What is Tabata Training: A Complete Guide

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Who doesn’t love a bit of hype? With nigh on weekly new must-do workouts and training methods being touted the best fat burner, fastest muscle builder, easiest ab sculptor, or most effective butt-lifter that turn out to be nothing but disappointing, it’s surprising when something comes along that lives up to all the hyperbole. Enter Tabata (pronounced Tah-bah’-tah).

Hailing from Japan and named after Dr. Izumi Tabata who developed the protocol in 1990s for the Japanese national speed skating team, Tabata training is super short and super intense. While traditional workouts last between 30 to 60-minutes, Tabatas deliver comparable results in just 4 minutes!

Add in a five-minute warm up and a five minute cool down and you have a training system that can help get you in great shape in 15 minutes flat. 

What is Tabata Training?

Tabata training consists of alternating between 20 seconds of high-intensity almost all-out exercise with 10 seconds of recovery. This cycle of super intense work intervals and short rests is repeated 8 times, making it 4-minutes in total.1

According to Dr. Tabata, the work intervals should be performed at an intensity that leaves you exhausted during the 7th or 8th interval.2 The aim of the workout is to go almost flat out during the first work interval and then try and do a similar amount of work in the periods that follow.

Tabata vs HIIT: What’s the Difference?

Tabata is a form of HIIT (high intensity interval training). While there is no universally agreed upon definition of HIIT, it is broadly accepted that HIIT is an umbrella term for a workout consisting of short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a short period of recovery, usually taking less than 30 minutes.3 The Tabata training method is simply a specific protocol – 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, repeated 8 times.

Some of the confusion arises because the type of HIIT workouts most often seen in the gym tend to consist of work intervals of 30 to 60 seconds of near maximal effort (RPE 7-9) with 60 to 90-second rests. But that is simply the most popular iteration of HIIT, in part because it is an easier style of HIIT.

The most intense form of HIIT is called sprint interval training (SIT). This involves exercising at all-out effort during the high-intensity intervals (up to 30 seconds), and usually has very long recovery periods (often between 3 and 5 minutes).4 But Tabata is tougher than even that. While the high-intensity intervals of a Tabata workout are just below all-out effort, the recovery periods are a mere 10 seconds. There’s barely any time to recover. In other words, Tabata may just be the toughest iteration of HIIT there is. 

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to HIIT

Benefits of Tabata

The results reported by users of the Tabata method are almost too good to believe, but so many people have had such a positive experience with this effective and efficient system of training that hundreds of articles, books and even group exercise classes have been produced using this method. 

Increased Fitness

If all this sounds too good to be true, consider the results of Dr. Tabata’s original research. Published in 1996, Dr Tabata compared what has become known simply as Tabata training with 60 minutes of moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio.56

After 6 weeks of training, the athletes who had done endurance cardio five times a week saw a 10% improvement in their cardiovascular (aerobic) fitness. However, the athletes who had performed Tabata four times a week improved their aerobic fitness by 15% and anaerobic fitness by a massive 28% in just 6 weeks, despite only exercising for periods of 4-minutes at a time.

Basically, unlike regular moderate-intensity exercise, Tabata targets and leads to improvements in both the:

  • Anaerobic energy system, which is responsible for short, high intensity exercise such as sprints
  • Aerobic energy system, which is responsible for endurance exercise such as jogging or slow running.

And Weight Loss too?!

In addition to boosting fitness, Tabata training is also, and quite surprisingly, a very good fat burner. Obviously, such a short workout will not burn much in the way of fat while you are doing it but this type of training produces a huge amount of lactic acid. In the hours that follow a Tabata training session, your metabolism goes into overdrive clearing out the accumulated lactic acid – a phenomenon called EPOC (elevated post-exercise oxygen consumption) and sometimes called the afterburn effect.

In a nutshell, a Tabata workout fires up your metabolic rate for HOURS after your workout so you burn more calories at rest. 

Who Should Use This Method?

Tabatas are tough. They are the ultimate form of HIIT and were designed for Olympic-level speed skaters. So, with that in mind, it’s safe to say you need to boast a good level of fitness to even attempt a Tabata workout.

You also need to have the ability to really push yourself – even though you’ll be experiencing a lot of physical (and mental!) anguish. If you pace yourself you negate the whole point and all of the benefits of the workout. Not everyone has this do-or-die attitude to keep pushing hard until the end. True Tabata workouts are punishing.  

Tabatas are especially suited to already fit exercisers who:

  • want the ultimate in workout efficiency
  • are pressed for time and need a good workout in a hurry
  • like really short, hard workouts
  • want a quick burst of cardio to finish off a strength workout (to maximize fat loss and/or muscle growth)

Who should not do Tabata? If you are a relatively new to exercising, don’t already exercise regularly at high intensity, are unable to push yourself to the maximum, have a medical condition that precludes you from very high intensity exercise, do not enjoy exercise-induced discomfort, or simply prefer a more comfortably-paced workout, avoid Tabata training. 

If you are a beginner start with moderate intensity exercise, incorporate less intense interval training, and slowly work your way up to performing high-intensity exercise. It’s important you slowly ease into high-intensity exercise. Speak to your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if you have a pre-existing condition.

What are the Best Exercises for Tabata?

The best exercises to use for Tabata training are multi-joint exercises that will drive your heart rate up by using several large muscle groups all at the same time; burpees and kettlebell swings are in, biceps curls and crunches are out!

The whole point of a Tabata workout is to tax your cardiovascular system so that you improve your anaerobic and aerobic fitness simultaneously.

Applying the Tabata method to exercises like biceps curls or ab training will cause a lot of exercise-induced discomfort. But hammering away at such a small muscle group using this system will do nothing for muscle growth, strength, or anaerobic and aerobic conditioning. It’s like hitting your thumb with a brick – it’ll hurt but it won’t help. 

Tabata training was designed to be a cardiovascular workout, so stay true to this idea when selecting your exercises. So if you’re using weights (e.g. kettlebell) choose light loads (lighter than usual) and exercises that allow you to move quickly so you can complete as many reps as possible – and do safely. 

Tabata Exercises

Good exercise examples include…

  • Jump rope – especially high-knee sprints and double unders
  • Sprinting – on a bike, rower, cross trainer, Airdyne etc
  • Burpees 
  • Box jumps 
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Medicine ball slams 
  • Punching a heavy bag
  • Press-ups
  • Bodyweight squats
  • Thrusters – a front squat/push-press hybrid 
  • High pulls – a deadlift/upright row hybrid 

Because you are going to work yourself into a very fatigued state, its best you use exercises you are very familiar with, can perform with good technique when you’re tired and that will tax large muscle groups simultaneously.

Also, choose exercises that allow you to go flat out safely. Where sprinting on a running track is great, sprinting on a treadmill is risky. The short intervals of the Tabata protocol mean it’s difficult to change pace fast enough. Jumping on and off the treadmill increases the risk of injury.

Classic Tabata Workout (Cardio)

Cardio Tabata was originally done using a stationary bike, but can also be done with other cardio activities.

  • Warm up with 8-minute steady-state exercise.
  • Go almost all-out for 20 seconds
  • Rest for 10 seconds.
  • Perform the 20/10 cycle a total of eight times (4 minutes total).
  • Finish with a 2-minute cool-down.

Tabata Workout Variations 

Tabata was originally only conceived as a form of cardio exercise and has since evolved to include bodyweight and other strength exercises. Generally, for Tabata workouts that include strength or plyometric exercises (e.g. burpees, jump squats, kettlebell swings), intensity tends to be “as many rounds as possible”.7

For circuit style Tabata, workouts are sometimes also longer. The 4-minute Tabata rounds may be completed 1 to 4 times, with rest (e.g 1 minute) between rounds.8

In theory, one 4-minute Tabata should be enough for anyone. Remember; it is the intensity and not the duration that is important. Also, in his studies, Dr. Tabata only used one exercise – stationary cycling – and in doing so achieved some amazing results.

More is not necessarily better. Saying that, it is possible to use Dr. Tabata’s method and apply it in a couple of different ways. 

Tabata Supersets 

A superset involves performing two exercises back to back. This is useful when doing Tabatas if you find that your technique is failing or you are suffering from too much local muscular fatigue by performing 8-10 sets of the same exercise back-to-back.

Choose two dissimilar but equally challenging exercises so you can keep your workload high but spread the stress around your body. 

Burpees and Jump Rope Workout

  • 20-seconds burpees, rest 10-seconds
  • 20-seconds jump rope, rest 10 seconds
  • Repeat above cycle 3 more times.

Mountain Climbers and Skater Jumps

  • 20-seconds mountain climbers, rest 10-seconds
  • 20-seconds skater jumps, rest 10 seconds
  • Repeat above cycle 3 more times.

Tabata Circuit

You can also apply the Tabata method to groups of exercises and perform them circuit-fashion. Try the workout below, or check out this scientifically proven Tabata workout.

  • 20-seconds kettlebell swings, 10-seconds rest
  • 20-seconds thrusters, 10-seconds rest
  • 20-seconds burpees, 10-seconds rest
  • 20-seconds jump rope , 10-seconds rest
  • Repeat cycle.

If you are looking for an efficient and rewarding, brief but demanding workout, look no further than the Tabata training method.

Whether you use it as on occasional finisher to your regular workout or make it a mainstay of your cardio, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be reaping amazing results in a minimum of time. This method of training really does live up to the hype.  

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