Becoming a High-Intensity Training (HIT) Instructor

While the phrase “work smarter, not harder” gets bandied about, sometimes working harder is the smarter way to go if you want to reach your fitness goals. That’s the basic philosophy behind high-intensity training, or HIT. Instead of gradually increasing the length and duration of an exercise session, high-intensity training instructors push their clients to the very edge of their physical abilities in short and focused workouts. The idea is to maximize a person’s cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning in as little time as possible to help them reach their goals quickly.

High-intensity training is not a new phenomenon but has become increasingly popular as equipment like the Nautilus and programs such as CrossFit have joined the workout scene. While HIT was once the purview of professional athletes, now many amateurs are looking to achieve similar, rapid improvement in their physical condition and endurance. The demand for experienced HIT instructors is growing at a rapid pace. Let’s take a deeper look at this field and how you can get started on your path to becoming a high-intensity training instructor.

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What is High-Intensity Training?

High-intensity training has been around in one form or another for over a hundred years, but credit is usually given to Arthur Jones for popularizing the term HIT. In the 1970s, Jones published his Ideal Workout plan for bodybuilders in the magazine Muscular Development. His stated goal was to create a program that resulted in the “fastest possible progress in muscular bulk, strength, endurance and condition.” While initially aimed at bodybuilders and weightlifters, the program was adapted for other sports and eventually splintered into the subspecialties we have today.

HIT is different from traditional exercise programs in that it is designed to push your body to its limits with each workout, instead of gently and gradually increasing your strength and endurance. While a traditional personal trainer might aim to increase their clients’ abilities through daily, hour-long, moderate-intensity sessions that mix cardiovascular and strength training, HIT instructors have their clients focus on one or two activities using their maximum effort for a brief period of time, until they can’t do another repetition.

Typically, these sessions are only done two or three times a week for about 20 or 30 minutes, allowing the body a couple of days to recover from the brutal routine before starting again. HIT instructors aim to achieve the maximum results for their clients in the fastest time possible. Pushing through the pain is an important part of the process, and these instructors are very good at keeping their clients motivated.

The goal of a HIT program will vary from client to client and isn’t limited to specific sports or activities. HIT can improve a client’s abilities in running, speed walking, cycling, weightlifting, mountain climbing and more. High-intensity-focused instructors are specialized personal trainers who’ve received additional education and accreditation to safely guide clients through these intense workouts.

How is HIT Different from Interval Training?

Interval training isn’t the same thing as HIT but is often incorporated into HIT regimens and makes up a core part of high-intensity interval and resistance training programs. So what is interval training?

Interval training is actually quite simple, and most of us first learn about it in our elementary or middle school physical education classes. Interval training is when you alternate short bursts of moderate-to-intense physical activity with longer periods of less intense activity.

As an example, a distance runner may do interval training by sprinting full out for 30 seconds before dropping back into a jogging pace for a few minutes. Weightlifters often alternate between doing a longer series of lower-weight repetitions (reps) with a shorter set of higher-weight reps.

Interval training is a basic technique that both casual and dedicated athletes can benefit from. The advantages of interval training include:

  • An increase in the number of calories consumed during a workout
  • A greater impact of a workout, allowing for faster progress to be made in a shorter period of time
  • An increase in cardiovascular capacity, improving stamina and endurance

Interval training is a technique anyone can incorporate into their workout routines, since it doesn’t require any special knowledge or equipment. But for clients with more specific athletic goals, working with an experienced personal trainer to target the ideal length and intensity of the intervals may be a better option. This is especially the case when someone is just starting a HIT regimen. A HIT instructor can craft a customized program to minimize the chance of injury while maximizing results.

Types of High-Intensity Training: HIT, HIIT and HIIRT

There are several types of high-intensity training programs for fitness buffs and athletes, and a high-intensity training instructor may specialize in a specific type or be broadly educated to incorporate elements of them all into their regimens.

High-Intensity Training (HIT) is the catch-all term for a program that increases strength by performing a repetitive activity until the point of total muscular failure.

There are several methodologies that may fall under the HIT name, including the classic HIT weightlifting program mentioned above and the one-set-to-failure work-out championed by the German doctor Jurgen Giessing.  

The fundamental focus for a HIT program is that reps should be performed at near-peak intensity (ie: highest weight for bodybuilding or fastest pace for running). The goal is to minimize the number of sets performed before the muscles can’t do any more.

Usually, an HIT program is designed to achieve total muscular failure within a single set of six to 20 reps, or at most two, and never more than three. Generally, a single body part or muscle group will be the focus of the activity.

There are many unique programs advertised under the umbrella of HIT, but there are no specific guidelines for them beyond the basic principles mentioned above. As new strength-training instructors publish their workout routines, there is increasing divergence in the field. Some authors favor more frequent workouts that target a variety of muscles, while others think it’s better to focus on a single group for the quickest results.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a version of HIT that alternates between short bursts of intense activity with longer periods of less intense ones. These intervals are repeated as many times as possible within a 20 or 30 minute workout and keep the heart rate elevated throughout.

HIIT has been used by long-distance runners and sprinters for more than a century. There’s even a special word in Swedish (Fartlek) that translates to “speed play,” or alternating between an intense sprint and a more casual jogging pace.

While many European runners have been training this way for years, it took longer to convince Americans to give it a try. The popularity of exercise programs like the 7-Minute Workout helped move HIIT from fad to mainstream, and further research from Japanese scientists in 1996 quantified its benefits over traditional workout programs.

HIIT programs increase strength and endurance faster than doing solid-state cardiovascular exercise alone. It may take 20 or more minutes of traditional exercise to feel like you’ve gotten a workout, while you’ll feel the same level of fatigue from a HIIT session within the first few minutes. This pushes your body further faster, and forces it to rapidly add muscle to replace the damaged, overworked tissue.

HIIT can be done while running, walking or riding a bicycle, or you can go to the gym and use an exercise bike, treadmill or rowing machine for your workout. A typical HIIT session is cardio-focused and lasts no longer than 20 or 30 minutes, three to four times a week.

High-Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT or HIIRT) is similar to HIIT but incorporates additional resistance training to improve strength and increase muscle mass.

When doing HIIRT, you alternate short blocks or circuits of focused resistance training with a period of lower-energy exercise or rest in between. The workouts are high energy and exhausting, and quickly build strength and muscle mass.

Resistance training usually involves lifting free weights or using a weight machine to push your muscles to the edge of their abilities. The focus of this resistance training is doing the reps at a moderate to fast pace and in proper form. Your heart rate should remain elevated throughout the circuit and drop a bit during the breaks.

A typical block or circuit may involve doing a set of between six and 20 high-weight reps each followed by a short period of rest. Most programs aim for completing two to three circuits in a 20- to 30-minute session and are done once or twice a week.

A HIIRT instructor devises a circuit that pushes your muscles to failure without risking injury. One thing that differentiates HIIRT from HIIT is that it usually involves a whole-body workout instead of simply focusing on a single muscle or related group of muscles. The circuits are too intense otherwise, and most clients would not be able to push through the pain to complete them if they were limited to, say, just the biceps or arms.

Part of devising a safe and comprehensive HIIRT program involves assessing a client’s current level of fitness and skill at lifting weights. Oftentimes, instructors have their clients practice conventional resistance training for a few months before starting them on a HIIRT program. This gives their clients time to develop core strength and master their lifting form and breathing before starting such an intense program.

Benefits of HIT, HIIT and HIIRT  

HIT offers some advantages over a traditional workout routine. Since the client is usually focused on a specific physical objective, the training can be precisely targeted to meet that goal. Overall, the benefits of doing HIT include:

  • Workouts are short in duration and easy to fit into a busy schedule
  • Activities are varied, so clients are less likely to become bored with the routine
  • More calories are burned in less time than traditional workouts
  • It increases metabolic activity for 24 hours post-workout, leading the body to burn calories even after the workout is complete
  • Training may reduce body fat and waist circumference in overweight adults
  • HIT workouts develop muscular strength and size, and increase stamina faster than traditional programs

HIIT programs provide the same benefits as above, but also:

  • Increase the mass in muscle groups worked, although not as much as HIT or HIIRT weight training does
  • Increase endurance by training the body to use oxygen efficiently in half the time of a traditional workout
  • Reduces the heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar of overweight adults

HIIRT programs also offer some additional benefits over a traditional routine or basic HIT regimen. They can:

  • Reduce a client’s boredom by integrating cardiovascular workouts with resistance training
  • Increase muscle density and mass
  • Provide a whole-body workout rather than focusing solely on individual muscle groups
  • Allow clients to break through a weightlifting plateau if they have hit the wall through a traditional program

Requirements for Becoming a High-Intensity Training Instructor

Now that you have the full scoop on what goes into HIT, let’s talk about how you can get started on this new career path. HIT instructors are a specialized type of personal trainer, with advanced education and accreditation. The exact requirements for high-intensity trainers vary from state-to-state, so you’ll have to research the specifics for your location.

All states require you to be at least 18 years old and have your high school diploma or GED before you can start working as a personal trainer. You’ll also need to obtain and maintain current certification in first aid/CPR/AED through an organization such as the Red Cross of America. Individual employers may have additional requirements as well.

To be a successful personal trainer focusing in HIT, you’ll need to have excellent communication skills and be able to motivate your clients to push harder than they thought was possible. Personal trainers often act as part coach, part drill sergeant and part therapist for their clients. You’ll also need to have a love of physical fitness and activity and be in excellent shape yourself.

HIT, HIIT and HIIRT programs can be potentially dangerous depending on a client’s physical condition and any existing health problems. To avoid causing permanent injury, a high-intensity instructor should aim to acquire a combination of advanced education and experience before working with clients on these intense programs.

You’ll need to be comfortable assessing your clients’ abilities and what they can safely accomplish while pushing their bodies to the max. Some high-intensity trainers start on the job as fitness or aerobics instructors and then advance to become personal trainers before they pursue further education and certification, while others go straight into a course of study.

Education for High-Intensity Personal Trainers

While many personal trainers cease formal education once they graduate from high school, most high-intensity instructors pursue higher education. They usually complete at least an associate degree, and often their bachelor’s degree, before beginning to work in HIT. Some even continue into graduate programs.

Having a degree will put you ahead of the field, since it proves your knowledge has a solid foundation from a recognized program. Many certifying organizations require a degree as a prerequisite for their advanced programs as well. Potential employers and clients have greater trust for a high-intensity instructor with this advanced education over one who is merely certified. Higher education usually correlates with higher earnings for personal trainers, too.

There are a variety of popular majors ideal for future HIT instructors. Exercise science and physiology are top options, followed by physical education, personal training, and fitness and health management. Beyond the basic biology and chemistry requirements, any program you choose should have a rigorous and science-based foundation and throughly cover the following topics:

  • Kinesiology
  • Nutrition
  • Human physiology and how it relates to exercise
  • Theory and practice of aerobic (cardiovascular) and anaerobic (muscle building) exercise
  • Sports conditioning, interval and resistance training
  • Sports anatomy and medicine
  • Sports psychology

Some of the practical skills you can expect to develop through your education include:

  • Assessing body composition
  • Effective exercise selection for different fitness goals
  • How to form programs for obese or pregnant clients, or those with other specific health concerns
  • Targeted exercises for different muscle groups (upper and lower body)
  • How to use exercise equipment safely
  • Exercise prescriptions for managing weight and increasing muscle mass, flexibility, endurance, etc.

There are many other skills that may be helpful to you as you develop your career as a high-intensity instructor. Taking some courses in business management, accounting, bookkeeping and advertising may assist you in the future if you choose to start your own business as a private high-intensity instructor. Recently, some instructors have also expanded their services to a broader selection of clients by developing online classes and offering personally devised programs via email. Having solid computer skills is fast becoming an essential skill for modern HIT instructors.

Professional Certification for HIT Instructors

There are a wide variety of professional organizations that offer certifications for personal trainers. The popularity of these programs varies around the country, so you’ll have to research which credentials are most desirable in your area.

While having a college degree may increase your overall value as an employee, providing future employers and clients with further proof of your skills and knowledge can only be beneficial. Professional certifications are a great way to showcase your collective experience in HIT, since qualifying usually requires a mix of education and on-the-job experience.

To receive a professional certification, you’ll have to register with the program and pay a fee, which can vary widely among organizations. You may only need to invest a modest $350 for an entry-level program, while higher certifications may cost in excess of $1000. In some cases, you can skip the classwork and jump straight to the examination if you’ve already mastered the material. Higher-level certifications usually require you to pay for both the coursework and exam.

The programs also vary quite a bit in their duration. An entry-level certificate may only require you to invest a few weeks of study before you can sit for the exam, while other programs may take you six months or longer to complete, especially if you have to fit your studies around work.

The prerequisites for these programs will differ between organizations and the level of certification you’re aiming for. Depending on your degree and experience working as a personal trainer, you may have to meet further prerequisites before you qualify to enter the program you’re interested in. It’s quite common for advanced certification programs to limit admission to students with a bachelor’s degree and at least a year of experience working as a personal trainer, for instance. So you’ll have to research the programs to see which you qualify for and which you’ll need to work toward.

Is it worthwhile to invest in professional certification on your path to becoming an HIT instructor? In a nutshell, yes, if you take an accredited program from a widely recognized organization and pursue a speciality certificate. Look for programs certified by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).

HIT instructors with both advanced education and professional certification are more employable and tend to earn more than those with just one or the other. While some of these programs are expensive, they’ll pay dividends when you’re looking for employment or advertising for new clients.

Some of the top accredited organizations and specialty certifications to consider as an HIT instructor include:

Salary Expectations for High-Intensity Training (HIT) Instructors

How much can you expect to make as an HIT instructor? It’s difficult to predict because it varies widely depending on your location, level of experience, advanced education and professional certifications.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects information from around the country on the salaries of fitness trainers and instructors and athletic trainers, but not for HIT instructors specifically. Since these instructors typically have more formal education than the average fitness trainer, on par with an athletic trainer, they have a broad range of potential incomes.

In 2018, the BLS reported the median annual salary for fitness trainers as $39,820 or $19.15 per hour, and approximately $47,510 for full-time athletic trainers. HIT instructors can usually expect to earn somewhere in this range for full-time employment once they have completed their education and training. Job growth for these fields is anticipated to be around 10 percent over the next decade, which is much higher than the average rate of growth.

How much does advanced education and professional certification add to your potential income as an HIT instructor? Again, it’s quite difficult to calculate specifically and varies among locations, but there are strong indications that both higher education and specialty certifications increase the earning potential for high-intensity training instructors.

According to a recent study published by ptpioneer.com, personal trainers with advanced education reported having some of the highest salaries in the industry.

  • Among respondents with a bachelor’s degree, 28 percent made more than $100,000 a year
  • Of those with post-graduate education, 32 percent reported an annual salary of  $100,000 or higher

So, higher education is definitely worth investing in if you plan to train as an HIT instructor.

It’s a little harder to evaluate professional certifications in the same fashion because there are so many programs and specialty options, and they vary widely in their cost and quality. Employers have become wary of personal trainers with basic certifications from inexpensive “paper mills” that pass students after a short online course and exam.

Of the respondents in the survey, the vast majority reported holding a certificate from one of the four accredited organizations listed above, with 58 percent holding a certificate from the NSCA alone. Among the options for advanced certification, 42 percent of the highest-paid trainers reported holding a strength and conditioning certification. So you can see, maintaining professional certification and specializing in a field of expertise can help you maximize your potential income and advance your career. Since HIT instructors usually specialize in strength and conditioning, they tend to be among the higher earners.

One of the most interesting results of this study has to do with the intersection of personal training and the internet. Trainers who advertise online or use online platforms such as YouTube and Twitter report earning higher incomes and have an easier time bringing in new clients. Forty-six percent of the highest-paid trainers offer online assistance and training to their clients. A computer-savvy HIT instructor could leverage this skill as they develop their career.

Outlook for HIT Instructors Over the Next Decade

The demand for trained and experienced HIT instructors has never been higher, and it’s anticipated that the field will continue to expand over the course of the next decade. As people seek out effective workout routines they can easily fit into their busy schedules, personal trainers who specialize in HIT instruction will have a distinct advantage over others without this training.

As the HIT subspecialties, HIIT and HIIRT, become more well-known, the demand for instructors who can blend these techniques into customized programs for their clients will also increase. According to a recent survey by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), HIIT is anticipated to be one of the top exercise trends of 2020, just beneath wearable technology.

With the growing influence of the internet, clients expect results faster and have an easier time finding the best instructor for their needs. HIT instructors who utilize the internet will likely have an easier time securing new clients, especially if they expand their online presence and offer remote classes and customized routines via email or a website portal. Employers are just starting to give precedence to HIT instructors with strong computer skills, and the demand will likely increase greatly as the decade progresses.

Working as a HIT Instructor Across America

Personal trainers have many different opportunities to advance their careers and earn a living. Many HIT instructors start by working at a commercial gym, either as a paid employee or a 1099 independent contract employee. Starting under the auspices of a major commercial enterprise such as a 24-Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym or similar facility is a great way to gain first-hand experience and meet clients.

As you develop in skills, experience and advanced certifications, you may consider branching out and working for a specialty HIT, HIIT or HIIRT-offering facility. Companies such as CrossFit, and Tabata out of New York City, incorporate HIT practices into their intense workouts and often hire instructors with this training. There are likely smaller gyms in your area that need certified instructors as well.

Beyond working for others, many HIT-specialized personal trainers eventually decide to go private and start their own small businesses. Setting out on your own, or in conjunction with a few other experienced instructors, can be an ideal way to take your career to the next level. You might rent space in an existing gym facility and offer group classes to your clients, or train them in the privacy of their own homes.

Offering private, one-on-one HIT sessions with clients in their home can be very lucrative in certain markets. The biggest limitation in setting up your own business will be the lack of workout machines, free weights and other common but expensive pieces of equipment you’ll have available if you work directly for a gym.

Overall, personal trainers who specialize in HIT regimens have a lot of options when it comes to the hours they work and whether they put in a full 40 hours a week or just work part-time. Once you have the education, experience and accreditation under you belt, you’ll have the ability to choose your own hours and even expand your services to clients online. An experienced HIT instructor can earn a very comfortable income in most markets even without working full-time.