Interval Training Guidelines

In the last two weeks I’ve started working on the upcoming “51 Interval Training Workouts” manual (for a July 2012 release), and it’s been a lot of fun to review past fat burning workouts that didn’t make the original manual.

Intervals are a research-proven KEY to your fat loss program and health. Researchers are even starting to use intervals with patients recovering from heart disease! So you know that interval training is just going to get more popular.

But a lot of folks worry that intervals can get boring, if you do the same ones over and over again. And that’s true. Heck, Alwyn Cosgrove told me that his clients had a low stick rate with interval programs until he introduced metabolic conditioning classes at his gym.

So here’s the deal…If you don’t have variety in your program, you are more than likely to end up at a fat loss plateau soon rather than later. Variety is one of the keys to keeping that fat loss coming.

Not only should you have variety within your training week (i.e. alternate between two different interval training workouts, rather than just doing the same interval workout each time), but you should also change these workouts every 4 weeks.

Just like your resistance training, you need to change your interval training program every 4 weeks. To modify your interval training workouts, you can…

– switch exercise methods (and even use bodyweight exercises for intervals)
– increase or decrease the length of the interval (while decreasing or increasing the intensity, respectively)
– increase or decrease the number of intervals per workout
– increase or decrease the rest time between intervals

First, let’s take a look at the interval methods. Here is my list of preferred ways to do your intervals, ranked in order from best to worst, based on my experiences…

1. Sprinting outdoors (and hills might be the absolute best)
2. Strongman movements (Farmer’s walks, tire flips, car pushing)
3. Bodyweight interval circuits
4. Treadmill running
5. Stationary cycle (upright preferred)
6. Stairclimber
7. Rower
8. Swimming (only works for competent swimmers)
9. Elliptical & Crosstrainer machines

Okay, so how long should you do intervals?

First, there is NO “best” interval training program – no best “sets and reps” for fat loss.

But that is good because it allows us to use variety in our approach. (So perhaps the best interval training method is simply the one that changes every 4 weeks.)

Interval recommendations have ranged from 15 seconds (from Muscle Media waaaay back in the late 90’s), to 5 minutes (these are known as aerobic intervals). So let’s take a look at each interval recommendation and all those in between.

8 seconds on, 12 seconds off
This is the duration used by the Australian researchers in the now famous “intervals vs. cardio” study from 2007. The results found that intervals helped subjects lose belly fat, but cardio didn’t. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to replicate 8 seconds on, 12 seconds off using cardio equipment in your gym.

15 seconds
The great thing about 15 second intervals is that you’ll be able to work at a very high rate (almost near your maximum power output), as long as you get adequate recovery between work intervals. The downside is that it is very difficult to do 15 second intervals on machines, because it takes a long time to “build up” and “bring
down” the machine settings to the correct speed.

If you decide to use these short, high-intensity intervals, you should do so only if you already have an above average level of fitness. Your rest interval should be at least 15 seconds long, and can be as long as 60 seconds. The longer you rest, the harder you will be able to exercise in each interval.

20 seconds on, 10 seconds off
This method is known as the Tabata protocol, after the Japanese scientist that published a study on this routine. It is very demanding (obviously), and while some trainers have suggested this is the best method for interval training, there is NO proof that you will get better fat loss results.

Clearly, the pro’s with this method (as well as the 15 second intervals) is that you’ll get your workout done faster (provided you do the same number of intervals as any other workout). Again, it would be very difficult to perform this type of interval training on a machine, due to the time lag as you increase or decrease the settings. And finally, these too should only be performed by above average fitness levels.

30 seconds
The Turbulence Training workouts tend to use a lot of 30 second intervals. Beginners will rest up to 90 seconds between intervals, while advanced fitness levels will rest 30-60 seconds. The longer (relative) rest allows you to work harder in each successive interval (i.e. you’ll almost be able to match your performance in the first interval with each following interval). Short rest intervals (as in the Tabata protocol) will lead to a dramatic drop-off in performance with each interval. You can easily do the
3-second intervals on any machine.

I started using these with athletes back in the 90’s, and that is when I first realized they worked AWESOME for fat loss. Sure they don’t sound as exotic as Tabatas, but they work!

45 seconds
These intervals are proven for fat loss, in addition to being effective for many team sports (such as hockey, soccer, basketball, and rugby). I have used 45 second intervals extensively in both areas of training. Not only will these tax your muscles, they will also tax your will to complete each interval (if done at the right intensity). Use 45-90 seconds of recovery between intervals. Do 3-6 intervals per workout. Your fitness and fat loss will skyrocket.

60 second intervals
Similar to the 45 second intervals in benefits and toughness. Use 60-120 seconds of recovery between each.

120 second intervals
These are now officially aerobic intervals, and can be used for both fat loss and improving aerobic capacity for sports and running. A great way to achieve two fitness goals at once. Exercise for 2 minutes and then recover for 2 minutes. Repeat 6 times. These workouts take longer (obviously), but can have a role in changing your body and improving your performance.

3, 4, or 5 minute aerobic intervals
These have been used in a lot of strength-endurance studies, and also in a lot of soccer-training protocols. Same strategy as with the two minute intervals. This really
increases your workout time, so these are only used with serious endurance athletes.

Beginner vs. Advanced
If you are thinking that these intervals all sound “too intense” for you, please don’t worry. Interval training is all relative. In fact, a recent study found that coronary-heart disease patients found interval training EASIER than cardio! You don’t have to sprint for your life in each type of interval.

Instead, just work at a slightly harder than normal pace. By the end of the interval, you should be getting tired, but you shouldn’t be gasping for air. Start conservatively and you will get the hang of it.

For example, if you regularly use level 5 on the stationary bike for 30 minutes continuously, you might try doing a 1 minute interval at level 7. Try that for an interval workout and let me know how it goes.

My favorite intervals for fat loss are between 30-60 seconds. These have been the staple intervals in my Turbulence Training workouts since the first workout was designed back in 2001.

But again, you will get your best fat loss results if you vary your interval training workouts – just like you must vary your strength training workouts.

(Get the 31 Intervals Workouts, 51 Intervals Workouts, and the Tough Mudder Adventure Race Training program here as part of the TT Platinum Membership Deal – on sale this week only.)

Intervals are your secret to success,

Craig Ballantyne, CTT
Certified Turbulence Trainer


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  • danny c

    As a bmx rider, I take my bike with me everywhere I go, which initially led me to consider suv’s (I wont leave my bike on a rack for fear of theft). In the end I went with a vw golf because hatchbacks get better mileage and, with the rear seats folded, can fit bikes, short surfboards, dogs etc. My buddy just got the hybrid ford escape which gets comparable mileage and is even bigger.

    • Danny, I love those little VW cars. Very stylish. I’ll consider it, but not sure if I want to be driving that on the Canadian highway in winter. Thanks!

  • Paul

    Hey, I think a forgotten piece of equipment is the mini tramp. With it you can address all those issues on the short intervals(8-30 secs.) and it is very low impact. I also use my 40 lb weight vest to make the intervals harder without really working harder. Just a suggestion that I never see anyone make!

  • Leigh Ellen Potter

    GREAT info in that post Craig, thanks 😀 I’m in the process of converting some cardio friends to interval training, and I’m going to send them here!

    Now as for cars – we have different models here in Australia and don’t have the Xterra, but late last year I bought a new Nissan X-Trail. I needed a car that could fit a family of 5 + my beagle (Maggie) and german shepherd (Morgan), be fun to drive, and be useful enough to go camping. I can tell you, I’m in love with my car! It *is* fun to drive, easy to park, has masses of room, and the dogs love it. There’s no carpet in the back so no worries with mud, sand or dog fur – the floor panels lift out and can be hosed off! I’m incredibly impressed with this car and I recommend it 🙂

    Have fun!

    • Very nice Leigh…I think we might have that model. I’ll check it out, you’ve made a great case for it. Thanks again! And keep on converting the cardios!

  • Mark

    I’d suggest the new Mini Cooper Countryman. 4 doors( 2 for you and 2 for Bally) and all wheel drive. All that and the awesome head turning Mini Style.

    • Interesting…the only thing is I do 95% of my driving on the highway…and I’m just not comfy driving a mini on Canada’s main highway with all the transport trucks. But I will consider it. Thank you!

  • Jennifer

    Great help, as always!! Thank you.

  • Cynthia

    If you are looking for an SUV, I have liked my Toyota RAV4 (2001) very much. Can haul mountains of things. Handles well. Short turning radius makes it zippy and fun to drive, but for the same reason, it’s a little dicey on icy roads. Honda CRVs seem to last forever. Think about gas mileage as cost of fuel will be going up, up, up. (That is, forget the F150!!) I always buy used. Depreciation on a new vehicle is ridiculous. So far, no problems with that strategy.

  • Preston

    Hey man, great stuff but I have a couple of questions.

    1) first, how many times would you reccomed doing your 30-60 intervals?

    2) second, when you say switching up your Interval training every 4 weeks, do you mean switching up the actually exercises or switching the work/rest periods?

    Thanks a lot!

  • Preston

    Sorry, from the comment above. Ignore my second question, I re-read it and must have skipped it, it’s too early for me haha.

    And to clarify my first comment, how many sets
    should I do the 30 second work/ 30-60 second rest periods?

    Also, how many times a week do you reccomend doing the intervals a week?

    • Intervals 3-4 times per week, as recommended in TT.

      6 sets.

      So 30 seconds work, 60 seconds rest, x 6.

  • Mic

    I am becoming a fan of the interval because it gets me in and out – only and hour for lunch you know.
    As for cars… If you like Nissan look at the Altima or get another Maxima. Great cars as you know. If you are looking for an SUV take a peak at Hyundai. My wife has a Santa Fe and it has been great. It moves along pretty good on these Colorado mountain highways too.

  • nc

    Hey cb have you thought about another Toyota or Honda SV? They have a very good resale value. Think about what your mom will do. What happened to the link to try TT Workouts for $4.95. I really like your program because of its simplicity! I like the alternating concept of doing opposing body parts, very clever. None of the other programs do this. This is common sense which allows one to really work harder and complete the sets without tiring out. I also want to get in on the 1-Year TT Membership but I am broke right now a struggling student. Anyway great program.

    I also like the 30-60 sec interval training and I like to rest for at least twice the amount of time I spend, so if I do 30 sec I rest for 60 sec If I do 60 I rest for 120 sec.

  • Ben

    If you were going to train for an endurance event such as a marathon, triathalon, or Ironman type event, would you concentrate on the 5 minute intervals or would you still mix it up?

    Thanks for the very useful article. I’ve already printed it out and will use to map out my weekly workouts.

    As for a vehicle, just give in and go for a Loser Cruiser (mini-van). It is just so easy to get stuff in and out and the seats even come out, lay down, etc.

    • Ben, for an endurance event, I’m not your expert. Sorry. You’ll need an endurance sport coach.

  • Cynthia H.

    Your workouts are great and I always use them when I travel and I alternate them with Zumba, Yoga, and Hip Hop dance when I’m at home. Love them!

    As for the car… you should consider a Subaru. We bought a Subaru Imprezza this summer and it is great! My 86 year-old Mom recommended Subaru because she’s still driving (like a mad woman) her 10-year old Forrester all around New England. We live in Minnesota and it handles like a charm in the snow and ice, has lots of pep, and our Goldendoodle fits fine in the hatchback. Also, thick rubber mats are supplied for the floor for winter slop. The Imprezza Outback Sport has even more headroom for the dog, if he’s tall. Good but not great gas mileage due to the all wheel drive but more than makes up for it by the way it handles.

  • Dave R.

    Craig –

    Love the post. I use intervals alot with my clients and personally.

    As far as an SUV – a friend of mine had a Honda Element and loved it. The back is non slip rubber flooring so you could hose it out if needed. One of the people posted about new vs. used. Definetly used!! My wife and I bought a year old mini-van (yes, I said it!) for $12,000 here in North Carolina with only 18,000miles. It just doesn’t make sense to buy new anymore for me….Best of luck.

  • Barry H.

    Intervals: Cross-country ski (classic or skate) intervals will leave you depleted as no other sport can. I have competed at national level in track, swimming and paddling and have, consequently, done many killer interval workouts, but nothing beats XC skiing.

    Vehicle: why is it that people even consider SUVs and trucks anymore? There are vastly superior vehicles on the road now when one needs to drive in snow, on old logging roads or in the city. I have driven most of the American and Japanese SUVs in the past 5 years and have realized their performance in snow is abysmal; their fuel usage, “criminal” and that from an environmental point of view there is no excuse to drive these things. Pick up trucks are worse in the snow, and environmentally-speaking – forget about it.

    A few years ago I was leading a mountaineering trip that required a 70 km approach via a decommissioned and somewhat scary logging road on the BC coast. I was driving a Subaru Legacy, which had very little clearance. Others in the party were driving various SUVs. They were utterly unable to keep up with me and reported bouncing around in the ruts. Simply, they are not vehicles for active people: the standard version of these things come with engines that supply too much power and too little useable torque. Further, the stock tires are way too wide (too cool) to give decent traction in anything but mud.

    You should check out the backcountry parking lot at some of the Utah ski areas (Alta, for example); ever wonder why these places are filled with Subarus? I have a Subaru Outback now, which has a surprising amount of storage, is comfortable for both the passenger and driver – though a little tight for big adults in the back – can carry my whitewater canoes and kayaks happily and do not require a ladder or a second person to get them onto the relatively low roof. This is a vehicle for someone who does things in the outdoors and who has a concern for the state of the earth.

    I was looking at the Toyota Vienna (I think that is the right name) and liked what I saw. Their reported mileage is not as good as a Subaru Outback, but there are a lot of them showing up around here (I live in a ski resort in BC during the winter). By the way there are also many pickups in this area: the valley below is agricultural, so a few of these are used on the farms. Which vehicles regularly go into the ditches on their way up to the mountain or during bad weather, do you reckon?)

    If you are thinking of SUVs or a pick-up because you think they make you look cool, then I have clearly just wasted my breathe.

  • Randy Borrink

    Hey Craig
    On Thursday I purchased your 31 intervals for 19.95. Will I receive it on my email or did I do something incorrectly?
    Thanks Randy Borrink.

  • Don

    Hi Craig,

    What research do you have that suggests the 45 second intervals are best for fat loss? Just curious, as I normally do 30 seconds, and when trying 45 seconds, let’s just say it is a major burn 🙂

    • There is no best interval Don. But 45 seconds definitely work and are convenient to use on machines.

  • Tim H.

    I just wanted to get your take on this; where would you rank Kettlebell Swings (2-handed and 1-armed) in terms of effectiveness for intervals?

  • Hey Craig!

    This is a little off topic but did you ever read a book called The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Staley? It was an indepth study of millionaire’s versus non-millionaire’s and what they spend their money on (suits, homes, cars, watches, vacations, etc. ) as well as how much.

    Turns out the people that actually have money, don’t spend all that much on these things. They are cash rich. It’s the next door neighbor in a modestly nice neighborhood driving the 15 year old Ford Taurus that’s likely to be worth 7 figures, not the guy in the big home and two Beamers in the driveway, with a boat, too.

    Anyway, you and your ’97 Maxima made me think of that!

    The 2010 Mazda CX-7 was given the top rating by Edmunds for SUVs under $25k and the 2010 Toyata Higlander nabbed the top spot in the $25k – $35k range.

    The CX-7 is a smaller SUV, but it’s sharp and highly rated. You can check out the Edmunds site

  • Ali

    Thanks for the interval tips. Great post.

    I agree with the VW Golf comment. Voted best car in 2010 and has lots of space. Besides, you live in the city. SUV’s are not for city driving. They are too big for the smaller roads, use way too much gas, and pollute more.

  • Hi Craig,

    Some great ideas that I will add to the intervals we do already with my socccer players.

    We also use a 20-20-20 “interval routine” where they walk for 20, jog for 20 then sprint for 20 seconds with or with out a ball.

    seems to work well..-:)



  • Hi,

    Can you please supply references to the studies mentioned above. I’ve seen the study on the 8 second intervals but would like to know about the ones on different lengths such as 45 seconds etc.

    • Many of those are personal experience only through using them with my clients in person.

  • jason williams

    hey! you folks are crazy, do you actually believe the body is designed for sprinting ? I don’t think so. Hear me.. do this & you will feel the pain, is that what you really want ? in 20 years you will be wishing you didn’t when the doctor tells you the bad news about your joints. Oh it’s ok I guess spending your 60’s in a wheel chair but hey! what goes up must come down.