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Tabata Workout: What You Need to Know

This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.

By David Levine, ContributorFeb. 25, 2021, at 1:05 p.m.


THE CONCEPT OF high-intensity interval training, also called HIIT, has been around for decades. As the name implies, HIIT workouts involve short bursts of very intense exercise, separated by short intervals of rest. It's the opposite of low-and-slow workouts like jogging and longer-distance biking and swimming. Within that overarching concept, however, new models, classes or even equipment for performing HIIT workouts continue to evolve. One older model is called Tabata. According to Carol Espel, director of fitness at Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, a traditional Tabata set is four minutes long, comprising those same eight rounds of 20-second bursts, followed by resting for 10 seconds. “Often, group exercise classes will include as many as four or five sets, with an added 30-second rest period in between each set to make it more manageable for group training,” she says. There is also a brief warm up and cool down for a 30-minute Tabata blast-type class format, Espel says. The workouts themselves can include anything from pushups and squats to burpees and crunches. They may incorporate jump ropes or hand weights or kettlebells, or not. The key is to do it at maximum intensity. Espel calls this training a “highly effective system seen all over the world.” Tabata is named after research conducted in 1996 by a Japanese physician, Dr. Izumi Tabata, into improved athletic performance. In his study, Tabata broke participants into two groups:

  • Group 1. One group of athletes trained at a moderate intensity level (70% of maximum oxygen consumption) five days a week for a total of six weeks; each workout lasted one hour.

  • Group 2. A second group trained at a high-intensity level (170% of maximum) four days a week for six weeks. Each of their eight workouts lasted 20 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest in between each set, for a total of four minutes.

Group 1 showed an increase in their aerobic (cardiovascular) capacity, but little or no improvement in anaerobic (muscle) capacity. Group 2, however, showed a similar increase in their aerobic system but also increased their anaerobic system by 28%. Short and Sweet The research behind Tabata impresses fitness pros. “Tabata and his team tested this method on athletes to see their results and prove its effectiveness,” says Matt Camargo, director of sports performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. Both Camargo and Espel think the workout is highly popular because of its brevity. The convenience of not taking a large amount of time to complete is appealing, Camargo says. “The intensity is high but the volume and duration is short. Individuals who desire a quick but effective workout can utilize the Tabata-style workout to get just that.” Because it’s not something most people can do every day, using it in combination with other types of workouts can create faster, greater results, Espel says. “The promise of a ‘four-minute workout’ can be quite compelling to people short on time. In addition, many view moderate intensity cardio workouts as monotonous or any cardio exercise as undesirable. Therefore, less time doing something you don’t enjoy but know you should do can be seen as a cheat code in the never-ending quest to get in better shape,” she says. Tabata sessions are also effective when used to finish off a workout, whether the goal is cardiovascular or accessory work for single muscle groups. It can be used with any exercise program, as long as proper technique is used. “You can use calisthenics, strength movements and even some sprint variations. The versatility is significant here to cater to any individuals training age and training goal,” Camargo says. Here's an example of one four-minute round of Tabata, doing each exercise for 20 seconds and resting for 10 seconds:

  • Five- to 10-minute warmup doing light cardio such as jump rope or jogging.

  • Burpees.

  • Mountain climbers.

  • High-knee jogging in place.

  • Kettlebell curls.

  • Cool down.

To make the routine longer, you can do each exercise two to four rounds or more, with a 30-second rest before starting the next exercise. ‘Work Hard, Sweat Hard’ “I love this type of training because it pushes me to intensity levels I wouldn’t achieve on my own – and it gets the job done in about 30 minutes,” Espel says. “Doing this every other day has worked well for me in avoiding injury and overuse, and keeps my motivation strong. This philosophy, when properly applied, has encouraged more people to incorporate exercise into their lives and, for those who do exercise, it provides additional options for consistency.”

As with all exercise routines, Tabata training is not appropriate for everyone. Anyone who is currently injured or has some form of heart disease should be wary, Camargo says. “Since the goal for 20 seconds of work is max intensity, the individual’s body needs to be physically capable of withstanding that type of training stress,” he says. “The heart is going to spike very quickly and probably get close to the individual’s maximum heart rate, so careful implementation is needed to effectively introduce this type of training stress safely.” Before performing a Tabata workout, make sure to warm up enough to prepare your joints for the training stress to come. “Start by getting the core temperature raised, muscles activated and then joints moving through optimal ranges of motion,” he says. Espel adds that anyone new to fitness in general or HIIT-type routines should start in a supervised setting for several weeks until they become acclimated to the demands of the workout. Also, know what you are getting into. “Prepare. Get ready to work hard, breathe hard, sweat and move quickly. Bring a water bottle and towel for sure,” Espel says. “And know that when you are finished, the ‘endorphin high’ is pretty addictive and motivating and keeps you coming back for more.” David Levine, Contributor David Levine has been covering a wide range of health topics, including mental and behavioral ... READ MORE Sources Carol Espel, MSEspel is the director of fitness at Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami. Matt Camargo, MS, CSCSCamargo is director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California.

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