7 Things A Personal Trainer Wants You To Know Before You Do Your First HIIT Class

Sportive woman doing push-ups in the gym using kettlebells

Maybe you've heard of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and were immediately intrigued. And maybe you learned about HIIT and decided to head immediately in the opposite direction. Both reactions are completely valid, because anything with "high intensity" is bound to sound intimidating. Even to my most hardcore personal training clients (and to me), HIIT classes scream "beware." But enthusiastic or not, if you're at all interested in taking a HIIT class at your local gym, you probably have some questions.

For both the pros and the uninitiated, HIIT can seem endlessly intimidating. HIIT classes involve high-intensity bursts of work with only short rest periods in between, so going to a HIIT class is an exercise in extreme energy expenditure. These classes are often so tough that they may be shorter than other classes your gym offers. But as intimidating as it can be to go take a class where you'll be pushing yourself to your physical limits, more and more people across the country are choosing HIIT as their preferred mode of exercise.

According to trend data from Yelp 15, HIIT was almost never mentioned in Yelp reviews until 2011. The dominance of the exercise method has only increased since then, with HIIT mentions occurring three times more in 2019 than in 2015. This trend has both accompanied and been caused by a rise in HIIT classes being offered across the country.

If you want to find out for yourself what the trend is all about, here are a few things you might want to know before you go.


You Don't Have To Dive Right In

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

If you've never tried out a HIIT workout, you probably want to do some preparation before taking your first class. There's absolutely no shame in that. HIIT classes are, as the name suggests, intense. Depending on the class and your instructor, you might be rowing hard for half a minute, doing burpees for another half minute, and resting briefly before tossing a heavy sandbag between you and a partner... Almost any exercise you can think of that requires a lot of energy, a little time, and small rest periods is fair game.

And while the exact level of intensity depends on the class, you do generally want to go into the class with at least a little bit of experience with the training method. You don't have to, of course (especially if your instructor is a good one). But it will probably make you much more comfortable doing a HIIT workout in a room with other people if you've gotten used to it on your own a little bit first.

And you don't need anything fancy to do it: if you're comfortable on a stationary bike, try pedaling as hard as you can for 15 seconds, then resting for 45 seconds. Rinse and repeat for a few rounds. Getting your body used to pushing, breathing, and resting like that will help give you the confidence (and body preparation) you'll need for your first class. If you want to try some HIIT on your own at home, the YouTube channel Diverse Personal Training has some equipment-free HIIT workouts that can help you get used to the movements before you try a class out.


Not All Instructors Are Created Equal

You probably had at least one PE teacher in school that you hated. But, you may have also had one or two that you loved (or at least, hated less than the others). Similarly, a lot of what you get out of an exercise class depends on your instructor. Many instructors are attentive to each of their students, and customize the class to fit every attendee. And many... don't. Some instructors are all about form, and others are about creating community. You might love the latter method and hate the former (or vice versa). And there are some instructors out there who can juggle all of the above.

Feel free to ask about your HIIT instructor at the front desk of your gym, or ask the instructor themself after they finish a class. What's their style like? Serious boot camp intensity or Spice Girls-blasting fun? Both?

If asking questions isn't your thing, you can still find out more about your instructor before taking a class. If your gym is set up in a way that allows this, get a non-creepy glimpse or two of the class in action before you commit to taking it. Different instructors' styles appeal to different people, so think about what you would need from an instructor to try and find a class that would be the best fit for you.


You Can Take Breaks, Even If You're The Only One...

Some instructors (my favorite kinds) structure water breaks into their class design, even into their most intense sessions. But some... don't. And if you find yourself in one of those classes, or if you need an unscheduled break, you should feel free to take it. Better to be the exception to the rule for a minute than to make yourself sick or risk injury if you're not feeling well.

This is important with all forms of exercise, but perhaps especially with HIIT. By nature, HIIT workouts are supposed to be so intense that your body physically cannot sustain the movements with good form for very long. And since you always want to maintain good form, you need to take your rest seriously, even if it's not in the instructor's plan. Taking breaks during your HIIT workout is actually the best way to ensure that you'll actually get a good, max-effort session in. So take breaks according to your own schedule, no one else's.


...But You Probably Won't Be The Only One

Tom Dulat/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Even if you're the only one taking a breather while the rest of the class moves onto their 20th burpee, you deserve it and you should take it. But more likely than not, you won't be the only one. Someone might tap out when you tap back in, inspired by your commitment to self-care. And in an intense class like HIIT, you probably won't be the only one who needs a break. Even if it looks like everyone else has got a handle on their breathing, as a personal trainer, I can guarantee you that you are not the only one in gasping for breath pain. People might be hiding it, but truly, there's no need to.

Taking a break doesn't mean you're weaker or less fit than the other people around you: it just means that your body needs a break. So do what you need to do, and most likely, you'll be in very good company.


You Can Do Your Own Thing

Ideally, your instructor will create an environment where there are multiple exercises to choose from at each station and during each timed interval. But in case they don't, feel free to ask if you need a customized option for movement.

When my plantar fasciitis was so bad that I could barely walk, let alone do the prescribed jumping rope during a personal trainer boot camp, I grabbed a kettlebell and did heavy front squats instead. It still ramped up my breathing and legs, but I didn't have to move my feet in a painful way.

If your instructor doesn't provide options for you, it's alright to make up your own or to ask for guidance. Even though asking for what you need can be terrifying, it may well be worth it to give yourself and your body what you need.


It's Not A Competition

Just because the person next to you is busting out mountain climbers with what looks like perfect form, that doesn't mean you have to be. Everyone shows up at HIIT classes where they are today: no more and no less. If where you are today is doing pushups from your knees with no explosive quality, then that's awesome. You'll still get a great workout. You're not in HIIT class to compete with anyone (unless you're there with your best friend, in which case, have fun). But you certainly don't have to feel like you're competing with a room full of sweaty strangers.

Because even if they seem so much more advanced than you (and they might be, and that's OK), they've been where you are right now. Each HIIT class is a single snapshot along your greater fitness journey. Falling on your face today (metaphorically or if you're me, literally) doesn't mean you're a failure. It means you showed up, and that in and of itself is badass.


You Already Won HIIT Class By Showing Up

Francois Nel/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Because the biggest competition during HIIT class probably happens before you even get to the group fitness room. The biggest competition is lacing up your shoes, double checking your gym's calendar, filling your water bottle, and showing up. No matter how many breaks you need during the class or how utterly uncool you feel when you trip over yourself a little bit (though maybe that's just me), you defeated HIIT class just by showing up. Which is pretty awesome, if you think about it.


High-intensity interval training is supposed to be hard. It's called high intensity for a reason. That kind of effort doesn't work for all bodies, and if you take a HIIT class and decide it's not for you, that's more than OK. Or if you watch a HIIT class through the window of your gym and decide you don't even want to try it, that's also more than valid.

But if you do decide that it's something you and your body want to figure out, then just remember that this mode of exercise was literally designed to keep you out of breath. You're not 'weak' or 'less fit' for being out of breath: you're doing a HIIT workout. And you're just as awesome as everyone else in the room.