27 Reasons to Include HIIT or Tabata Workouts In Your Bodyweight Program

What kind of cardio do you include in your workout program?

If you’re a dedicated bodyweight training enthusiast, or even if you’re just working it in with your gym workouts, balancing your strength training with cardio is part of the Bodyweight Life.

It’s well established that sedentary people do not remain healthy. Ideally, one’s fitness regimen consists of strength work, high intensity cardio and lots of low intensity work.

Let’s talk about ways to get the high intensity work in.

For years, many people have taken to running on treadmills, running around neighborhoods, bicycling, and other sorts of lengthy, moderate to high intensity steady-state cardio.

These days, more and more evidence suggests that’s not an effective use of your time.

Though this author still goes for runs up to 3-3.5 miles in length, there is a reason I’m not pushing myself to go further. MuscleForLife put it this way:

Unless you just love going for long jogs, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to do steady-state cardio instead of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Interval training is the new cardio. But walking really is the new walking.

And when I was growing up, there were groups of people walking around indoor malls to get their exercise. We called them “mall walkers.”

It’s 2015, and now pedometers and “the quantified self” have brought back walking as a thing. They encourage us to get 10,000 steps per day as a general guideline to remaining healthy.

So should you be walking? Running? Doing interval training?

I think the answer is a proper balance of all of them.

Why do cardio at all?

There are plenty of arguments for traditional cardio like running and bicycling, including [1]:

  1. Your breathing and your blood flow increases
  2. Your body releases endorphins
  3. You reduce the frequency of a number of metabolic diseases like diabetes and heart conditions.

And many more.

Most importantly, you improve cognitive performance.

Here are just a few examples of the impact aerobic / cardio exercise has on the brain:

  1. Evidence is growing that aerobic training benefits cardiovascular fitness, cognition, and cerebral blood flow[2].
  2. Cardio in your 20s results in better cognitive performance in middle age[3]
  3. Maintains elasticity of blood vessels, which is associated with decreased cognitive decline[4]
  4. Exercise in middle age may prevent dementia in elder years[5]

It’s hard to resist when you read a passage like this in Harvard Health:

The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Why Lots of Walking Beats Lengthy Running Sessions

These studies all suggest a certain quantity of exercise–suggesting, as we now know, that being sedentary is the villain.

But they don’t all agree on how intense that activity should be.

There are certainly a number of benefits that moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio–lengthy runs or jogs, for example–can provide. However, it turns out that you can gain a number of the same benefits by lower-intensity exercise like walking.


Those mall walkers were on to something.

The Primal Blueprint reminds us that our ancestors used to spend a great deal of time walking just to execute daily responsibilities.

Modern life has removed much of the need for us to walk significant distances. Modern life has made us sedentary. And that has made us sick.

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Let’s look at running again. Are there negatives?

Yes, there are.

There are upper limits that should be in place.

  1. Excessive cardio in endurance athletes has been shown to cause at least temporary damage to the right ventricle[6]. The right ventricle is the part of the heart that pumps blood into the lungs for re-oxygenation.
  2. Myocardial fibrosis (thickening of the heart valves) may be related to lifelong endurance exercise[7].
  3. In a connection I encountered in Mark’s Daily Apple, athletes are at higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation than non-athletes. And atrial fibrillation is linked to faster cognitive decline[8] and[9.
  4. In case you would ever consider doing so, here’s your warning: men over 40 should think twice before running a triathlon[10].

As it turns out, moderate physical activity is better for heart health than vigorous exercise.

[R]esearchers found those who were most sedentary were around twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as those who were regularly physically active. They were around four times as likely to die of cardiovascular events and all other causes.

But more surprisingly, those who did the most strenuous daily exercise were also more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than people who engaged in more moderate activity.

It’s also very relaxing.

I find an opportunity to walk 30 or 40 minutes most days of the week. It’s thinking time. I try not to look at my phone, except for time and distance tracking.

Let your mind process all the inputs from earlier that day.

In the morning, it’s a good way to get your body ready for the day without an intense workout that drains you too much.

Al Kavadlo, noted bodyweight fitness guru, talks about high intensity interval training in an Ask Al episode from March 2015. He points out that steady state cardio is great for the mental aspects–helping you to build focus and block out distractions, despite how boring the activity may be.

But you do still need to stress yourself. You need intense exercise.

So what if there’s a way to capture the benefits of vigorous exercise, but to do it only in short bursts–thereby avoiding over-stressing the cardiovascular system?

I’m no doctor, but I think I may be on to something.

Now, It’s Time For Some HIIT Workouts

The Primal Blueprint also calls for an occasional sprint.

After I did my homework, I found that High Intensity Interval Training was the best way to incorporate sprinting into my routine.

What does a tabata workout look like? Right now, I try to do strength training three times a week, one or two 30-45 minute runs (during the warmer months), and a HIIT session. I may switch that ratio around, but thus far I’m feeling pretty good as stated here.

Here are some of the reasons HIIT is a great form of cardio–and better than endurance training–for those who are currently strength training. (Several of these were originally found via Mark’s Daily Apple here and here, and some from FultonKettleBells here):

  1. Interval training increases testosterone whereas long distance running lowers it[11] & [12].
  2. Interval training triggers the creation of mitochondria[13].
  3. HIIT can induce similar physiological adaptations to traditional endurance training[14].
  4. HIIT induces similar improvements in the stiffness of your arteries[15]
  5. HIIT increases insulin sensitivity[16].
  6. HIIT may increase HGH production[17].
  7. HIIT increases oxygen uptake capacity more than moderate cardio training does[18].
  8. HIIT appears to be more effective than traditional cardio for lowering hypertension[19].
  9. HIIT can have you seeing and feeling results in as few as six sessions[20]!
  10. HIIT is more efficient in that it takes up less overall time. Your whole workout is done in 20 minutes!
  11. You can do it anywhere, much like bodyweight training. Find a lightly traveled sidewalk, a walking path, a park, etc., strap on some running shoes, and you’re good to go!
  12. You don’t need to run! HIIT can take the form of bicycling, pushing a sled…really anything that you can do intensely that gets your heart rate going.
  13. HIIT is less damaging to the joints. You sprint for brief periods of time, and then walk in between to rest up.
  14. HIIT supports muscle growth, whereas endurance running breaks muscle down. I’ve read this phrase multiple times: Would you rather look like a marathon runner or a sprinter?
  15. HIIT is pretty effective at burning fat — perhaps moreso than endurance training[21]
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So I think that’s a pretty convincing case for getting some HIIT workouts into your bodyweight program!

You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t interested in building your strength by using bodyweight fitness techniques. And you are at least willing to consider that you should be performing some cardio training along with that.

After reading this post, you should now be convinced that it’s worthwhile to include some HIIT and some endurance cardio training in your bodyweight routine.

But how do you do it?

Have a look at my beginner bodyweight calisthenics routine for an example of how I involve both in my workouts.

To summarize, I generally fit in one or two moderate-length runs, of up to 3 miles, during a given week. I’ll also do a HIIT session, consisting usually of 5 or 6 cycles of 20 seconds of running followed by 1:40 of rest.

Note–because I’m ramping up the HIIT, I found that I had to decrease the duration of each run. Hopefully I can get that up to 30 seconds later–I could only do 2 rounds at 30 seconds!

I work those in with 2 or 3 weight training sessions per week.

How to Time a Tabata Workout

One of the major questions I see from newcomers is how to time a HIIT workout, to ensure you spend the proper amount of time exercising at max capacity without reducing your effectiveness by staring at your watch instead of actually performing the exercise.

My best suggestion here is a tabata timer that fits in with your lifestyle and your environment. Here’s a few ideas:

  • A tabata timer app can be loaded on your smartphone, if you already carry your phone to work out. Many of them are free.
  • A tabata timer can be run for free on your laptop if your’e working out in an office/gym like I am.
  • A more elaborate tabata timer can be purchased if you want some more features than the phone app provides.

Do yourself a favor and work up from a reasonable tabata protocol. I started off thinking I could exercise for 30 seconds at max effort, rest for 20, and then do it again, for 5 or 6 cycles.

When I started (and, to be honest…..now) I quickly came to realize I could exercise at 20 seconds at max effort and then needed 2 minutes of rest in between.

Don’t over do it and put yourself in the hospital just because of the timing that others are able to follow. Be honest and work within your own limits!

For more about how I structure my workouts, please see my beginner bodyweight routine.

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What else is there to know about adding HIIT to a bodyweight fitness program? Please speak up in the comments!


Image source: Flickr



  1. Aerobic exercise: Top 10 reasons to get physical – Mayo Clinic, March 2014.
  2. Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging – Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, November 2013
  3. Staying Active in Your 20s Pays Off in Middle Age – Huffington Post, April 2014.
  4. Hearts and minds: linking vascular rigidity and aerobic fitness with cognitive aging – Neurobiology of Aging, April 2014
  5. Leisure-time physical activity from mid- to late life, body mass index, and risk of dementia – Alzheimers Association, via PubMed
  6. Exercise-induced right ventricular dysfunction and structural remodelling in endurance athletes – European Heart Journal, Dec 2011
  7. Diverse patterns of myocardial fibrosis in lifelong, veteran endurance athletes. – Journal of Applied Physiology, June 2011
  8. Is the risk of atrial fibrillation higher in athletes than in the general population? A systematic review and meta-analysis. – Europace, Sep 2009
  9. Atrial Fibrillation Linked To Faster Cognitive Decline, Even Without Stroke – Medical News Today, June 2013
  10. Men Over 40 Should Think Twice Before Running Triathlons – Bloomberg, June 2013
  11. Physiological and performance changes from the addition of a sprint interval program to wrestling training – Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Sep 2011
  12. 5 Ways You’re Accidentally Lowering Your Testosterone – Daily Health Post, January 2013
  13. A practical model of low-volume high-intensity interval training induces mitochondrial biogenesis in human skeletal muscle: potential mechanisms – Journal of Physiology, March 2010
  14. Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease – Journal of Physiology, March 2012
  15. Sprint interval and traditional endurance training induce similar improvements in peripheral arterial stiffness and flow-mediated dilation in healthy humans – American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, April 2008
  16. Sprint interval running increases insulin sensitivity in young healthy subjects – Archives of Physiology and Biochemistry, July 2012
  17. The time course of the human growth hormone response to a 6 s and a 30 s cycle ergometer sprint. – Journal of Sports Science, June 2002
  18. Aerobic high-intensity intervals improve VO2max more than moderate training – Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, April 2007
  19. High-intensity interval training and hypertension: maximizing the benefits of exercise? – American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease, 2012
  20. Improvements in exercise performance with high-intensity interval training coincide with an increase in skeletal muscle mitochondrial content and function. – Journal of Applied Physiology, Sep 2013
  21. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss – Journal of Obesity, 2011