Interval Training for Beginners

Women on treadmills
Harold Lee Miller / Getty Images

If you're new to exercise, you've probably heard about interval training, a method of training that has you pushing out of your comfort zone for a certain period of time and then recovering. The reason interval training is so popular is because working at higher levels of intensity helps you build endurance more quickly and it helps you burn more calories, which is great for weight loss.

Not only that, but it makes your workout more interesting. Instead of going at the same pace for the entire workout, you mix things up which can make the workout seem shorter than it really is.


The following workout is a great place to start if you're a beginner. It's 21 minutes long and includes work intervals that have you getting pushing just a bit out of your comfort zone. That means you won't be breathless or miserable, but simply pushing yourself just a bit, the perfect way to build a strong cardio foundation for getting healthy and losing weight.

If you are completely new to exercise, if you are managing a medical condition, or if you are returning to exercise after pregnancy or injury, be sure to check with your healthcare provider. You may need to follow personalized guidelines and your provider can give you tips for safety. 


The workout is shown using a treadmill with changes in speed and incline, but you can use any machine of your choice or take the workout outside. The elliptical trainer or stationary bicycle are good choices as well, but you can also do a brisk walk, jog or cycle outside.

Use the work intervals to increase your speed, incline and/or resistance depending on what type of activity you're doing and the type of equipment you are using

How To

You may wonder if you can do interval training if you're not a veteran exerciser and the answer is yes. Beginners can get a lot out of interval training. Not only can you switch up your workouts, making them a little more fun, you give your body a chance to get used to working just a little harder.

The upshot is, you only work hard for a very short period of time, making it a more comfortable workout. That's much better than slogging through a long workout or, on the other hand, trying to work at a high intensity for the length of your workout. More advanced exercisers can work at a very high intensity, getting into the anaerobic energy zone where oxygen is at a premium.

Familiarize yourself with these terms so that you can follow the interval instructions.

  • Work set: For each 'work set', use the settings on your machine (incline, speed, resistance, ramps, etc.) to increase intensity. Outside, increase speed or find a hill. You should be working out of your comfort zone, but not so hard that you feel dizzy or lightheaded. It's just a little uncomfortable.
  • Rest set: For each 'rest set', lower those same settings, or slow down/go downhill for outdoor exercise until you're back to a moderate pace. You should be completely recovered before the next work set.
  • RPE: The rating of perceived exertion (RPE) helps you keep track of your intensity on a scale of 1 to 10. During rest sets, stay around 4 to 5 RPE. During work sets, stay around 5 to 6 RPE. There isn't a huge difference between the work and rest sets, you simply want to work a little harder during the work sets. If you prefer not to use RPE, You can also use a target heart rate calculator and/or the talk test to monitor your exercise intensity.

Lastly, remember to modify the speed and intensity according to your fitness level.  If you aren't ready for the higher intensity, it's smart to go at the intensity you are comfortable with. Similarly, if this doesn't seem to be enough for you, feel free to speed up or increase the incline or resistance.

Interval Activity RPE
5 min Warm up at an easy pace. Just start easy here and very slowly increase your intensity by going faster, raising the incline or increasing the resistance. This is the time to get your body warm and ready for what's to come. Level 3-4
3 min Rest set: Increase your speed from the warm up and increase incline 1%. Keep a moderate pace. You should feel like you're exercising, but you should be able to carry on a conversation. Level 5
1 min Work set: Increase incline 1-3% to raise the intensity level. You should feel a slight change in your intensity, breathing a bit faster and just a little uncomfortable. You can raise the incline more if you're not feeling any difference. Level 6
3 min Rest set: Decrease your speed and incline to lower your heart rate back to a comfortable level. It doesn't have to be the same settings as in the previous rest set. Level 5
1 min Work set: Increase your speed 3-5 increments and increase incline 1-2% to raise the intensity. Feel free to adjust these settings to work at the suggested intensity. Level 6
3 min Rest set: Decrease your speed and incline to lower your heart rate back to a comfortable level. Level 5
5 min Decrease your speed and incline even more to a very comfortable pace for your cool down. Level 3-4

Once you are ready to progress, you can simply add another work set/rest set pair. If you want to keep going, add another set each workout or just one workout a week.

Try this kind of interval training with other activities to switch things up, improve your endurance and help you burn more calories. This steady increase in the duration of your workout will allow you get into better shape gradually without working so hard that you start to avoid working out.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."