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What is Tabata Training?

Posted by Casey Stenehjem on May 5th 2021

A woman performing a high-intensity Tabata workout in her home gym.
You can perform high-intensity Tabata workouts in your home gym.

What is Tabata Training?

If you’ve worked out in the last few years, you’ve likely heard of, or performed, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or high-intensity resistance training (HIRT). While interval training isn’t new, it has exploded in popularity due to its efficiency, effectiveness, and versatility. This popularity has also brought about new types of interval training, including Tabata.

To understand Tabata, let’s get to the basics of HIIT.

What is High-Intensity Interval Training?

Interval training incorporates periods of varying intensity into one workout — working hard for a set time, recovering, and then repeating. The rigorous period in a HIIT workout should be pretty challenging, typically 80 to 100% of your maximum heart rate. The recovery period ranges from 65 to 80% of your maximum heart rate.

A HIIT workout can be sprinting for 30 seconds, then walking for one or two minutes, and repeating the pattern throughout the training session. Or it can be 20 squat presses, followed by a 30-second recovery, then 30 jumping jacks, 30 seconds of recovery, 20 woodchops, recovery, 25 burpees, and so on.

What’s great about interval training is that you can customize it to your preferences and goals, whether you’re a swimmer, cyclist, rower, or general exercise enthusiast. You also can create high-intensity resistance training (HIRT) sessions using functional fitness tools like YBells, resistance bands, and more.

You can pick the modality, the exercises, the work time or the number of reps, the recovery time, and the session's overall duration with an interval training workout.

What is Tabata Training?

Tabata is a specific type of HIIT that consists of 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This cycle is repeated eight times, totalling a 4-minute set. Workouts can consist of one or multiple sets to reach a total duration from four minutes to 60, but rarely longer due to their vigorous nature.

Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo effectively created Tabata in 1996. He studied two groups of Olympic speed skaters for six weeks – one group rode a stationary bike at a moderate intensity for 60 minutes, five days a week; the other group cycled four days per week for just four minutes using the 20-second intense work, 10-second recovery format.

The research showed that while the moderate-intensity group improved their cardiovascular endurance, the high-intensity group demonstrated a significantly higher increase in aerobic capacity (13%) and anaerobic threshold (28%).

Aerobic capacity is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and deliver to the muscles via the bloodstream. Also known as VO2 max, the higher the number, the greater the fitness level. Aerobic capacity helps fuel intense bursts of power, speed, and strength, which are critical to many sports and workout regimens, including HIIT, HIRT, and powerlifting.

Anaerobic threshold is the highest intensity level at which you can perform before lactate starts accumulating in your blood and causing fatigue. The higher your anaerobic threshold, the longer you can sustain very intense exertion.

What Are the Benefits of Tabata?

While Tabata is a challenge, it delivers multiple benefits. Here are just a few:

1. Tabata Strengthens Stamina

HIIT and Tabata challenge the cardiovascular system, resulting in a stronger heart, increased lung capacity, and improved cardiovascular health (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.). This improves your aerobic conditioning for overall health and endurance exercise, like triathlons.

2. Tabata Increases Muscular Endurance

When performing high-intensity resistance training (HIRT) as part of Tabata, you can boost muscular endurance with multiple repetitions and sets at a high intensity.

3. Tabata Creates Higher Caloric Expenditure

The intense nature of Tabata routines blasts more calories than more leisurely, steady-state sessions. Burning calories helps to burn fat and contributes to weight loss.

4. Tabata Elevates Metabolism

Due to increased oxygen demands during these regimens, your body experiences excess post oxygen consumption (EPOC), or afterburn, which elevates your metabolism for up to 24 hours after your workout.

5. Tabata Offers Maximum Efficiency

If you’re doing Tabata properly, you can’t spend hours at it. Its high-intensity nature means that exercise sessions are short but highly effective.

6. Tabata Provides Valuable Versatility

Tabata is highly customizable, and you can perform it with or without free weights or other equipment. You can also do it virtually anywhere.

Cautions With HIIT and Tabata

Although you can design your own Tabata routines, by definition, they must be high intensity. Here are a few important cautions to keep in mind.

1. It’s Best to Have a Base Level of Fitness

You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to do Tabata, but beginners should first build their fitness before diving into these extreme workouts. And people with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes should consult with their doctor before starting any form of high-intensity training.

2. Proper Form Is Vital

When you’ve maxed out your intensity, or you’re pushing through the eighth round of an exercise, your form typically deteriorates. Be mindful of maintaining correct form — particularly with resistance training — to reduce the risk of injury and achieve the best results. Even if you have to slow down slightly, the quality of your form always trumps speed.

3. Give Your Body Time to Recover

Tabata and HIIT should not be performed daily, which can lead to injury and overtraining. Doing Tabata one to three times weekly, along with other non-interval workouts, allows your body to rest and muscles to adequately recover, to work hard at your next HIIT session.

Sample Tabata Workout Plans

Take on Tabata in your home gym or at a studio, in a group session or on your own. Try it with YBells or traditional equipment or without equipment. All you need is a timer.

For the four-minute blocks, you could do eight separate moves in a 4-minute set, or four moves twice, or two moves four times.

4-minute Tabata Block

20 seconds for each move, 10 seconds rest, four sets of each exercise

  1. Jumping jacks
  2. Cross country ski

4-minute Tabata Strength Set With YBells

20 seconds for each move, 10 seconds rest; two sets of each exercise, with 1 or 2 YBells

  1. Pick up cross catch squat presses
  2. Pushup rows
  3. Squat jump punches
  4. Kettlebell rack lunges 

16-minute Cardio Tabata Routine

20 seconds for each move, 10 seconds rest; 8 sets of each move for 4 minutes

  1. High knees
  2. Squat jumps
  3. Mountain climbers
  4. Burpees

To stay motivated, vary your routines periodically. You can add new exercises, add or remove weights, and challenge yourself to increase your intensity as your skill increases. However you put them together, Tabata training is a great way to improve your fitness!

Julie King

For more than 25 years, Julie King has been a certified group exercise instructor and personal trainer, holding certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, the Aquatic Exercise Association and Schwinn/Mad Dogg Athletics. She also has extensive continuing education and instruction experience in PiYo, YogaFit and mat Pilates.

Over her career, Julie has led virtually every class format at commercial health clubs, corporate fitness centers, wellness centers, schools and online. A contributing editor for Club Business International magazine, she has been published in Club Industry, Fitness Management, Club Solutions, National Fitness Trade Journal and Gear Trends/SNEWS.

With a M.S. in Kinesiology and a B.S. in Journalism, Julie is passionate about helping others to cultivate a love and habit of exercise.