High Intensity Interval Cardio Training for Martial Artists

HIIT training for martial artistsI’ve recently started exploring H.I.I.T (High Intensity Interval Training) as a way of doing my cardio workouts. I had heard about their benefits and that because the workouts are shorter and more intense, you can get your cardio in more efficiently. Sometimes I just don’t have time to go for a 45-minute run, so it was worth a try.

The Benefits of H.I.I.T.

There are a number of reported benefits to high intensity interval training over conventional cardio, making it a favoured style of workout nowadays. The two main ones are as follows:

  • Better for Weight Loss. While longer, less intense cardio sessions may burn more calories, a number of studies have demonstrated that H.I.I.T. burns more fat. One particular study performed by the University of Western Ontario, found that after 6 weeks of training, 3 workouts per week, subjects doing 4-6 30-second sprints with 4-6 minutes rest between lost more fat than those who did than 60 minutes of incline treadmill walking. While the reasons have not been fully explored, scientists have pinpointed a few factors, including increased resting metabolic rate for upwards of 24 hours after exercise, improved insulin sensitivity in the muscles, higher levels of fat oxidation in the muscles, and post-exercise appetite suppression, to name a few.
  • Superior Muscle Preservation. It is generally believed that cardio can have a negative impact on strength gains by reducing your caloric surplus too much, and by causing you to overtrain. That being said, the shorter your cardio sessions are the less they impair strength and hypertrophy. As a result, H.I.I.T. allows you to maximize your strength gains, preserve your muscles, while still getting the benefits of the exercise.

Choosing a H.I.I.T. Format

The Tabata method is a great choice if you’re already in awesome shape and don’t have much time for training. It calls for only 20 seconds of all-out drop-dead effort, followed by a mere 10 seconds of rest with the cycle repeated 8 times. If you’re just starting out though, this may not be the most pleasant option, and certainly not the safest one either.

When just starting out, the Peak Fitness method is a less extreme option that can still give you the benefits of H.I.I.T. This involves 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by 90 seconds of recuperation, repeated 6-8 times. Eight reps is recommended but if you’re just starting out, 6 might be a better option until you get used to it.

HIIT Workouts

Here are a few ideas for doing HIIT workouts:

Stationary Biking

If you’re trying to gain size or strength, this is the best option. According to a study performed at Stephen F Austen University, subjects that did running and walking for their cardio gained significantly less strength and size than those that cycled. This is because cycling involves the use of more of the muscles used in hypertrophy movements (squats, for instance) than running or walking does. And if you’re choosing between an upright and a recumbent bike, apparently the latter is more beneficial for your body. Here are the reasons why.

Running (Track or Machine)

If weight loss is your goal, running is a good choice as it uses more muscle groups and burns more calories (approx. 25% more) for the same level of intensity. Using a track or a machine is generally safer because you have more control over your environment while doing your intervals. Below is an example of a HIIT workout on an elliptical machine.

Burpee Workout

If you don’t have any equipment at home and still want to do an indoor workout, burpees can be a great option in place of running. They cover a wide variety of muscle groups and you don’t need much space to do them. You should however have good enough form that you can maintain it throughout the intensity portions of your workout though, otherwise you may be risking injury. The way I do this workout is by doing a more challenging form of burpee for the intensity sets and a more relaxed burpee for the rest sets. Sometimes I’ll even switch between burpees for intensity and biking for rest, just for the variety. Below are some videos of burpees. The first one shows a few examples you could use for the intensity set. The second video shows a good option for the rest set.


Personally, I love skipping as a cardio workout for martial artists. It works your coordination and timing, while you get your heart pumping. While skipping ropes are cheap, you do, however, need to have a high enough ceiling in your workout area to be able to do it indoors. You also have to already be comfortable skipping without tripping up every few seconds. My preferred method is to do 30 seconds of double unders (as seen below), with slower single step skipping.

Martial Arts Specific HIIT

You can also apply the concept of HIIT to a variety of martial arts techniques. The caveat is that you need to already have good form and technique consistently, otherwise you risk injury during the intensity sets when your form is more likely to falter. Here are a couple of examples:

Heavy Bag Boxing

If you’re going to try HIIT on the heavy bag, just make sure that whatever combos you do, you’re very comfortable with. That might mean isolated specific punches to work on in each set, doing them all out for the intensity rounds and at a relaxed pace with more form focus for the rest rounds. For example, you could do 1 round of jab-cross, 1 round of head hooks, 1 round of body hooks, 1 round of upper cuts then repeat all four rounds a second time. Or if you’re fairly comfortable you could do 2-4 rounds combos at the end, or simply do combos for every set. Below is an example of heavy bag work you could apply to HIIT.


I’ve always considered throwing and being thrown to be an awesome workout. Apply HIIT to it, and BAM… you get high intensity training and the fun of practicing your throws. You should, of course, stick to throws with which you’re fully comfortable. High intensity intervals are NOT the time to explore new throws or practice ones with which you’re struggling. When doing throwing HIIT, choose a single throw at a time for each interval, bouncing back to your feet as quickly as possible. You and your partner don’t necessarily have to do the same throw, but do stick to one so you can get into a fast pattern of throwing/falling. Also, don’t use sacrifice throws for HIIT because it takes too long to reset for your next throw. For the rest set, do uchi-komi, the entering drill in which you repeat the entry into the throw without throwing. Because this is a rest set, don’t do them too fast or hard so you can recover in time for your intensity interval.

Now over to you. Do you do any form of HIIT training? If so, what is your preference and why? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “High Intensity Interval Cardio Training for Martial Artists

  1. yes………i power walk to brighouse station from blundell between 2 road and railway on my way to work and vice versa. I start out fast to begin with then gradually increase my speed for about 20 seconds. I slow down afterwards but still retaining the original speed. I do that every 5 min. it takes me an average of 33 min. the benefits have all been worth it. my blood sugar has gone down considerably. I feel more energized. takes away depression. I can think better. ive been doing this for over a year now since relocating to richmond from vancouver and I must say I am more fit now than when I went to the gym 3 times a week.. I received a lot of compliments from family and friends that I lost weight and that I look a lot more leaner. the other benefit of hiit walking is that I sleep better. and with improved cardio I have no problems stacking over 100 luggages in an aircraft cargo hold bin within 16 minutes. but the biggest compliment I get is ‘holy s##t!! look how big marlons calves are!!’ and ‘how the h### did u get those calves?’ ‘marlon my goodness! your calves look like watermelons’!! so never under estimate the power of hiit while walking!!!

    1. It’s great that you’re able to get in some cardio training outside of the dojo to keep you healthy and fit. Keep it up! 🙂

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