modified push-ups to begin.
Focus on form
According to Harvard Health, poor form can prompt injuries and slow gains. It’s essential to align your body properly and move smoothly through the exercise. If you feel strain or pain in an area of your body, other than general muscle fatigue in the area that you’re working out, this is a strong indicator that your form is off.
Start with lower weights
When you use weights, it’s extremely important to practice proper form. If you’re new to using dumbbells, aim to start with lighter weight and work your way up. Focus on the slow movements, slow lifting and and controlled descents. Then slowly increase as you get used to the movement and build yourself up to HIIT.
For more information about proper form when using weights or working out, speak with a personal trainer or fitness expert. You can also find suggestions, tips, and video examples for a workout that’s best suited for you: Fitbod app.
2. IT SHOULDN’T BE DONE EVERYDAY
HIIT is extremely effective but it puts lots of stress on the body. When your body is working at 85-95% of VO2Max (the max amount that your heart, lungs, and muscles use oxygen) stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol are increased. Doing too much can potentially weaken the immune system and make it easier to get sick.
Aim to do HIIT no more than two to four times per week with at least 24-48 hours between the exercise sessions. This is because it helps replenish energy stores and repairs muscles. If you’re going to exercise the day after a HIIT session, aim for low to moderate intensity and use different muscle groups or movements.
To properly recover, help build muscle, and prevent injury, make sure you have adequate hydration and pre and post-workout nutrition.
3. SWITCH IT UP EVERY COUPLE MONTHS
Even with an intense workout such as HIIT with weights, if you want to continually make gains and see results, you’ll want to slowly work harder as time goes on. This is because your muscles can adapt to the workout you’re doing. A good way to recognize if you need to switch it up, is if the workout you’re doing is no longer challenging.
According to the American Council on Exercise, it’s good to adjust a workout every six weeks, by following the FITT principle:
Frequency: How often you complete your workout.
Example: If you’re doing your HIIT with weights once per week, step it up to twice (try not to go more than four per week).
Intensity: How hard you work out.
Example: Increase your weights by a couple of pounds.
Time: Duration of your workout.
Example: Increase the amount of time you’re doing your highest intensity, from 20 to 25 seconds.
Type: The format or mode of activity.
Example: Add an endurance exercise such as a longer walk, to your weekly routine.
4. YOU GET OUT
, WHAT YOU PUT IN
Particularly when you get used to a workout, it’s easy to get into a routine. Reach for that uncomfortable place when your legs burn, your heart beats fast, you feel like you’re almost gasping for air and are sweating like a pig. This is that prime place when your body will experience true change.
ACE Fitness shares that exercise intensity can be measured by a scale of perceived exertion, with one being the lowest intensity and 10 being the highest that you can tolerate. For HIIT’s greatest benefits, it should be performed at an eight or higher for periods of 30 seconds or less. The aim is to get breathless.
Related Article: Can You Do HIIT And Weight Training On The Same Day?
HIIT with weights is one of the most effective ways to burn fat, build muscle, and improve overall health. Since HIIT with weights is a very challenging exercise, it can take some time to work up to.
If you’re new HIIT, allow your body some time to adapt. It’s ok to start off with classic cardio then work your way up to incorporating weights. Listen to your body and push yourself out of your comfort zone, while respecting your limits.
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.