What Are The Best Bodyweight Exercises For HIIT Workouts?

Eons ago when I was qualifying as a personal trainer we learnt about high intensity interval training (HIIT). It was a time-efficient and effective way to exercise.

Of course back then it was just called interval training and hardly anyone was doing it. 10 years, two words and a catchy acronym later and it’s become a global workout craze!

Which is (mostly) a good thing, I for one like HIIT.

But there are some really dumb exercises being promoted for this style of training. Just because a move makes someone tired and sore doesn’t mean it’s doing them any long-term favours. I know I’ve been guilty of falling into this trap in the past.

Endlessly chucking weights overhead, performing thousands of jump squats or otherwise beating your body to a pulp in the pursuit of HIIT is an injury time-bomb waiting to explode!

The best HIIT exercises are ones which can be performed quickly, smoothly and safely with a really high degree of effort. Hill sprints, exercise bikes, sleds and rowers come to mind.

But not everyone has access to this equipment or terrain so what about bodyweight HIIT exercises?

Yes, they can work.

I prefer bodyweight exercises when they are performed slowly and selected for the purpose of building strength. However there are definitely bodyweight moves which can be used for HIIT workouts when space and equipment are limited. My two favorites are:

Modified Burpees

Burpees are the classic bodyweight exercise for cardio conditioning. Quickly moving your body from horizontal to vertical recruits muscles from head to toe which your heart and lungs must work hard to support. The problem is many people are performing this move horribly leading to increased wear and tear on joints and connective tissues. I’ve found performing burpees from blocks or books allows for much smoother movement, reduced impact forces and better biomechanics without sacrificing cardio benefits.


Performance Instructions:

Starting in a push up position (with your hands raised on blocks) jump your feet forwards between your hands. Stand up tall then reach back down and immediately jump your feet back to the start position. You should aim to move as quickly and quietly as possible. To increase the intensity of the exercise you can include a small vertical hop (Instead of standing) but this does increase impact forces and is not necessary to get a good cardio stimulus. You can also increase intensity by adding a push up at the bottom of the move.

Bear Crawls

A deceptively taxing full-body exericse which will challenge your arms, legs and coordination whilst getting the heart racing. If you are limited on space simply shuttle forwards and backwards (reversing is an even bigger challenge!)


Performance Instructions:

Start on all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. You should be balanced on your hands and toes with your knees just off the floor. Begin the movement by moving one arm and its opposite leg forwards, plant and then repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Continue moving forwards in this fashion until you run out of space at which point either turn around or simply reverse the movement and bear crawl backwards. Throughout the exercise keep your spine level, long and straight. Avoid twisting and try to keep your limbs working in a cross-lateral rhythm i.e. left arm moving forwards with right leg and vice versa. 

Sample Bodyweight HIIT Workout:

  • Burpee x 30 seconds
  • Bear Crawls x 30 seconds
  • Rest x 60 seconds
  • Repeat 5 times
  • Over time see if you can make the intervals longer and/or the rests shorter

Whichever bodyweight exercises you choose to include in a HIIT workout try to ensure you are able to perform them smoothly and safely with a high degree of effort. Exercises which fail to meet these criteria should be approached with caution!