If you could microwave a workout down to 1/15th the amount of time — the way you can, say, a bag of popcorn — you’d do it, right? Well, one fitness protocol in particular — Tabata — promises to do just that, and in some cases delivers even better results.
What Are Tabata Workouts?
Tabata is a four-minute form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) that follows a cadence of 20 seconds of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest or low-intensity recovery. This cycle is repeated eight times.
Named for Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata in 1996, Tabata training allows you to swap in a myriad of different exercises that target large muscle groups — push-ups, burpees, jump squats, kettlebell swings, etc. — not only increasing cardiovascular capacity (VO2 max), but also stimulating muscle growth.
During his work with the Japanese speed skating team, Tabata was tasked with analyzing the effectiveness of its training regimen. The routine was actually originally developed by the team’s coach, Irisawa Koichi. Tabata and his group of researchers concluded that the 20 seconds on/10 seconds off protocol struck the best balance between the endurance advantages of low-intensity exercise and the muscle-building benefits of high-intensity training.
Benefits of Tabata Training
To test the theory, Tabata conducted training experiments on two groups of speed skaters riding ergonomic cycles. The first trained at moderate intensity for one hour, five days a week for six weeks. The second group trained at high intensity for four minutes, 20 seconds, four days a week for six weeks.
Tabata’s team found that, while the moderate-intensity training improved aerobic (cardiovascular) fitness, it had virtually no impact on anaerobic (muscle growth) capacity. Meanwhile, the high-intensity group saw increases in both, and actually enjoyed greater aerobic gains.
What’s the Difference Between Tabata and HIIT?
The same as the difference between a square and a rhombus; the former is the latter, but the latter isn’t necessarily the former. The broader category “high-intensity interval training” (into which Tabata falls) allows greater flexibility in structuring routines. Some HIIT workouts offer ratios of 1:2 that involve one minute of exercise at 90 percent or more of VO2 max to two minutes of rest, while others invert the ratio for two minutes of exercise to one minute of rest. The duration and intensity of the intervals are what define the workout.
Tabata training, on the other hand, strictly follows the 20-second:10-second ratio for four minutes, reaching—in the case of the original study—up to 170 percent of VO2 max. If you’re wondering how it’s even possible to reach 170 percent of maximal oxygen consumption, Ulrik Wisløff at the Norwegian School of Science and Technology explained to Time magazine that “the heart cannot pump enough blood to satisfy all the muscles” during high-intensity exercise. The resulting oxygen deficit triggers a “cascade of molecular responses in most organs of the body” that yield greater performance improvements than steady state or moderate-intensity endurance training.
It’s important to note, however, that most workouts — including some Beachbody programs — incorporating Tabata repeat this four-minute set multiple times. And of course, caution should be exercised too. A certain baseline of fitness and a very thorough warm-up are both mandatory before attempting such high-intensity exertion. But for those seeking crockpot fitness on a microwaveable schedule, the Tabata protocol delivers proven results.