Tabata Gives You the Benefits of an Hour-Long Workout in Just 4 Minutes

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Woman tired and sweaty after a workout

If you’re looking for a mega-quick, mega-efficient workout, one great option is Tabata training. What is Tabata? It’s a super-charged version of high intensity interval training (HIIT) in which you go all out for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then repeat that eight times for a total of four minutes.

Sure, it’s quick and simple. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here’s everything you need to know about Tabata workouts, why it gets you breathing hard so quickly, and how to do them effectively.

What Does Tabata Mean?

Many people assume Tabata is an acronym, but it’s actually the name of the scientist who first studied this workout: Dr. Izumi Tabata, who conducted a 1996 research project on the Japanese speed skating team. He was looking into the effectiveness of a HIIT regimen created by the team’s coach, Irisawa Koichi, which alternated between 20 seconds of max intensity and 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times.

His work found that just four minutes of this exhausting routine could improve aerobic fitness just as effectively as an hour-long moderate intensity session, while also creating a 28 percent increase in anaerobic capacity (how much you can push at your max before fatiguing). Although it was a workout designed for elite athletes, the findings were so impressive that the fitness industry latched on, and the Tabata craze took off.

What Is Tabata Training?

You can do Tabata with nearly any kind of movement — while running, swimming, cycling, dancing, pumping battle ropes or even doing burpees, if that’s your jam. No matter your activity of choice, you’ll be going as hard as you can for 20 seconds, then resting for 10 seconds, for four minutes total. “And if you do your Tabata correctly, there is no fifth minute because it is your all-out intensity,” says ACE-certified fitness instructor Jason Schneider, the West Central regional group fitness manager of Crunch. “You’re trying to reach your most intense heart rate zone.”

That said, Schneider points out that the fitness industry has adapted the workout for the general public, creating slightly lower-key Tabata-based classes that include multiple Tabata blocks — each one followed by a solid recovery period before diving into the next set. “The truth of the matter is, most of us will work hard, but very few of us will ever take it to that point of such high intensity that after four minutes you’re done,” says Schneider.

And as Jessie Syfko, director of fitness for Life Time health clubs, says, “consistency is going to beat intensity.” Going full throttle in just one tabata session won’t be as beneficial as repeating those intervals regularly. “Doing it again week after week is where you’re going to really feel the gains,” she says.

What Is Tabata Training Beneficial For?

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

Tabata Improves Your Cardio Fitness

Dr. Tabata’s original study drew 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 has shown that six to 12 weeks of tabata sessions can increase VO2max — the gold standard measurement of aerobic fitness — by up to 18 percent. This means your body gets more efficient at using oxygen, boosting your endurance.

Tabata Increases Your Strength

Meanwhile, the same 2019 study showed that several weeks of Tabata can increase your anaerobic capacity, or how long your muscles can push at their max before fatiguing, by up to 35 percent.

Tabata Is Super Efficient

If you’re following the traditional Tabata directions, all you need is four minutes. Almost all of us have that much spare time in our day, right? “You’re giving it a very hard effort in a short period of time instead of giving it moderate effort over a long period of time,” says Peloton instructor Rad Lopez.

Tabata Burns Fat Effectively

The maxed-out intensity of Tabata can torch your metabolism, says Schneider. “There’s something called EPOC, which is excess postexercise oxygen consumption,” he says. “Doing HIIT exercise, you have a higher metabolic burn for a greater amount of time until your body returns back to homeostasis.” And because Tabata is even more extreme than your typical HIIT workout, those effects are amplified, Schneider adds.

Science backs him up: one small study done in 2020 showed that adding Tabata to PE classes reduced body fat in overweight high school students.

What’s the Difference Between Tabata and HIIT?

Tabata is a HIIT workout — just an extra spicy one. Since you’re giving 100-percent, gut-busting, gasping-for-air effort for 20 seconds, and then take just 10 seconds to rest, this is one of the most exhausting versions of HIIT you’ll come across. In general, most other HIIT intervals last longer, but don’t take you to your very max. Also, most HIIT workouts take more time, while a true Tabata session lasts only four minutes.

Who Should Try a 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 kind of activity, and the intensity is about hitting your personal max, it’s infinitely adaptable. “At any age, if I want a challenge, I could sit on a recumbent bike and I can do the Tabata protocol,” says Schneider.

That said, Schneider suggests working up to Tabata training. “Do not join a gym and day one go to a Tabata workout,” he says. That’s because, when done properly, Tabata is incredibly difficult. You could end up injured if your body isn’t prepared for the intensity. And if you don’t already love working out, pushing that hard may discourage you from going back to the gym again. You need to be prepared to feel the burn.

The Most Effective Way To Do a Tabata Workout

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

Save It For the End

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

Scheider agrees: “Do it at the very end because you want to end with just literally emptying your cup and with all of that benefit of that metabolic burn after your workout is done.”

Don’t Overdo It

Sprinkle Tabata into your workout routine sparingly. “It is too intense to do every single day,” says Syfko. Trainers suggest practicing Tabata only once, maybe twice a week. More than that, and you’ll over-stress your body, potentially leading to injuries or even hormone imbalances, says Syfko.

Use Your Recovery Wisely

You may be most focused on those 20-second sprints, but the rest periods are what help you give your all, so be strategic about them. “Optimize the 10-second breaks,” says Syfko. “Instead of drinking water or walking around, go right back into your breathing.” Focusing on the breath will help your heart rate recover so that you’re ready to go again.

Start With an Activity You Know and Love

Because Tabata can sometimes feel intimidating, Lopez suggests trying it with a move you already know how to do. “For example, I’m a boxer, so moves that 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 jump into a move that you just learned a couple of days ago. You want to make sure that you’re comfortable.”

Stay Focused on Technique

Watch your form: “When the intensity is higher, oftentimes form and technique are thrown out the window,” says Schneider. “Do not sacrifice good form for high intensity because that’s a recipe for injury.”

Tabata Variations

Tabata’s 20/10 intervals came out of one 1990s 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 get the aerobic-boosting, strength-building effects of alternating power intervals with rest.

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

And remember: if going “all out” feels like entirely too much, just give it a hard effort. “A lot of it’s about some self-kindness,” says Syfko, “having the grace to be terrible at something and continue to show up.”

Try These Tabata Workouts

Ready to find out what Tabata actually feels like to do? Check out these Tabata-based POPSUGAR workouts:

Image Source: Getty / PeopleImages

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