A 20-Minute Intense Workout That’s Easy on Your Joints

High-intensity workouts are designed to be hard. The whole point of repeatedly going all out for 30 seconds or a minute at a time is to get the maximum cardiovascular exercise in the least amount of time. But that doesn’t mean these workouts need to be punishing for your joints.

The most well-known of these workouts, high intensity interval training, or HIIT, involves high-impact moves and has been adopted by serious athletes to become stronger, faster and more powerful, said Susane Pata, a Miami-based trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

HIIT workouts caught on at gyms in the early 2000s, and studies have shown their benefits, including improved cholesterol and blood pressure profiles, heart health and fat loss.

However, since then, many trainers have adapted them to be accessible to a wider audience, Ms. Pata said. Since the end of the pandemic, a gentler version has emerged, known as HILIT, or high-intensity, low-impact interval training.

These workouts substitute high-impact activities such as sprinting, burpees or jump lunges with joint-friendly alternatives. The goal is still the same: to keep your heart rate above 80 percent of your absolute maximum before letting it barely recover and then repeating the effort.

Novice exercisers need to build a foundation of balance, core strength and joint stability before attempting dynamic plyometrics exercises, such as burpees, that are usually included in HIIT routines, Ms. Pata said.

HILIT, which removes those high-impact moves, is useful for beginners. It can also help people with joint pain, as well as those who are recovering from an injury or even pregnant women, keep up a fitness regimen.

The downside to substituting lower-impact movements is that you may burn fewer calories, according to Vanessa Martin, a trainer and founder of New York City-based SIN (Strength in Numbers) Workouts. She recommended consulting with your doctor before embarking on any new training, especially if you are pregnant or have a cardiac condition.

If you’re new to exercise or new to high intensity training, the first step is to get used to the feeling of pushing yourself hard and then recovering. Ease in with a cardio-focused routine using some form of low-impact exercise, like rowing or walking. If you have access to a gym, try a stationary bike, elliptical machine, assault bike or rowing machine. If you don’t have access to machines, you can march in place with high knees, shadow box or do step jacks.

Begin with an easy, minute-long warm up, then go as hard as you can for 10 seconds, then drop your pace or rest for 50 seconds. Repeat six times. When this starts to feel easy, shorten the rest until your recovery is five to 10 seconds. If at any point you feel dizzy or too out of breath, stop the workout.

The best HIIT workouts mix strength and cardio exercises that last longer than rest times. One popular format is “every minute on the minute,” or EMOM. The goal is to complete a specific number of exercises within, or under, one minute.

For instance, in the following workout, designed by Ms. Martin, perform the first group of three exercises during every odd minute and the second group during every even minute. If you can’t complete all three exercises during the first odd minute, stop and move on to the next group of exercises, and then pick up with the exercise you left off in during the next odd minute.

Only take a break if you finish all three exercises before each minute is up. Aim to work at 80 percent to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate. This should be enough effort so that you are unable to speak.

Don’t get discouraged if you can’t complete all three exercises in any given minute. Simply lower the reps to meet your fitness level, Ms. Martin said. You can also perform these same exercises in a Tabata-style workout, if you prefer. And never sacrifice form. If your technique is faltering, scale back on reps.

The workout does not require equipment and should take less than 20 minutes, including the warm-up and cool-down. Do a slow-paced run-through of each move before starting the workout. If you feel any pain, or if a certain move is too challenging, substitute it for a different one. The goal is to get your heart rate up, using a combination of moves that work for your body.

New exercisers should aim to complete one to two HILIT sessions per week and supplement the training with low-impact, steady-state cardio, like swimming or cycling, to build endurance. Regular fitness enthusiasts can engage in HILIT three to five times per week. Consider downloading a free interval-timer smartphone apps to alert you at the end of each minute.

Inchworm crawl out to plank to hand-release push-up for three to five minutes. The goal is to elevate your heart rate and activate your muscles. Form is the focus, not speed. If the push-up is too much, cut it out. If you can, go right into the workout after warming up.

The following exercises should be done during each of the odd minutes. Aim to complete all of them in less than one minute. If you cannot finish, move on when the minute is up. Then, on the next odd minute, start with the exercises you missed before. If you exercise regularly, try raising each rep count to 20.

  • 10 step jacks (left and right side)

  • 10 forearm plank step-outs (left and right side)

  • 10 1:1 count bicycles (left and right side)

The following exercises should be done during each of the even minutes. Aim to complete all of them in less than one minute. If you cannot finish, move on when the minute is up. Then, on the next odd minute, start with the exercises you missed before. If you exercise regularly, try raising each rep count to 10.

  • Four alternating lateral lunges with toe tap (left and right side)

  • Four modified burpees (hands to ground, step back to plank, step feet forward, come to stand)

  • Four alternating traveling planks

Jen Murphy is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.


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