What is a Tabata workout?

If you’re looking for a mega-fast, mega-effective workout, a great option is the Tabata workout. What is Tabata? It’s a supercharged version of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where you do your best for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then repeat it eight times for a total of four minutes.

Of course, it’s quick and easy. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here’s everything you need to know about Tabata workouts, why they make you breathe so fast, and how to do them effectively.

What does Tabata mean?

Many people assume that Tabata is an acronym, but it is actually the name of the scientist who first studied this training: Dr. Izumi Tabata, who conducted a research project in 1996 on the Japanese speed skating team. It looked at the effectiveness of a HIIT regimen created by team coach Irisawa Koichi that alternated 20 seconds of maximum intensity with 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times.

His work found that just four minutes of this grueling routine could improve aerobic fitness as effectively as a one-hour moderate-intensity session, while producing a 28 percent increase in anaerobic capacity (how much you can reach your maximum before tiring). . Although it was a workout designed for elite athletes, the findings were so impressive that the fitness industry caught on and the Tabata craze took off.

What is Tabata training?

You can do Tabata with almost any type of movement—while running, swimming, biking, dancing, pumping battle ropes, or even doing burpees if that’s your thing. Regardless of your chosen activity, you’ll work as hard as you can for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds, for a total of four minutes. “And if you’re doing your tabata right, there’s no fifth minute, because that’s your full intensity,” says ACE-certified fitness instructor Jason Schneider, the regional fitness manager for Crunch’s West Central group. “You’re trying to reach the area of ​​the most intense pulse.”

However, Schneider points out that the fitness industry has adapted the workout for the general public, creating slightly lower Tabata-based classes that include multiple Tabata blocks—each followed by a solid recovery period before diving into the next set. “The truth is, most of us will work hard, but very few of us will get to that level of intensity that in four minutes you’re done,” says Schneider.

And as Jesse Sifko, director of fitness for Life Time Health Clubs, says, “persistence will beat intensity.” Going full throttle in just one tabata session won’t be as beneficial as repeating these intervals regularly. “Doing it again week after week is where you’ll really feel the gains,” she says.

What is Tabata training good for?

There are several reasons why fitness instructors want everyone to know what Tabata is.

Tabata improves your cardio fitness

Dr. Tabata’s original study got so much attention because it proved that four minutes of Tabata can give you the same aerobic boost as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio. Recent research shows that six to 12 weeks of Tabata sessions can increase VO2max — the gold standard for measuring aerobic fitness — by up to 18 percent. This means your body becomes more efficient at using oxygen, which increases your endurance.

Tabata increases your strength

Meanwhile, the same 2019 study showed that a few weeks of Tabata can increase your anaerobic capacity, or how long your muscles can push as hard as they can before they tire, by up to 35 percent.

Tabata is super effective

If you follow traditional Tabata guidelines, all you need is four minutes. Almost all of us have so much free time in the day, don’t we? “You’re putting in a very high effort over a short period of time instead of a moderate effort over a long period of time,” says Peloton instructor Rad Lopez.

Tabata burns fat effectively

Tabata’s maximum intensity can fire up your metabolism, says Schneider. “There’s something called EPOC, which is excess oxygen consumption after exercise,” he says. “By doing HIIT exercise, you have a higher metabolic burn for a longer period of time until your body returns to homeostasis.” And because Tabata is even more extreme than your typical HIIT workout, those effects are amplified, he adds Schneider.

The science backs it up: a small study done in 2020 showed that adding Tabata to PE classes reduced body fat in overweight students.

What is the difference between Tabata and HIIT?

Tabata is HIIT workout — just an extra spicy one. With 20 seconds of stomach-churning, breathless 100-percent effort and only 10 seconds to rest, it’s one of the most grueling versions of HIIT you’ll come across. In general, most other HIIT intervals last longer but don’t take you to your max. Also, most HIIT workouts take longer, while a true Tabata session only lasts four minutes.

Who Should Try Tabata Workout?

Although Tabata was created for Olympic-level athletes, any experienced gym-goer can reap the benefits. Because Tabata can be done with any type of activity, and intensity is all about hitting Yours personal maximum, it is infinitely adaptable. “At any age, if I want a challenge, I can sit on a recumbent bike and I can do the Tabata protocol,” says Schneider.

That said, Schneider suggests working up to Tabata training. “Don’t go to the gym and do a Tabata workout the first day,” he says. That’s because, when done right, Tabata is incredibly hard. You could end up injured if your body isn’t prepared for the intensity. And if you still don’t like working out, the hard work may discourage you from getting back into the gym. You have to be ready to feel the burn.

The most effective way to train Tabata

Tabata can be part of almost any workout. But there are a few things you should keep in mind to get the most out of it.

Save it for the end

Time-wise, if you’re doing Tabata as part of a longer session, make it your finale. “I like to end a strength class with a little Tabata just to make sure we end on a high note,” says Lopez.

Scheider agrees, “Do it at the very end because you want to end up literally emptying the cup and having all that metabolic burn benefit after your workout is over.”

Don’t overdo it

Sprinkle Tabata sparingly into your training routine. “It’s too intense to do every day,” Sifko says. Trainers suggest that you only practice Tabata once, maybe twice a week. Any more, and you’ll stress your body, potentially leading to injury or even hormonal imbalance, Sifko says.

Use your recovery wisely

You may be most focused on those 20-second sprints, but the rest periods are what help you do your best, so be strategic about them. “Optimize the 10-second rests,” says Sifko. “Instead of drinking water or going for a walk, return to your breathing.” Focusing on your breathing will help your heart rate recover so you’re good to go again.

Start with an activity you know and love

Because Tabata can sometimes feel intimidating, Lopez suggests trying a move you already know how to do. “For example, I’m a boxer, so the moves I’m comfortable with would be shadow boxing, right? Let’s say you’re a runner. You want to sprint for 20 seconds, recover for 10 seconds,” he says. “You don’t want to be taking on a move you just learned a few days ago. You want to make sure you’re comfortable.’

Focus on technique

Watch your form: “When the intensity is higher, often form and technique go out the window,” Schneider says. “Don’t sacrifice good form for high intensity because that’s a recipe for injury.”

Tabata variations

Tabata’s 20/10 intervals originated from a 1990 research project on professional athletes. In a way, these exact durations are somewhat arbitrary—and they’re by no means the only ones you can follow to achieve the aerobic and strength-building effects of alternating power intervals with rest.

“You can apply a two-to-one work-to-rest ratio in longer sets,” says Sifko. “It’s not going to be real Tabata, but it’s still a great interval training system.” Schneider, for example, likes to give 30-second sprints followed by 15 seconds of rest in his Tabata-inspired cycling classes.

And remember: if it seems too much to go “all the way”, just put in a big effort. “A lot of it is self-love,” Sifko says, “having the grace to be terrible at something and still show yourself.”

Try these Tabata workouts

Are you ready to find out what Tabatha really wants to do? Check out these Tabata-based POPSUGAR workouts:

Image source: Getty/PeopleImages

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