Why Interval Training for Weight Loss Works

If you aren't dropping the pounds like you expected with your steady-state cardio, you should think about shaking things up with some interval training. 

It can be awful discouraging when you spend hours on the treadmill or elliptical but see no difference on the scale. Exercises like walking, jogging, rowing, or even swimming may improve your heart health and tone your muscles, but many individuals end up disappointed when there is little change with their weight. 

This is a common complaint with cardio workouts. Great for conditioning – not so good for melting away the pounds.

What is Interval Training?

Quite simply, interval training is a combination of both high-intensity and low-intensity cardiovascular exercises. A brief high-intensity interval is followed by a low-intensity (resting) interval.

You could jog for 3-4 minutes at an easy pace and then speed up for 15 seconds, then pick it up so more for another 10-15 seconds, then slow it back down to a jog. 

Repeat the intervals 4-5 more times before doing a cool-down and you are done in less than 20 minutes. Replace one or two of your weekly workouts with this plan and you should notice a change in your conditioning and your weight loss.

This same interval training concept can be used on exercise bikes or elliptical trainers. The style of Interval training – combining periods of high and low-intensity exercises in the same workout – can be more successful and less boring than steady-state cardio. 

Interval Training for Weight Loss Tips

  • Start according to your fitness level and ability. Interval training can be demanding on the body, so you should ease into it slowly. Make sure you are comfortable doing at least 30 minutes of steady-state cardio before you try adding anything more intense. When you think you are ready, begin by adding a couple of short high-intensity bursts into your regular workout to see how you do.
  • Work to Rest Ratio. This refers to the length of high-intensity intervals in comparison to low intensity intervals. It is recommended that a beginner should aim for a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio. This means that your rest intervals will be 3-4 times longer than your work intervals. The goal is to either lower this ratio or increase intensity as you progress. Conditioned athletes will sometimes train on a 1:1 ratio.
  • Warm up and Cool down. Warming up prepares your body (joints, muscles, ligaments, heart) for exercise. Cooling down helps your body to return to its resting state gradually, which improves recovery. A proper cooling down period that includes stretching will also help your body remove the lactic acid that was produced during the high-intensity periods so you will have less post-workout soreness and fatigue.
  • Eat before you exercise. Eating about 30 minutes before your workout will give you the ability to work harder and longer. Remember that the amount of fat burning depends on the intensity level. Greater intensity equals greater fat burning. So, you want to be able to push hard through your entire workout rather than collapsing from hunger 5 minutes in. 
  • Follow a healthy eating plan. Eating healthy will give your body the energy it needs to perform high-intensity interval training.

    Avoiding harmful foods and making the right choices about what to eat will also help with weight loss and improve your overall well-being.
interval training on exercise bike

Calories - Units of Energy

Studies have shown that successful interval training for weight loss is directly connected to the intensity of your workout. You will still get results even if you don't push yourself to 85%-100% or you're MaxHR, but the greatest weight loss will be seen when you give it all you've got. 

The greater the intensity during the Sprint intervals, or the more energy that is used during the anaerobic period, the longer it will take your body to replace these energy stores.

Not only will you get the maximum benefits of your workout, but you will also be burning more calories for hours afterwards.

Your interval training workout for weight loss should be designed specifically for you. The sprint intervals should get your heart rate to where you want it to be (70%-100% of Max HR, depending on your goals).

Heart Rate Calculation

We all have a maximum heart rate which is found by simply taking the number 220 and subtracting our age. So if you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 180. Your target heart rate zones will be anywhere between 50% to 90% of your maximum heart rate.

Here is an example of a 65% and 85% target heart rate for a 40-year-old. You’ll notice that for a target heart rate of 65%, this individual will want to keep their heart rate at 117 beats per minute as they exercise. 

65% Intensity: (220 − (age = 40)) × 0.65 → 117 beats per minute

85% Intensity: (220 − (age = 40)) × 0.85 → 153 beats per minute

If you are a beginner you should keep your target heart rate in a range of 55% to 65%. As your cardiovascular condition gets better you can slowly move to a 70% - 75%.

It's important to note that the target heart rate is recommended for individuals that don't have any health problems. Please take the time to check with your physician to be sure this type of intense exercise is ok.

Getting Started with Your Interval Training For Weight Loss

Interval training for weight loss can be as structured or as casual as you want. Some people wear an interval timer and a heart rate monitor while others just randomly add high-intensity bursts throughout their workout and take their own pulse. 

You have to figure out what works best for you. However, if you are new to interval training or if you need a more disciplined workout, then it is a good idea to plan your routine ahead of time.

You are more likely to stick to it and put forth your best effort if you are not letting your feelings dictate your actions. So, if you are ready to begin your interval training journey, here are some basic steps to help you get started:

interval training illustration

Interval Training for Weight Loss

Choose an aerobic/cardio activity. Almost any exercise can be used for interval training as long as you are able to increase the speed/intensity. Running, walking, swimming, rowing, cycling are just some examples. Machines such as treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines are also great choices.

  •  Decide on the length of your workout. If you don't have a lot of time, you can get great benefits from as little as 20 minutes. Most experts recommend that you limit your workout to a maximum of 60 minutes.

  • Decide on the length of your intervals. The duration of both the sprint and recovery intervals will vary depending on your fitness level and the type of activity you choose. The high-intensity periods can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 3 minutes. 

    Recovery intervals can be anywhere from 1 minutes to 10-15 minutes. So, you might walk briskly for 10 minutes then jog for 1 minute. Or, you could jog for 3 minutes then sprint for 30 seconds, repeating this cycle for the full duration of your workout.
  • Set your interval timer. Using a timer that will beep at the start/end of each interval is much easier than having to constantly look at your watch. This way you can focus on your workout rather than the time. If you do not have a timer, you can plan your intervals based on landmarks. 

    For example, you can jog between mailboxes or hydro poles or the length of a city block. A heart rate monitor is also recommended. If you do not have one, make sure you take your pulse regularly.
  • Begin your workout. Have fun!

Interval Training for Weight Loss Exercise Plans

As already mentioned, you can take your favorite activity and turn it into a form of interval training for weight loss. All you have to do is vary the intensity levels.

The interval times given below are only examples and guidelines. Keep in mind your personal goals and fitness level when deciding on your Work to Rest Ratio. Here are some ideas to help inspire you.....and remember to warm up and cool down!


  • Alternate 5 minutes of leisurely walking with 2 minutes of brisk (as fast as you can) walking.
  • Alternate 5-10 minutes of moderate walking with 1 minute of jogging
  • Alternate 5-10 minutes of brisk walking with 1 minute of jogging
  • Alternate 5 minutes of moderate jogging with 2 minutes of running
  • Alternate 5-10 minutes of jogging with 30-60 seconds of sprinting


  • Alternate 5 minutes of moderate walking with 2 minutes of high-intensity jogging.
  • Add hills – walk/jog on flat plane for 5 minutes then increase incline for 2 minutes.
  • Choose an interval training setting. Many treadmills have a setting that will automatically change the incline and speed throughout the workout.


  • Alternate 5 minutes of moderate cycling with 1-2 minutes of fast cycling (outdoor and stationary)
  • Alternate 5 minutes of moderate cycling with 1-2 minutes of incline cycling (stationary)
  • Alternate 5 minutes of medium hill resistance with 1-2 minutes of steep hill resistance (stationary)
  • If you are cycling outdoors, vary your speeds and/or choose a route that has lots of hills and a variety of terrains. 

treadmill interval training for weight loss


  •  Alternate 5 minutes of low/moderate intensity with 1-2 minutes of high-intensity intervals
  • Complete 5 minutes of moderate-intensity on the elliptical then get off the machine for 2 minutes of high knees running on the spot.

Interval Training for Weight Loss

Interval training for weight loss can be a great workout routine to lose weight and tone the body. Many people turn to interval training because it really works. Plus, you can choose an activity that you actually enjoy, so you are more likely to stick to it! 

Other pages that might interest you:

I will continue to share ideas about diet and exercise that have helped me along the way. If you have any questions I can help you with, or if you have any ideas you want to share, feel free to contact me or visit our Q&A forum.

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