High Intensity Interval Training, or better known as HIIT, is sweeping gyms by storm. Masses of time-starved people flock to these classes that run anywhere from a mere 20 minutes – a hardcore hour or less and get their cardio, strength and sweat on, feeling cleansed and spent. HIIT boasts many health benefits including quicker fat loss and excellent cardiovascular exercise; it also is usually cheaper than Crossfit and available at all gyms (not just specialty studios).

But HIIT is what it is- it’s high intensity, which can mean tweaked joints and other nagging injuries or re-injuries. How can you enjoy your HIIT when it hurts? Here are some typical HIIT complaints and their easy modifications so that you can proceed in class. The modifications will be given for the 10 most common HIIT exercises, which are:

  1. High Knees (hopping knees to chest while in place)
  2. Squats
  3. Lunges
  4. Burpees (the favorite from grammar school, jumping into pushups, there are many versions)
  5. Push Ups
  6. Plank/ Side Planks
  7. Jumping Jacks
  8. Sit ups/ Crunches
  9. Tricep Dips (can be on the bench or on the floor)
  10. Jumping Versions of Squats/ Lunges/ Etc…

Help, HIIT Hurts, Problem 1: My Knees are on fire/ killing me!

  1. High Knees: March vigorously or alternate knees to chest without jumping to lessen impact on the knees.
  2. Squats: Stand by a mirror or have the instructor watch your form intently- it could be an issue with your foot placement or form. If your form is fine and your knees still hurt, try going only as far as you can with no pain or by doing them against a wall with a Swiss ball for support. Your instructor can help set this up.
  3. Lunges: Try stepping backwards into your lunges (over forward) to avoid less impact. Still in pain? Try stationary lunges where you essentially do an up & down motion on one side, and then alternate between rounds. Still in pain? Avoid them and ask your teacher for an alternative.
  4. Burpees: Step into and out of your burpees and remove any jumping. Still in pain? Modify by doing another plank exercise, push ups, or another modification from your teacher.
  5. Push Ups: Sorry, knee pain doesn’t get you out of these!
  6. Plank/ Side Planks: Sorry, knee pain doesn’t get you out of these!
  7. Jumping Jacks: Remove the jumping element and try a squat jack. Still in pain? Try a low impact cardio option like stepping side to side or marching in place.
  8. Sit ups/ Crunches: Sorry, knee pain doesn’t get you out of these!
  9. Tricep Dips: Sorry, knee pain doesn’t get you out of these!
  10. Jumping Versions of Squats/ Lunges/ Etc…: Remove the jumping element and try the stationary version of the exercise. Still in pain? Ask your teacher for cardio alternatives.

Smart tip: Check your shoes. New shoes meant for HIIT or high impact sports could change your knee problems!

Help HIIT Hurts, Problem 2: My Lower Back is not happy!

  1. High Knees: March vigorously or alternate knees to chest without jumping to lessen impact on the spine.
  2. Squats: Check your form but these should be good for lower back pain. Ask your instructor to watch you and ensure your core is held tight.
  3. Lunges: Check your form but these should be good for lower back pain. Ask your instructor to watch you and ensure your core is held tight.
  4. Burpees: Modify by doing another plank exercise, push ups or another modification from your teacher.
  5. Push Ups: This should be good for your back pain! Enjoy!
  6. Plank/ Side Planks: This should be good for your back pain! Enjoy!
  7. Jumping Jacks: Remove the jumping element and try a squat jack. Still in pain? Try a low impact cardio option like stepping side to side or marching in place.
  8. Sit ups/ Crunches: This should be good for your back pain! Enjoy!
  9. Tricep Dips: This should not bother your spine. Hold your core tight just in case.
  10. Jumping Versions of Squats/ Lunges/ Etc…: Remove the jumping element and try the stationary version of the exercise. Still in pain? Ask your teacher for cardio alternatives.

Smart tip: Check your shoes (see above), but also check your spine. Getting a checkup could help ease fears and provide insight into what’s going on in your spinal nerves. Remember, shooting or peripheral pain (like sciatica) could signal a serious health issue and requires immediate care. Don’t ignore it, check it out!

Help, HIIT Hurts, Problem 3: My Wrists can’t handle this!

  1. High Knees: Wrist pain should be no problem here! Have fun!
  2. Squats: Wrist pain should be no problem here! Have fun!
  3. Lunges: Wrist pain should be no problem here! Have fun!
  4. Burpees: Have your teacher watch your form. Keep your fingers wide and spread and remove the jumping element and/or extra push up to work the core more. Still in pain? Ask for a cardio alternative.
  5. Push Ups: Check that your wrists are properly aligned with help of your teacher (directly under your shoulders or wider). You can also try push ups on your knuckles, but this is a temporary solution. Still in pain? Try a chest press with dumbbells instead on your back.
  6. Plank/ Side Planks: Both exercises can easily be done on your forearms, making sure your core stays strong and your wrists are not in pain.
  7. Jumping Jacks: Wrist pain should be no problem here! Have fun!
  8. Sit ups/ Crunches: Wrist pain should be no problem here! Have fun!
  9. Tricep Dips: With wrist pain, this exercise should be avoided. Try an overhead tricep extension or a standing tricep kickback with the help of your teacher.
  10. Jumping Versions of Squats/ Lunges/ Etc…: Wrist pain should be no problem here! Have fun!

Help, HIIT Hurts, Problem 4: I am SO sore!

Unfortunately, this is what you signed up for! HIIT gets muscles and movements in a fast matter, which makes overtraining easy. Start with 2 sessions per week, building to 3 and then to every other day. Ensure you take 1-2 rest days per week (or perhaps do something low impact like Yoga) and stretch thoroughly to help sore muscles.

Remember, doing HIIT is great… but your body needs recovery periods, proper training gear and good nutrition to help your muscles and joints recover. Consider trying fish oil and vitamin D supplements to help with joint health and ensure your nutrition is supporting your new HIIT workout regime. Hydrating adequately will also be important to muscle recovery, and a vitamin or electrolyte water mix might also be a good option for post-HIIT session.

Happy HIITing in time for the spring shorts weather!

Christy Lyons

Christy Lyons, M.A., PHR, is a former corporate wellness company owner & freelance Yoga, Pilates, and barre/toning instructor. As an E-RYT, she has been teaching yoga since 2007 and has also run 2 teacher training programs. She is an NASM-CPT and specialized in working with clients with autoimmune diseases, spinal injuries, and other unique cases. After selling her business in 2013, Christy... Read More

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  • Christina Yocca

    You give no modifications for toe joint pain – bunions or arthritis. I cannot do planks – at least not fast. I cannot do lunges. Nothing with weight on bent toes. Help.

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