What Is Tabata Training?

What Is Tabata Training?

Named for Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata who developed the method, Tabata training is a four-minute form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that follows a specific cadence:

  • Perform 20 seconds of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest or low-intensity recovery
  • Repeat this cadence for a total of eight cycles

Sound awfully specific? Well, they didn’t come up with it by accident.

Tabata Training: A Brief History

Tabata was tasked in 1996 with analyzing the effectiveness of the Japanese speed skating team’s training regimen. Their routine was 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 aerobic advantages of moderate-intensity exercise and the anaerobic benefits of high-intensity intervals.

To test the theory, Tabata had two groups of speed skaters ride 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 approximately four minutes, four days a week, and at moderate intensity for 30 minutes, one day a week, for six weeks.

Tabata’s team found that, while moderate-intensity training improved aerobic fitness (the body’s ability to use oxygen to fuel movement), it had virtually no impact on anaerobic capacity (the body’s ability to produce energy without oxygen, or in quick bursts). Meanwhile, the high-intensity group saw increases in both, and actually enjoyed greater aerobic gains.

Tabata training allows you to swap in a myriad of 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.

Here’s how it works.


Benefits of Tabata Training

tabata training | jumping rope

If you could microwave a workout down to 1/5th the amount of time — the way you can, say, a bag of popcorn — you’d do it, right? Tabata training promises to do just that, and (in some cases) delivers even better results.

1. Nukes fat

You burn more calories per minute during Tabata training than with traditional steady-state cardio. And, by exerting yourself at 80 percent or more of your maximum heart rate, you’re putting your body at an oxygen deficit that it continues working to close long after your workout.

This excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC, or the “afterburn effect”) can elevate your metabolism for 48 to 72 hours following a workout, burning bonus calories the whole time.

2. Improves aerobic capacity

Moderate-intensity activity does this too, but Tabata is even more effective. In the landmark study, the Tabata protocol increased VO2 max an additional 40 percent above the moderate-intensity group. But the truly groundbreaking difference between the two intensities was found in our next benefit…

3. Boosts anaerobic capacity

Participants in the moderate-intensity group didn’t register a difference at all in anaerobic capacity following their six weeks. Meanwhile, those in the Tabata group saw theirs improve a whopping 28 percent. So, the biggest advantage of Tabata may lie in its ability to train both energy systems simultaneously.

4. Cuts training time

OK, so “trains both energy systems simultaneously” probably won’t make it onto a billboard for Tabata. That makes efficiency its marquee advantage.

In the study, the moderate-intensity group worked out for a total of five hours per week. The Tabata group? About 46 minutes.


What’s the Difference Between Tabata and HIIT?

woman doing forearm plank gym | tabata training

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 approximately 80-85 percent 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 ratio of 20 seconds:10 seconds 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:

“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 incorporating Tabata — including some BODi programs — repeat this four-minute set multiple times. And of course, you should exercise caution. 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.


Tips on How to Get Started With Tabata Training

New to Tabata training? Keep these tips in mind to get results safely and steadily:

  1. Less is more. Don’t do Tabata workouts more than twice per week.
  2. Stick with the ratio. As you get stronger, you can make your workouts longer, but keep the 2:1 work-to-rest ratio. It works!
  3. Pick a lane. While almost any exercise can be included in a Tabata workout, you’ll want to choose either strength or cardio training.
  4. Lighter is better. It’s important to choose a lighter weight than you would use for conventional strength training. You’ll be getting very little rest, so don’t be a hero.


Sample Tabata Workout

Ready to get started? Try this sample Tabata workout and don’t hold back.

Exercise 1: Push-ups

Exercise 2: Jump squats

How to do it:

  • Perform the first exercise for 20 seconds, then rest/recover for 10 seconds.
  • Then, do the second exercise for 20 seconds, resting for another 10 seconds.
  • Repeat this sequence four times for a total of eight rounds.