In a busy world, efficiency is king. Everyone wants the most payoff for their efforts in the least amount of time—especially when it comes to fitness. That’s one of the reasons that high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, has become so popular. Workouts lasting just 20 or 30 minutes can deliver tremendous cardiovascular benefits, help you burn fat and lose weight, build stronger muscles and bones, lead to better blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, and make you stronger.
But what if you didn’t need to devote 30, 20, or even 10 minutes to your workout? What if you could achieve the same results, maybe even better results, in just 4 minutes? Enter Tabata.
Tabata is a specific type of very-high-intensity interval training. When done correctly, the entire workout takes just 4 minutes. The rub here is that doing it “correctly” means taking yourself to the limit in just 160 seconds of work. Tabata is tough. It’s also, according to research, incredibly effective.
If you’ve been hanging around the blog for a while, you probably know that I’m a big proponent of workouts that are short and sweet—or rather, short and intense. This former marathoner has seen the errors of his ways, and I’ve spent years trying to convince my readers that the typical fitness paradigm has people engaging in workouts that are too long and that exist in the so-called “black hole.” They’re too hard to be aerobic but not hard enough to yield max anaerobic benefits. In other words, workouts that break you down at least as much, if not more, than they build you up in the long run.
But Tabata isn’t your typical HIIT protocol. It’s not your typical sprint protocol (my preferred type of high-intensity exercise). It’s not your typical microworkout (despite being bite-sized). Tabata is its own beast altogether.
The questions at hand today are: Should you be incorporating Tabata into your workout routine? If yes, how? If no, why not?
The Tabata Workout Protocol
Tabata workouts are named after Dr. Izumi Tabata, researcher and former fitness coach for the Japanese National Speed Skating Team. Dr. Tabata was the first person to systematically measure and publish the results of the training protocol that now bears his name, although he, apparently, did not actually come up with the idea. (That was 1980s speed skating coach Kouichi Irisawa.)
A true Tabata training protocol, according to Dr. Tabata himself, involves 7 to 8 “exhaustive sets” of exercise performed at 170 percent of VO2max for 20 seconds, with 10 seconds rest in between.1 If you quit after 6 reps, that’s not really Tabata. Nor is it Tabata if you can eke out a 9th round, if you do 30-second work intervals, or if you rest for more than 10 seconds.
Dr. Tabata conducted his studies using a stationary bike, which allows you to crank up the resistance and quickly get to that hard effort. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever pedaled a bike at 170 percent of VO2max (which equates to the intensity you are able to maintain for just 50 seconds of hard pedaling before you fall off the bike in a pool of sweat), but let me tell you, a 4-minute workout will feel like plenty. Even though you’re only going hard for 20 seconds at a time, the 10-second rest intervals aren’t enough for you to truly recover, so you start each new interval already in a deficit. After 8 rounds, you’ll be spent.
That’s what Tabata is. What is it not?
Tabata Versus HIIT
Tabata is not HIIT. Or HIIT is not Tabata? One of the two.
In any case, Tabata differs from HIIT in several key ways.
HIIT workouts generally last 20 or 30 minutes, perhaps up to an hour. Tabata workouts last exactly 4. No more.
With HIIT training, recovery periods last anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes, and they can involve either total rest or lower-intensity activity—pedaling at a lighter resistance, for example. Tabata workouts involve 10 seconds of total rest, period.
True Tabata, as described by the eponymous doctor, must be conducted at the prescribed intensity. HIIT workouts, though challenging when done correctly, aren’t nearly that intense.
That last point is where a lot of people get confused. There’s simply no way to keep going for 20 minutes, much less an hour, at the intensity the Dr. Tabata prescribes. Even the world’s fittest elite athletes would struggle to complete multiple rounds with proper form and at the right intensity, much less your average bloke hitting an hour-long “Tabata class” at the local gym. To go for that long, you’ll be forced to decrease your output. These so-called Tabata workouts that stack together multiple rounds of 20-second on/10-second off exercises are not Tabata in the truest sense. Tabata-style, maybe. HIIT, definitely.
Which is fine. There are plenty of demonstrated benefits to HIIT—but it’s not Tabata.
Tabata Versus Sprinting
Tabata and sprinting have a lot in common: Very brief, very intense work intervals. Relatively short. Leave you feeling more invigorated than wiped out for the rest of the day.
But Tabata isn’t sprinting.
The two biggest differences are that with sprinting, you take longer rest intervals so that you start each sprint fairly fresh, and you might conduct up to 8 or 10 repetitions.
For my money, the biggest benefit of Tabata, compared to other types of HIIT training especially, is its efficiency. My biggest gripe with HIIT training in general is that it’s easy to overdo it, in exactly the way that Primal Blueprint Fitness discourages. The line between HIIT and chronic cardio is often blurry. An hour-long HIIT class is almost assuredly going to keep you pegged at a black hole heart rate. Tabata won’t.
In that way, Tabata is much more similar to the sprint workouts I advocate. And all the things I love about sprinting—short, all-out efforts that boost growth hormone, upregulate fat burning, promote insulin sensitivity, and deliver full-body fitness benefits—should likewise be true with Tabata.
The other thing to note about Tabata is that, compared to other types of exercise, it seems to uniquely maximize gains to both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. According to research out of Dr. Tabata’s lab, 2 the 20-second intervals at 170 percent VO2max hit a sweet spot for targeting both.3 Most types of exercise preferentially benefit one or the other.
Tabata Workout How-to
You’re familiar by now with the basics: Do a proper warm-up, hop on a stationary bike, crank up the resistance, and start doing your 20-second work/10-second rest intervals. Do eight reps, cool down, hydrate, call it a day. Maybe go for a walk.
Tabata really is that simple. You’ll know you’re hitting the right intensity if you have to dig deep to complete those seventh and eighth reps.
What if you don’t have access to a stationary bike? Dr. Tabata cautions that we don’t know whether the benefits extend to other modalities beyond the bike,4 but I see no reason to think they’d be bike-specific. Any exercise that allows you to achieve high work outputs in 20 seconds should be similarly effective. The beauty of the bike is that you can go from total rest to pedaling hard with a quick turn of the resistance dial. You could probably replicate that with a Versaclimber, battle ropes, sled push, or even an elliptical.
I see lots of Tabata workouts that involve four or five 4-minute circuits of exercises like burpees, kettlebell swings, Russian twists, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and the like. They utilize the same 20/10 splits, but the fact that they involve 16 or 20 total work intervals tells you that the intensity just isn’t the same—which you can feel. There’s no way 20 seconds of planking is as hard as 20 seconds of pedaling a bike at high resistance. Hence, they aren’t really Tabata.
That’s not a dig on those types of workouts. They’re still HIIT, and you will reap the benefits accordingly. For beginners, this type of lower-intensity (but still challenging) Tabata-style HIIT workout is a safer starting place. That said, since you aren’t doing a strict Tabata workout anyway, there’s no reason to strictly limit yourself to the 20/10 intervals either.
The Bottom Line
Although I think Tabata is great, I wouldn’t only do Tabata workouts. Plenty of research shows that intervals of other lengths and intensities are also worthwhile. Just as I don’t always do the same types of deadlifts or squats, and I change up the surfaces I sprint on, it makes sense to do different types of interval training. Mixing it up probably gives you the best bang for your buck over the long term.
If you do want to do a Tabata session, I’d recommend doing it in place of your weekly sprint. Or you can do it in addition; just watch your recovery and make sure you’re not overdoing it. Remember, true Tabata workouts are hard. Very hard. Not for the faint of heart. (Literally. If you have heart problems, talk to your doctor before undertaking a workout this strenuous.)
How about you? Have you worked Tabata into your training routine? Notice any benefits?