Plugging away at a moderate pace on the elliptical may be comfortable, but we all know it’s not effective. If you’re looking for real change, you have to work harder, not longer. In fact, perhaps the most effective workout can only take four minutes. It’s called Tabata. Before you get too excited about your new express workout, know those four minutes will be the most heart-pounding, sweat-dripping four minutes of your life.
High-intensity training, such as Tabata, has been used by elite athletes for years to improve sports performance and conditioning. Adding intense cardiovascular workouts to your fitness regime can increase your ability to go harder for longer.
What's more, these effects are shown with only using Tabata-type training two days per week. Since Tabata is so efficient, this means you can reap great rewards in only a short time, twice per week. Originally designed for bicycle training, Tabata has been repurposed using anything from bodyweight to resistance bands and dumbbells for work sessions. The goal is to completely exhaust you by the seventh or eighth round. Fit Body Trainer Nicci Robinson uses Tabata training to keep fit and challenge herself and her clients. Here, she's given us a breakdown of the benefits of Tabata.
Meet the Expert
What Is Tabata?
Tabata is nothing new. It was actually developed decades ago by the now world-renowned scientist Izumi Tabata to train Olympic speed skaters. Today, you’re probably familiar with a version of the training method: HIIT (high-intensity interval training). Tabata takes HIIT a step further. Tabata intervals are shorter (that means shorter rests, too) and more intense than those you’re used to. It’s intense to deliver results. Over the past 20 years, study after study has confirmed this type of exercise’s ability to improve cardiovascular fitness, boost metabolism, and change body composition. Research shows that Tabata burns over 13 calories per minute.
What is Tabata?
Tabata is a method of high-intensity interval training that uses short work intervals and rest periods. It is considered very intense since the work intervals are meant to be performed with all-out effort and the rests between each work interval are minimal.
What Are the Benefits of Tabata?
Strengthens the Cardiovascular System
"It is great to keep the heart rate up, which aids in building upon the cardiorespiratory pattern," says Robinson. Tabata can increase your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, meaning the amount of oxygen you use during exercise increases. This leads to a healthier heart and lungs.
Raises Your Metabolism
The intensity of Tabata training forces your body out of equilibrium. You will rely on your anaerobic energy system, which means your body will need to work hard to return to the norm. While your body readjusts, your metabolism will stay high, burning calories even while you rest. This effect is called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), and it's one reason high-intensity training is so efficient. Your body keeps working even after the workout is over.
Improves Your Endurance
Tabata was originally designed to help athletes boost their endurance and it does just that. By increasing a measurement called V02 max, Tabata training results in better endurance. V02 max is a measurement of how much oxygen your body can use during exercise. The more oxygen you can use, the better your endurance will be.
What Are the Drawbacks of Tabata?
Not Beginner Friendly
Tabata is intense. So intense that it is not recommended for beginners. The difficulty could deter newbies from wanting to keep exercising and could be demoralizing if you can't keep up. The nature of Tabata is that you can go all out with minimal rest, which is not ideal for those just starting out.
If you'd like to ease into Tabata style training, try performing the intervals at a pace that is comfortable for you, while still pushing yourself. Rest when you need to, and pick back up when you feel ready. After you build your cardiovascular endurance, you'll be able to up the intensity.
Not Recommended for Those With Some Health Conditions
"Tabata can be high intensity and a good cardiorespiratory health cycle is needed to be proficient in this style of training. For those who have respiratory issues, it is best to consult a physician before starting this type of regimen," says Robinson. The same is true if you have high blood pressure or heart disease.
Should Not Be Done Every Day
Because Tabata is so intense, your body will need time to recover in between sessions. It's best to wait 48 hours or so before performing intense activity again unless you are very athletic. Remember to always listen to your body and back off if anything feels unusual.
Who Is Tabata Good For?
Tabata is good for anyone wanting to make the most of their time working out. Especially those who are ready for the next level with their cardiovascular training. Tabata is very intense, so it's most appropriate for those with a moderate to advanced fitness level. If you have any underlying health conditions, you must get permission from your doctor before performing any intense exercise. However, since everyone's version of near maximum effort is unique, you can work to your personal limits and still get a great workout. Just be sure to listen to your body and build up to multiple rounds of Tabata over time to avoid overtraining and injury.
Beginners can mimic the traditional work and rest timing scheme of Tabata without going as hard during the work sessions to get a similar workout with less risk. As you become more fit, you can push harder to get the most benefit from your Tabata training.
How It Works
Unlike traditional interval workouts, which may have you push yourself for 30 seconds to a minute and then rest for the same amount of time, Tabata sessions consist of 20 seconds of maximum-exertion training followed by 10 seconds of recovery. Repeat the process eight times for one four-minute Tabata. You can stop there or do up to five Tabatas for a 20-minute sweat session (you will be sweating).
The short recovery time is key (and what professor Tabata attributes the effectiveness to), which is while you’ll need a good timer handy—the interval timer does all the counting for you. But the real difference between Tabata and HIIT is the intensity. Rather than pushing yourself to eight or nine on the rate of perceived exertion scale, you need to max out your efforts so you reach an 11 (on a one-to-10 scale, by the way).
Recovery periods with Tabata are traditionally a complete rest. More loosely, trainers have introduced varying lengths of work sessions and rest periods. Sometimes the rest periods are used to perform active recovery of less-intense movements. However, the most research and traditional Tabata training method are the 20 seconds on, 10 seconds complete rest, for four-minute rounds.
You can add additional rounds, up to 20 minutes, using a different exercise movement for each round. For example, you might perform jumping jacks for your work sessions for the first four-minute Tabata round, followed by burpees for your second four-minute Tabata round, and so on. Since Tabata work intervals are meant to be performed with near-maximum effort, it should be next to impossible to go beyond 20 minutes. If you are not exhausted at the 20-minute mark, you likely haven't worked hard enough during your intervals to elicit the effects of Tabata training.
How to Get Started
You can turn any workout into Tabata (as long as you’ve got your timer). Robinson has this advice: "First, you can download any Tabata app on a smartphone or tablet. From there, you can set the timers to desired rounds, seconds work, and seconds’ rest. You can pick, however, many exercises you choose to incorporate into the Tabata cycle. Just follow the working and resting timer and go to work!"
Start with something you’re comfortable with, like running on the treadmill, and work your way up to incorporating different rounds. A truly body-changing Tabata workout will incorporate plyometric movements like burpees, jump squats and lunges, and mountain climbers, along with body-toning moves like push-ups, crunches, and tricep dips. You can use gym equipment, weights (start light), and any accessories you want. Or just grab a jump rope for a mistake-proof Tabata workout.
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Emberts T, Porcari J, Dobers-tein S, Steffen J, Foster C. Exercise intensity and energy expenditure of a tabata workout. J Sports Sci Med. 2013;12(3):612-3.
Emberts T, Porcari J, Dobers-Tein S, Steffen J, Foster C. Exercise intensity and energy expenditure of a tabata workout. J Sports Sci Med. 2013;12(3):612-613. Published 2013 Sep 1.
- American Council on Exercise. 7 Things to Know About Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). August 2014.
Kreher JB, Schwartz JB. Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health. 2012;4(2):128-138. doi:10.1177/1941738111434406