HIIT Workouts: Check Your Form (Upper & Lower Body)

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High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is an increasingly popular and effective way to get lean. HIIT Programmes strip away the drag of long weight lifting gym sessions and mindless steady-state cardio, while retaining the flavour of exercise variation in a time-efficient package. It is no wonder HIIT boutique gyms and Youtube channels or fitness apps featuring such workouts are gaining popularity. Be it as a way to keep fit, lose weight, or even to socialise, HIIT seems to be the way to go.

As with all forms of exercise, HIIT has its risk of injuries as well. Our team of physiotherapists have seen and successfully treated clients injured from HIIT routines to return to it safely. While it’s a time-efficient form of exercise, the shortened routine can result in trade offs to hit a certain number of repetitions instead of quality repetitions. If improper technique is added to the mix (at high repetition no less), it is a disastrous recipe for increasing the risk of injury to the shoulders, knees, and lower back.

In this article we will go over common upper body and lower body exercises done during HIIT workouts, and share the techniques we teach our clients to safely perform them. Doing so allows the muscles work the way they should, because it ensure that the correct muscle groups are activated with each rep). In addition, it will reduce your risk of injury. 

Upper Body High-Intensity Interval Training Exercises

Upper body High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) exercises often target and train muscle groups such as the arms, upper back, and shoulders. Here are two popular types of upper body exercises that are often used in HIIT programme to strengthen the upper body:

Shoulder presses

Muscle groups targeted during shoulder presses

As the name suggests, this exercise requires you to press a weight towards the ceiling using your shoulders, but it’s more than that. Doing a standing shoulder press requires the activation of other muscle groups. This is helps to stabilise and support the trunk and shoulder joint to accommodate a weight being pushed overhead. These include the scapular and rotator cuff muscles to keep the shoulder joint stable, the abdominals and lower back muscles to keep the torso in an upright position during the exercise, and the finger flexors in the forearms to hold onto the weights used for the shoulder press. With more muscles being recruited for this exercise, it makes an effective choice for those who are short on time.

Equipment usually used for shoulder presses

This exercise can be done at the gym, or at home. You will need either one or two dumbbells or kettlebells. If you are using a barbell, there will be slight modifications to the form.

Steps to perform a shoulder press

  1. When performing shoulder press, start off with lighter weights first until you’ve mastered the technique.
  2. Straddle a weight bench or sit on a firm surface with your feet flat on the ground.
  3. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand, start with your shoulders raised to 90 degrees and your elbows bent. Rotate your forearms until your palms face forward. Think of it as having your palms beside your ear and preparing to punch the ceiling. 
  4. Press the dumbbells up overhead until your elbows are straight, then slowly lower back down to the start position.

Things to look out for when performing shoulder presses

There are two things that you should look out for when doing the exercise. They are: opting for the correct weight, and maintaining the right posture.

Choosing a weight that is effective to train muscles is important
Choosing a weight that is effective to train muscles is important

Selecting an appropriate weight is important here. Picking a weight that’s too light reduces the necessary stimulus needed to challenge the muscles. At the same time, picking a weight that’s too heavy could lead to recruitment of compensatory muscles. This will increase the chances of injury. Ideally, you would want to start by picking a weight you can do with good form for 10 reps. The last few repetitions might feel challenging but you should still be in control throughout the entire movement.  

Maintaining a good posture throughout the exercise is key to minimise risk to injuring the shoulder or lower back. Having good thoracic extension (i.e., an upright back and chest out) creates more joint space for the arm to move upward into the pressing phase. The improvement to this shoulder environment thus minimises the chance of pain to the front of the shoulder. 

Push up

Muscle groups targeted during push ups

Push ups are body weight multi-joint exercises that primarily target the chest, triceps, upper back, and shoulders. 

Steps to perform a push up

  1. Assume the classic push up position – face down on the floor with your weight balanced on your toes and your hands.
  2. Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.
  3. Keep your legs and feet slightly apart for better stability.
  4. Keep your body as a straight line. To do this, imagine a rod running from the top of your head to your toes. Typically the lower back will tend to sag which might lead to a strained feeling. To correct this, lift the buttocks up until it’s aligned to the upper back. Keeping this alignment, draw the tummy in towards the spine and gently tuck the tailbone under the body using your lower abdominals. You would want to do this without rounding the upper back.
  5. Squeeze the shoulder blades together to engage the upper back before flexing the elbow to lower the body until your body is one fist above the ground.
  6. To return to the start position, push down through the base of the palm to push yourself back up. You should feel the shoulder blades moving away from each other as you push up.

At the final bit of the push you would want to ensure that you’re not shrugging at the neck.

If this is too difficult, you can do the push ups in a kneeling position, and/or put your hands on an elevated platform.

Things to look out for when performing push ups

Maintain your body in a straight line to prevent excessive loading on the lower back if the hips sag, and/or on the neck if the neck droops too much. It is also important to engage the upper back to sit the shoulders back before flexing the elbows. This helps to prevent added stress on the front of the shoulders when descending to the floor. 

Lower Body

Muscles in the lower body are vital to help us perform daily activities like walking, standing, bending and lifting things off the floor. For the latter, having a sturdy base allows the rest of the body to move more efficiently when picking up heavy items and reduces the risk of injury. These two exercises are commonly introduced to participants in HIIT classes to target lower body muscles to build strength and improve control in the lower body. Having increased lower body control can help to respond to impact and shock which occurs during high impact movements such as running. 


Muscle groups targeted during squats

Squats mainly target the front thigh muscles, (quadriceps) the back thigh muscles (hamstrings) and the glutes. Supplementary muscles such as our core muscles are also recruited while performing the squat to hold the upper body upright. Calf muscles are also activated while anchoring the foot to the floor for stability.

Steps to perform a squat

  1. Start by standing with feet just slightly wider than hip-width apart, with toes slightly turned outward.
  2. Hinge from your hip while keeping your back in a straight line. You will feel your weight starting to shift more towards your heels and your knees starting to bend. 
  3. Continue to bend your knees to lower yourself. You want to aim for your thighs to be as close to parallel to the floor. Your feet should remain flat on the ground, and your knees should align to your second toe while not crossing it.
  4. To return to the start position, push down through your heels to straighten your knees and hip, exhaling as you do so

Start with 8-10 repetitions and work your way up to be able to do 12-15 reps.

Things to look out for when performing squats

If you find it difficult to squat, hold on to a sturdy structure in front of you for support. Keep your lower back neutral and not let it round especially as you go deeper into the squat. 

Always make sure your knees are in line with your toes.

Lead with your hips and not your knees. Be mindful not to thrust the hips forward at the end of the standing position, and/or overly straighten your knees to prevent added stress to the lower back and knees respectively.

Calibrate the forward movement of the knees and sitting back of the hips so that the knees don’t go past the toes. The majority of the weight should be on the heels.


Muscle groups targeted during lunges

The targeted muscles of the lower limb include the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. The core muscles are also engaged as stabilizers during this exercise.

Steps to perform a lunge

  1. Start from a standing position with legs slightly closer than hip-width apart and take a step forward (distance should be a walking stride) transferring majority of the weight to the front leg.
  2. Ensure that the weight will primarily be on the front heel, with the toes on the back leg on the floor for balance. Ensure that your hips are squared towards the front and not swaying towards the side of the lead leg. 
  3. Hinge at the hip (similar to the squat) and bend both knees. Ideally you’d want the back knee to touch the floor in a controlled descent. If that is too difficult, work within a range where you can control the descent.
  4. Push down through the front feel and rear forefoot to lift yourself up and back to return to the start position. 

You can either keep doing this exercise with the same leg going forward until you finish the set, or alternate legs. Aim for 10-12 repetitions per leg.

Things to look out for when performing lunges

In the starting position, ensure your legs are slightly closer than hip-width apart. When taking a step forward, the distance of the step should be that of a walking stride.

In the lunge position, ensure that your hips are squared towards the front and not swaying towards the side of the lead leg. Ideally you would also want the back knee to touch the floor in a controlled descent when lunging.

A good posture and straight back are key to ensure that this exercise is done safely so that risks of injuring yourself is minimised.

Lunge Variation: Split Squat

If this movement is too challenging, remove the step forward element which might be too taxing on the muscles that help stabilise the hips. Regress the exercise by ensuring you’re comfortable doing a split squat first before adding the step forward part.

To do a split squat, stand with one leg forward of the other (walking-stride apart). The majority of weight will be on the front heel. This will be the start and end position of the exercise.

Steps two to four will be the same as the lunge.

Check your form to avoid injuries

While the body needs to be challenged in order to get stronger, it is important to listen to your body as a sign of how you should pace the intensity. If you feel fatigued, regress by either reducing or removing weights, or reducing the amount of reps done in a set if your programme is time-based. It is important to always check your form and remember that the quality of your reps is more important than the quantity of reps that you finish. 

If the routine involves explosive jumping movements such as jump squats and burpees, it is perfectly ok to remove the jumping element if your knees feel weak or tired. If necessary, inform your trainer of certain aches and pains that you are experiencing as they should be trained to provide alternatives that are suitable for you in order to avoid aggravating an existing injury.

We hope that this article has helped you to perfect your form and to take note of the things to look out for when performing each exercise. In our next article, we cover popular core and cardio High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) exercises and go through each exercise in detail. If you are currently experiencing aches and pains and would like to get professional input on your form while performing exercises, feel free to book in an appointment with our therapists!