Twenty seconds doesn’t seem like that long, right? Well, your thoughts on that might change after a few sessions of Tabata, a workout program that crams maximum muscle-burning into a minimal timeframe.
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The Olympic-caliber training routine challenges your body with bursts of heart-pounding exertion separated by short breaks – actually, make that waaaaay too short of breaks – to catch your breath.
Tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training, better known as HIIT in the let’s-get-sweaty community. Let’s warm up for a session with exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd.
How to do Tabata training
Get a timer going, because you’re going to need it.
Tabata training breaks a workout down into clearly defined intervals – typically, 20 seconds of a push-it-to-the-limit exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. “It will jump your heart rate up pretty quickly,” notes Lawton.
Eight consecutive work-and-relax cycles go into a 4-minute round in Tabata. Four rounds go into a full 20-minute training circuit. (There is a minute of recovery after each round.)
All that math adds up to a pretty intense aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength) experience. Tabata is designed to push the boundary of your VO2 max, the technical term for oxygen used during exercise.
“These are going to feel like very long minutes,” Lawton says. “There is a lot of effort packed into a short time – and you’re going to feel it.”
The difference between Tabata and HIIT
You know how all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads? That’s the best way to describe the relationship between Tabata and HIIT.
Tabata is HIIT but not all HIIT is Tabata. Basically, Tabata is basically a higher intensity version of HIIT, with shorter and more rigidly defined workouts, says Lawton. HIIT routines offer you a bit more flexibility.
“They’re very similar and both good for you,” says Lawton. “It comes down to which you prefer.”
Exercises used in Tabata
One advantage of Tabata training is that requires absolutely no equipment. The entire routine can be built around basic bodyweight exercises that use your bones and bulk in place of weightlifting plates.
Bodyweight exercises that fit well with Tabata include:
- High knees/running in place.
- Skate lunges.
- Mountain climbers.
- Squat jumps.
- Jumping jacks.
For a full circuit, just pick four of the above exercises and complete a 4-minute round of each.
Lawton recommends that you count how many reps of each exercise you do at the start of a round – for example, the number of push-ups in the first 20-second interval – and then try to match it in the next seven.
“The goal is to set the bar high and then meet it again and again,” she says.
Numerous full-circuit Tabata workouts can be found online and streamed for inspiration. If you dig working out in groups, many fitness centers offer Tabata classes.
Can you use gym equipment?
Absolutely! While you don’t need equipment for a Tabata routine, you can certainly use your favorite gear. Kettlebells, for example, mesh well with the program. Ditto for dumbbells, medicine balls, jump ropes or resistance bands, says Lawton.
The seat on your stationary bike also offers a perfect perch for Tabata, too. (The workout program, it should be noted, was originally tested using athletes doing pedal-pumping sprints on stationary bikes.)
The key to Tabata is maintaining the timing pattern – 20 seconds of exertion followed by 10 seconds of rest. What you do or use in each round is up to you.
A pro tip from Lawton, though: Treadmills are not ideal for Tabata. The time it takes for the belt to speed up and slow down for each interval throws off the timing. (And don’t even think about jumping on and off a moving belt.)
If you want to work running into a Tabata workout, either do the high knees/running-in-place exercise or go to a local track.
The benefits of Tabata
So why put yourself through this tortuous 20-minute ordeal? The answer is simple: You’d be hard-pressed finding another workout routine that builds as much cardiorespiratory endurance in as short a time.
Studies have shown that devoting a few minutes to Tabata increases cardio and strength more than devoting far more hours to moderate-intensity workouts. It’s a pretty impressive fat burner, too.
One other perk of Tabata: It’s an ideal workout while traveling given that it’s quick and can be done with no equipment. “You can do Tabata in your hotel room,” notes Lawton.
Are there risks?
Tabata is grueling. You need to be fit enough to meet the physical demands of it without getting hurt.
Lawton suggests starting Tabata by doing just one or two 4-minute rounds to get accustomed to the intensity. If that goes well, consider adding more. “You want to push yourself, but you also have to be smart,” Lawton says.
An exercise stress test also should be considered if you’re starting a high-intensity routine.
The history of Tabata
Tabata is a relative newcomer to the training scene after emerging in the 1990s. It’s the namesake of Dr. Izumi Tabata, an exercise science expert in Japan who worked with that nation’s Olympic speed skating team.
Dr. Tabata developed the workout routine to build muscle strength and cardio capacity in his skaters. He theorized that the short, punishing, high-intensity workouts could bring gold medal results.
Did it work? Put it this way: Japan stands as a powerhouse on the international speed skating circuit.