What is Tabata training?

Been wondering what is Tabata training? Here's what you need to know about this high-intensity cardio workout

Two people doing a Tabata workout
(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is Tabata? It’s a 20-minute high intensity workout where you push yourself to your limit for 20 seconds before taking a 10 second break, typically for four rounds of four minutes.

Tabata was developed for the Japanese Olympic speed skating team in the 1980s by scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers. Generally, you don't need equipment for most Tabata workouts although it's a good idea to lace up a pair of the best cross training shoes for support as you switch between fast-paced moves. 

If you're wondering how Tabata is different from high-intensity interval training (HIIT), you're not alone. It’s basically a more intense version of HIIT with shorter and more specifically defined exercises. But they are both similar and good for increasing cardiovascular fitness and heart health, researchers have found.

A small study published in Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (opens in new tab) established that those who did 20 minutes of Tabata training, incorporating bodyweight and plyometric exercises, improved their cardiorespiratory endurance and burned more calories than the usual rate during a normal (i.e. not high intensity) workout.

“During a Tabata workout, you break it up into clearly defined intervals,” explains chartered physiotherapist Helen O’Leary (opens in new tab), clinical director of Complete Pilates. “This is designed to have you work at maximum limits, pushing yourself as hard as you can."

“This is then followed by a short rest, spiking your heart rate and pushing your boundaries!” In this article, we speak to O’Leary to find out more about the benefits of Tabata, if it’s the same as HIIT or more effective, and whether it helps with weight loss.

Helen O’Leary
Helen O’Leary

Helen O’Leary is a chartered physiotherapist, Pilates instructor, and the director of Complete Pilates in London, England. Helen graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2008 and completed a Polestar Pilates Rehabilitation course in 2010. She started her career as a physiotherapist in professional men’s rugby and with Cirque du Soleil, before launching Complete Pilates. After 13 years of dealing with acute trauma injuries as a physiotherapist, Helen works with clients before and immediately after surgery to optimize their recovery. 

What is Tabata training?

A Tabata routine has clearly defined intervals of exercise. O’Leary tells Fit&Well: “You do 20 seconds as hard and fast as possible followed by around a 10 second rest. You generally do this in eight work/rest cycles, which makes up four minutes.

You then get a minute rest (needed!) and go again in three more cycles. Four rounds of four makes up the 20 minutes workout program.”

Benefits of Tabata

O’Leary says: “Tabata seriously works on your cardiovascular endurance! It helps improve your strength as well, and is a good fat burner. Also, because it can be done quickly and with little or no equipment, it is perfect if you are limited in time, space or kit.

“The downside is, it’s seriously hard and designed to push you to your limits. This means that if you have never exercised before, are recovering from an injury or have simply not done this type of training, it may not be the best option for you.

"Instead building up to this would be more beneficial. If you have done lots of HIIT but not any Tabata, you may want to consider just doing one four-minute circuit, first rather than the full four rounds, to help build your resilience to the intensity.”

You can start to see results after several weeks of training, with a study published in The Journal of Physiological Sciences (opens in new tab) concluding that Tabata is "one of the most energetically effective high-intensity intermittent training methods."

Meanwhile, a separate paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (opens in new tab) found that Tabata led to "beneficial effects in the increase in blood irisin concentration, physical performance, and reduced fat content."

Woman doing a Tabata routine

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is Tabata the same as HIIT?

Tabata tends to be higher intensity with shorter recovery periods and it’s a more specific type of HIIT, explains O’Leary.

“It’s kind of confusing but Tabata is a form of HIIT training, but not all HIIT training is Tabata,” she told Fit&Well. “HIIT is generally the umbrella term that surrounds this type of training. Tabata is a shorter workout, which is great if you are limited in time. 

“Tabata training often uses bodyweight exercises rather than weights, whereas HIIT training can use weights. However, the reality is both can use weights. Tabata would tend to be more moveable equipment — kettlebells, dumbbells, skipping rope, resistance bands — rather than heavy weights you have to stack, like squat racks. 

“For cardiovascular equipment, exercise bikes are often preferred simply because you can get going quicker. Treadmills tend not to be used in Tabata because they take time to fire up and get to the right speed.”

Is Tabata more effective than HIIT?

If you’re doing it right, Tabata is more effective at raising your heart rate than HIIT because it’s generally higher intensity, says O’Leary, “which means that it is very effective. However, it’s not necessarily appropriate for everyone.”

If you’re new to fitness or returning after a break, O’Leary recommends starting with regular HIIT training to build up your endurance and strength before trying a Tabata workout.

“HIIT intervals tend to be longer, which means it is better for beginners as you have more time to focus on your form, adjust your weights if you’re using them, and get help on technique.

"However, you can use exercises such as star jumps, push-ups, high knee running or squat to overhead press to get you into your first four-minute Tabata programme.”

Two men doing a Tabata workout

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is Tabata good for weight loss?

If weight loss is your goal, then as well as being in a calorie deficit, Tabata training can boost results. “Because you are working at such a high intensity, your metabolism and heart rate increases immediately and remains quite high,” says O’Leary.

"You are generally working in your anaerobic threshold as you do not have enough recovery time but the exercises are short. This means that your body burns calories not only during but also after the exercise. It uses your body fat, which is excess energy in your body, to gain muscle.

“As with any exercise, the main thing is to find something you love,” says O’Leary. “If you’ve been working out for a while and want a challenge or a change, give this a go. There are loads of routines out there and it is great for challenging yourself.”

Alternatively, If you want to combine the fat-burning effects of a high-intensity Tabata workout with a strength-building session, consider taking on a high-intensity resistance training (HIRT) routine. 

You can use your bodyweight for some HIRT workouts, with moves like squats and burpees, but it's a good idea to keep a set of the best adjustable dumbbells nearby if you want to increase the intensity and increase muscle mass.