How to do a Tabata Workout for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Fitness Levels
Reprint Insider Article by: Gabby Landsverk Jan 13, 2021, 12:07 PM
This article was medically reviewed by our own, Matt Camargo, MS, CSCS, Director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance.
A Tabata workout is just 4-minutes long, but with bursts of high-intensity exercise and little rest, it's designed to improve your fitness levels in a very short period of time.
Here's how to do a Tabata-style workout whether you're a beginner, intermediate, or advanced athlete.
What is Tabata?
The workout was created by Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata, PhD, as part of a landmark 1996 study to improve performance in elite speed skaters. Athletes in the study were asked to work out on an exercise bike, pedaling as fast as possible for 20 seconds, then resting for 10 seconds. They repeated the cycle for seven to eight rounds.
Researchers found this type of workout structure significantly improved their ability to generate short, intense bursts of energy (anaerobic capacity) and use oxygen efficiently in a workout (VO2 max).
While Tabata's study has inspired plenty of similar styles of exercise, only that particular 4-minute format is a Tabata workout, strictly speaking.
Anything that falls outside this format isn't Tabata, but high-intensity interval training, commonly known as HIIT. This can still be an effective workout technique, and there's plenty of evidence that HIIT workouts can improve health and fitness and support weight loss.
"People confuse anything that's 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off as Tabata. Tabata is really meant to be done on an exercise bike, absolutely as hard as you can go," says Mike Boyle, a strength and conditioning coach.
Some experts do suggest that the Tabata protocol can be used as a format for other types of exercise. The key is to choose an activity that will raise your heart rate, but isn't so difficult that you'll quit after only a few rounds.
"It's got to be truly high intensity, something that you can last the 20 seconds, but barely," says Bryan Goldberg, a personal trainer.
Are Tabata workouts safe and effective?
With the proper training and plan, Tabata workouts are safe, according to Goldberg, and can definitely improve your explosive power and ability to use oxygen efficiently during a workout.
However, the high intensity required means that you'll likely need more time to recover afterward. Ideally, this kind of workout should be done no more than two or three times a week, depending what the rest of your training routine is like. Any more than that, and you can risk burnout or injury.
"You shouldn't be able to do this every day. If you are, you're not doing it hard enough," Goldberg says.
You should also always warm up before doing Tabata or any high-intensity workout to avoid injury. The best way to warm up, according to Goldberg, is to do several minutes of light cardio like jump rope, or an activity similar to the workout, but at a more moderate pace.
For instance, you might jog for five to ten minutes as a precursor to sprints, or try biking at a brisk pace before starting your full-speed repetitions.
Should I do a Tabata workout?
Tabata isn't necessarily a good fit for people looking for a casual form of fitness, since it requires you to push yourself to the point of discomfort. "It's hard and it doesn't feel good," Goldberg says.
As a result, people who are just looking to build strength or start an exercise routine could benefit more from lower-impact exercise that won't leave them completely drained (or sore the next day).
"To me, it's only for really fit people because most people are not going to do well in multiple sets with a ratio of two parts of work to one part rest," Boyle says. "For a total beginner, particularly for strength work, you want to rest long enough so that you can repeat the set with similar quality."
Tabata also may not be the first choice for weight loss, since the short workouts don't allow a lot of time to burn calories.
Tabata is best for improving your ability to generate short, intense power (such as sprints) or increasing how much oxygen you can use during workouts (which is key for cardio endurance).
Here are some examples of what Tabata-style workouts look like for beginner, intermediate, and advanced athletes.
Tabata workout for beginners
The high-intensity Tabata format was originally designed for elite athletes, and experts recommend having at least a little athletic experience before jumping into a Tabata workout in order to adequately push yourself.
"You need a basic understanding of how your body operates under stress," Goldberg says. "There's trial and error figuring that out, and what is difficult for one person may not be difficult for others."
Beginners should stick to simple movements that have a low risk of injury even when you're tired. Running, rowing, or biking are all good exercises for any skill level, according to Goldberg, because they're easy to scale. That is, the more fit you are, the more you can push yourself.
A traditional Tabata workout would be eight rounds of one such exercise. That's just four minutes long, because the intensity should be high enough that you're exhausted even in that short time period. Including a warm-up and a cooldown, it won't take more than 20 minutes.
If you're doing multiple sets of eight rounds, it's no longer Tabata, it's circuit training, which can still be beneficial. For example, you could do a Tabata-inspired HIIT workout like this, which would take about 26 to 36 minutes:
5 to 10 minute warm-up doing light cardio such as jump rope or jogging
8 rounds of burpees, working for 20 seconds and resting for 10 seconds in each round
8 rounds of mountain climbers
8 rounds of high knees (jogging in place, raising the knee above waist height with each step)
5 to 10 minute cool down
Intermediate Tabata exercises
For people with some fitness experience, bodyweight movements alone likely won't be enough to raise your heart rate in 20 seconds. Ideally, a moderate-intensity Tabata workout would include some form of equipment, like a rowing machine or resistance bike.
To up the intensity at home, Goldberg suggests adding more dynamic movements like jumps. 'Plyometric' versions of movements like push-ups and squats involve an explosive burst of power at the peak of the movement, adding muscle tension but also cardio work.
Plyometric push-ups (pushing off forcefully enough that your hands leave the ground at the top of the movement)
Burpees with an added tuck jump (bringing the knees up to the chest during the jump)
For a non-traditional Tabata-inspired circuit, you can also increase the number of exercises you do in succession for more of a challenge.
An example of this type of intermediate HIIT workout (a total of about 35 to 45 minutes) would be:
5 to 10 minute warm-up, jogging or jump rope with a few rounds of 10 to 15 bodyweight squats or lunges
8 rounds of mountain climbers, working for 20 seconds work and resting for 10 seconds in each round
8 rounds of jump squats
8 rounds of plyometric push-ups
8 rounds of jumping lunges
8 rounds of burpees with a knee tuck
5 to 10 minute cool down
Advanced Tabata workout
Tabata was designed for well-conditioned athletes to improve their power output and ability to use oxygen during a workout.
Advanced athletes can do the traditional Tabata format. An example would be:
5 to 10 minutes warm-up
8 rounds of 20 seconds of all-out effort, 10 seconds of rest on any of the following:
Resistance or "assault" bike
Sled push or pull (moving a weight-laden sled across a gym floor or athletic field)
5 to 10 minutes cool down
For a longer, Tabata-inspired circuit workout, you could add any two or three of the above elements to the intermediate workout, for a total of about 50 to 60 minutes.
Goldberg and Boyle both cautioned against using weights for most people as part of a Tabata workout since it's not likely to be beneficial and has a high risk of injury.
Tabata-inspired circuit training is a popular form of HIIT, but true Tabata is designed to be a short, extremely intense workout. Experts recommend doing it only a few times each week to allow enough recovery while improving your explosive power and endurance. It can be tough for beginners since it requires some ability to pace yourself at maximum effort for the whole time.
However, it can still be done by people with different fitness experience levels using exercises like sprinting, rowing, or biking that have a lower risk of injury even at high intensity.
"I think what's so appealing to everyone is that you can accomplish a lot in a short period of time," Goldberg says. "But if you're looking for the true Tabata experience, you need to be pushing yourself for the moment you take off."