Ever wondered exactly how effective you could make your workout if you optimized every fine detail down to the last second of your every motion? Or are you just a busy person who needs to squeeze a full fitness regimen into your 20 free minutes each day? Either way, Tabata can help.
This exercise formula is backed by science and trusted by personal trainers all over the world. But it’s not for the faint of heart.
If you want to feel some nuclear-level burn during your next gym session, here’s the crunch.
If you’re wondering about the origins of Tabata, it’s actually someone’s name. Izumi Tabata carried out a 1996 study on Olympic speedskaters for Japan’s Ritsumeikan University. He gave a bunch of skaters an exercise bike each and split them into two groups.
One group exercised in intense 20-second bursts followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated for 4 minutes. We’ll call this the intense group.
The other group exercised with no breaks for 60 minutes, but at less than half the intensity. We’ll call this the chill group.
The intense group exercised this way 4 days per week, with another day of steady-state training on top of that. The chill group did their steady-state exercise 5 days per week.
After 6 weeks, the intense group showed greater gains in cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance since they’d started, along with a bunch of anaerobic benefits. They’d achieved this by exercising for 76 minutes per week compared to 5 hours per week for the chill group.
That, if we’re being technical, is the definition of Tabata: a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) based on the professor’s findings.
It’s also worth noting that Professor Tabata credits skating coach Irisawa Koichi with actually coming up with the exercise routine that bears his name. We like it when nice people share the spotlight.
Tabata vs. HIIT: What’s the difference? Which is the better workout?
Any exercise routine that alternates periods of intense activity with periods of rest is HIIT. Tabata is a very specific type of HIIT that sets strict criteria for activity and rest periods, with the aim of getting the best results in the fastest possible time.
Nowadays, a lot of HIIT workouts claim to be Tabata without following the good professor’s formula. So, which is better for you? Well, both are effective exercises. The choice comes down to how you prefer to work out and how you fit exercise into your lifestyle.
If you’re busy, Tabata intervals can give you results in only a few minutes each day. On the other hand, those few minutes will kick your ass. If you’re newer to fitness, regular HIIT can still help a lot without fully wiping you out.
So there are different types of HIIT?
Yup! In fact, you might want to look at other HIIT variants like Tabata to see which style best matches your workout vibe. Options include:
- The Peter Coe regimen. This version of HIIT from the 1970s involves 200-meter sprints spaced between 30-second rests
- The Gibala regimen: Based on research from 2012, this version uses 3-minute warmups, 60-second bursts, and 75-second rests performed in batches of 8 to 12 cycles.
- The Zuniga regimen. Used by the U.S. Reserve Officer Training Corp, this method involves 30-second bursts and 30-second rests.
- The Vollaard regimen. This 10-minute HIIT routine pairs periods of easy cycling with 20-second all-out bursts.
Tabata vs yoga: Is Tabata yoga really a thing?
Tabata yoga takes the Tabata formula and applies it to yoga poses (aka asanas). The aim is to get the greatest possible physical benefit in the shortest possible time. Typically, you’ll hold a high intensity position for 20 seconds before a 10-second rest pose.
Tabata yoga routines usually stick with the same position for the 4-minute cycle, but there’s nothing stopping an advanced yogi from mixing things up. Try a 20-second lunge, then rest, then a 20-second squat, then another rest, and so on.
This variation of yoga usually lasts 15 to 30 minutes. If you’re pressed for time but want to reap the benefits of yoga, Tabata yoga might be the one for you.
Although exercise bikes were the basis for the very first Tabata routines, you don’t strictly need any equipment to transform HIIT routines into Tabata sweatfests. It’s the “20 seconds on, 10 seconds off” timing that makes it count.
But some simple equipment can help freshen up the routine as you get used to it. You don’t need an exercise bike, but gear as basic as a jump rope or kettlebells can work wonders. If it helps you dial up the intensity, you’re on the right track.
So, how do we put all this into practice? Remember, as long as it follows the timing formula we spoke about above, it’s Tabata. Within those confines, you can feel free to develop your own workout.
For reference, here’s one we love. Hammer away at each of the following five exercises as intensely as you can for 20 seconds, and then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat each move 8 times before moving on to the next exercise:
1. High knees
Run in place, bringing your knees as high toward your chest as you can. Use your arms to balance and keep up the pace.
2. Tuck jump
From a standing position, jump directly upward and tuck both knees into your chest.
3. Mountain climber
From a plank position, bring one knee up toward your chest. Return that knee to the starting position and repeat with the other knee. Continue to alternate sides.
- From a standing position, place your hands on the floor and jump your feet back into plank position.
- Do a push-up.
- Jump your feet back up toward your hands.
- Stand up, jumping as you do.
5. Plank jack
A more challenging variation of the plank, this move combines planking with jumping jacks to put you through your paces.
- Start on your hands and knees, with hands directly under shoulders to provide support. If it’s more comfortable, you can come down to your forearms. If you do, make sure your forearms and upper arms form a perfect “L” shape.
- Move into plank position (or high plank, if you’ve stayed on your palms rather than your forearms) by extending your legs straight behind you, keeping your pelvis low so your body is in a straight line, parallel with the floor.
- Bending your knees a little, hop your left foot out to the left and your right foot to the right, like a horizontal jumping jack. Be sure to land on your toes.
- Hop your legs back to the central plank position.
This 20-minute workout will give you a taste of how brutal Tabata can be. But stick with it and results will start showing.
You’ll get a clearer idea of what works for you as you progress on your Tabata journey. But if you’re just starting out, here are some tips that will ease your path to success:
- Have a plan and set realistic goals. Don’t compare your performance level with those of others. Everyone’s body is different.
- Keep it simple when you’re a beginner. This is a demanding exercise regimen, so don’t make it rougher than it needs to be.
- Remember to take your time warming up. After that, go hell-for-leather on the exercises themselves.
- Use a timer app. We’ve listed some of our favorites below.
- Work your full body. Build a versatile routine that lets you feel the burn all over.
There’s plenty of encouraging evidence for HIIT that follows the Tabata formula. Research links this exercise routine to fat loss and enhanced cardio fitness.
For example, according to a 2017 study, this type of HIIT is great for turbocharging your body’s oxygen uptake. This means your body can process oxygen more efficiently, which translates to better general fitness.
A 2020 study suggests that Tabata may improve base metabolism by boosting irisin concentrations in the blood. Irisin is a hormone that helps regulate your body’s use of energy. More irisin whizzing around your bod might mean better physical performance and quicker fat loss.
Yes, it’s a very effective exercise regimen, but the main attraction of Tabata is its short duration. You can get comparable results to other routines in a fraction of the time.
Think back to that 1996 experiment. The Tabata group worked out for 76 minutes per week. The other group spent 300 minutes. Tabata can give you real, measurable fitness results roughly 74.6 percent faster than some other workout routines.
But be warned: Tabata is among the most intense of the high intensity exercise regimens. That means it takes a lot out of you and might be less enjoyable than a less brutal workout, particularly for fitness newbies.
Consistency is an important factor when you’re starting out. Tabata might be so punishing that it turns some people off of exercise in the long term — which helps nobody. So set your expectations, work up to full intensity, and make sure you maintain a manageable level of intensity that keeps you engaged and motivated.
There are tools out there that can help you get the best results from this high impact workout. We’ve linked to a few of our favorites to save you even more time.
The best things in life are free, and the apps ain’t bad either.
Tabata Interval HIIT Timer
- Available on: Android
- Price: free
This ad-free app lets you customize the timings of your routine. Warmup times, set length, rest time, and cooldown are all yours to define. It also provides an integrated calendar that allows you to keep track of your progress.
Tabata Stopwatch Pro
This app color-codes progress updates to help you register what’s going on during your exercise. It also has a bunch of customization options that make it useful as you level up your workouts and add complexity.
A little dollar goes a long way, and these useful tools have a bunch of added features that support your Tabata journey.
Seconds Pro Interval Timer
Big, colorful countdown timers and voice prompts make this a deluxe option with lots of handy features. It gives you exercise templates that you can customize around your workout and even lets you sync your music to the app.
- Available on: iPhone
- Price: $3.99
Billed as the HIIT timer for professional trainers and athletes, this one can be used for any routine you can think of. Split-screen displays and music integration make it a strong option for more advanced, complicated workouts.
For a full rundown of our favorite interval training apps, look no further.
A Tabata workout is great for packing every minute with sweet, sweet gains. But some easily avoided errors can impact the results of the workout. Keep an eye out for these potential pitfalls and make sure you’re working at peak effectiveness.
Not giving 110 percent
The entire ethos behind Tabata involves short bursts of maximum effort. If you’re not doing that, it’s a regular, short HIIT session, not Tabata — which is fine but not the mission you set out for.
You should be out of breath after each set to the point that talking is impossible. Only you can really know if you’re cheating yourself out of peak benefits.
Missing out on weights
Tabata doesn’t have to be pure cardio. In fact, it’s even better when you mix it up. The fat loss benefits of the formula go into overdrive when you throw in some weighted resistance.
We recommend kettlebells as a versatile option, but feel free to use whatever you find comfy.
Your rest periods are as important as your bursts. You’ve got to give your body time to process the effects of that full-on activity.
Going all-out to the point of skipping rest periods is a one-way ticket to injury. Plus, if you can comfortably skip or shorten rests, that might be a sign that you’re not pushing yourself enough.
Tabata will kick your ass. But nothing good in life comes easy, and struggle = growth, especially when it comes to your workouts.
If you’re up for the challenge, this is a hyperefficient way to pack every second of your workout with burns and gains. Even if you’re not quite at that level yet, it’s a worthy goal that could land you serious results once you make it a regular part of your workout routine.
Apps can make the timing easier to manage. And don’t forget to ease into full capacity.