Fitness Articles

Tabata Training 101

Does This 4-Minute Fitness Technique Deliver?

Would you like to swap your usual workout out for one that's just four minutes long? Of course you would! Well, that's the allure of Tabata training, a type of super high-intensity interval training that is becoming more and more popular.

Said to deliver big results such as improved aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, muscular endurance and fat burning, Tabata training is all the rage these days. But what is Tabata training, exactly? Maybe more importantly, does it live up to the hype and is it really right—and safe—for you? Let's tackle some Tabata training questions one by one!

What Is Tabata Training? What Are the Benefits of Tabata Training?
While it may seem like Tabata training is the latest workout trend that's sweeping gyms everywhere, it's not exactly a brand new concept. In fact, it originated from the exercise research of Dr. Izumi Tabata. Dr. Tabata used a very specific method of interval training for his 1996 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. In the study, he had cyclists perform 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. The participants repeated seven to eight sets of the exertion-rest intervals, equaling just about 4 minutes of actual workout time. The results were so striking that this type of training was named after its creator, hence "Tabata" training.
Subjects who performed Tabata training five days a week for six weeks (a total of 120 minutes of exercise over the month and a half) improved both their aerobic and anaerobic endurance. In fact, subject's anaerobic fitness increased by a whopping 28%. The control group exercised the same number of days, but for a full hour per session at a moderate intensity (for a total of 1,800 minutes over the study period). They also saw fitness improvements—but only in aerobic fitness—and it took them much, much more time exercising to achieve those gains.

Does It Really Work?
A number of studies have suggested that Tabata training does, in fact, work. Further studies have also made a case for Tabata training and other variations of high intensity interval training. A 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that seven sessions of high intensity interval training over two weeks resulted in marked increases in whole body and skeletal muscle capacity for fatty acid oxidation during exercise in moderately active women. A 2009 study from the same journal found that young men cycling to maximum effort for four bouts of 30 seconds with four minutes of rest doubled their metabolic rate for three full hours after training. Also, a 2008 study in the Journal of Physiology found that these short, yet intense types of interval workouts can be a time-efficient way to get in shape and may help participants achieve fitness improvements comparable to longer, less-intense workouts.

A  recent study conducted by Michele Olson, PhD of Auburn University and presented at the American College of Sports Medicine's 2013 World Conference on Exercise examined how many calories subjects burn during and after a Tabata training session. Using 15 physically fit subjects who performed basic squat jumps according to the Tabata protocol, Dr. Olson found that this 4-minute Tabata routine burned a whopping 13.5 calories per minute and doubled the subjects' metabolic rate for 30 minutes after the workout ended. "It would take five times the amount of typical cardio exercise, like a 20-minute brisk walk, to shed the same number of calories that result from a 4-minute Tabata!" Dr. Olson commented.

While a number of research studies have explored Dr. Tabata's 20-seconds-on, 10-seconds-off interval training format for cycling and running activities, fitness professionals, athletes and casual exercisers are now applying the Tabata training concept to all kinds of different exercises, including weight lifting, swimming, athletic drills and more.  Unlike other intervals where you just want to "work harder," by definition, Tabata training is working at an intensity level that is as hard and as fast as you can physically go—generally an anaerobic effort.

Should You Try Tabata Training?
Tabata training promises big results in little time, but true Tabata training requires participants to push themselves to the max—and that level of intensity is definitely not for everyone. Working out at such a high intensity is only appropriate for healthy, intermediate to advanced exercisers who have experience and knowledge in the type of exercise(s) they're doing. Tabata training takes your body to the extreme, so it's best if you've been working out regularly and are very comfortable with the exercises you'll be doing (more on that later). This ensures that you have better awareness of how hard to push your body (or when to back off) and that you have the know-how to maintain form (or modify your weight or exercise) when your body tires as you go through the intervals.

With that said, beginners can try Tabata-inspired intervals at a lower intensity that's more appropriate for their fitness level. However, anything less than maximum effort won't get the true Tabata training results. As always, if you're trying Tabata—or any new exercise—for the first time, it's a good idea to get it approved by your doctor and work with a fitness professional until you feel comfortable doing it on your own.

How Can I Incorporate Tabata Training into My Workouts?
Adding Tabata training into your workouts is easy! Swap one to two of your usual cardio workouts a week for quick Tabata training. Remember, you're doing precisely 20 seconds of maximum effort followed by just 10 seconds of rest for a total of seven to eight intervals. This can be done with almost any form of cardio exercise, including running, swimming, cycling, plyometrics, jumping rope and more.
Before starting a Tabata training workout though, it's important to warm up properly. Spend a good 8-10 minutes slowly increasing your intensity level from easy to moderate. Since this type of working out is super intense, it's important that your body is properly warmed up. Choose a similar type of warm-up as the exercise you're doing, too. So if you're going to be doing sprints, warm up with walking and then jogging. If you're going to be cycling hard hills, warm up with an easier resistance on the bike. The same goes for the cool down, too. At the end of your workout, take 5-10 minutes to slow your heart rate back down by working at a lower intensity doing the same movement you did in your workout. After that, spend a few minutes stretching to complete your workout.
Just like any time you're exercising, be sure to listen to your body, hydrate properly and stop if you feel sharp, acute pain, are dizzy, feel light headed or have other workout warning signs. Also, be sure to practice good form to avoid injury and consider working with a certified fitness professional the first few times you do a Tabata training workout to ensure that you're doing it properly.

Do I Need Any Special Equipment to Measure My Intensity?
While you don't have to have a heart rate monitor to do a Tabata-training workout, it certainly can come in handy. "Maximum effort" is by definition about 90%-95% of your maximum heart rate (calculate your max heart rate here), but working out this hard is generally reserved for only advanced exercisers and athletes. For Tabata training workouts, aim for 75% or more of your maximum heart rate to reap the most benefit. If you don't have a heart rate monitor, follow the rate of perceived exertion chart.For Tabata, you should be working out at an eight or nine level (very hard, extremely hard) and you should not be able to carry on a conversation.

Can I Just Do Tabata Training for All of My Workouts?
Tabata training may help you get some great results, but it certainly shouldn't take the place of all of your workouts. Because it's at such a high intensity, you should only do it a few times a week so that your body has enough time to fully recover (we pretty much guarantee you'll be sore from it!). And consider this: While there is a lot of research on Tabata and its ability to boost a person's fitness level, there's much, much more research that confirms how moderate exercise can improve your fitness and your health—with far fewer risks than high-intensity exercise. So it's still a good idea to continue including traditional (think longer, less-intense) cardio workouts as well as strength-training sessions and flexibility training for a well-rounded fitness plan.

If you're trying to lose weight, Tabata may seem like a quick way to boost metabolism and burn fat. And while it can be, remember that true weight loss comes down to taking in fewer calories than you burn. Because Tabata workouts are so short, they simply just don't burn enough calories on their own to be the only workout you do for weight loss. So rather than viewing Tabata training as a shortcut or a replacement to your regular workouts, think of it as an "extra" boost for your usual workout plan.
Short, effective and intense? While Tabata isn't for everyone and needs to be coupled with a well-rounded fitness plan for weight-loss and optimal health benefits, for those who do it safely and with maximum effort, it can be one heck of a way to challenge yourself and take your fitness to the next heart-pumping level.
Sources ''Go for Broke with Tabata Intervals,'' accessed January 2012.

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. ''Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max,'' accessed January 2012.

US National Library of Medicine. ''Brief intense interval exercise activates AMPK and p38 MAPK signaling and increases the expression of PGC-1alpha in human skeletal muscle,'' accessed January 2012.

US National Library of Medicine. ''Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans,'' accessed January 2012.

US National Library of Medicine. ''Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women,'' accessed January 2012.

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Member Comments

  • This is the best way for martial arts to be practiced, which makes it a very old exercise method. Some of us have been working out like this for a long time (over four decades in my case). And others worked out like this centuries ago, probably even millennia.

    The reason it's the best way for martial arts to be practiced is the principle of specificity: training effect is specific to training stimulus; you get good at doing the specific thing you do in other words. Martial arts in practice are done at full intensity, so it is best to practice them that way.

    All rules have exceptions and so does this one. Martial art exercises should also be done very slowly sometimes, to dissect the movement so to speak and perfect each detail of it. They should also be part of a larger exercise program that includes things like weight training, long walks, and so on. Variety is good, for all exercisers, not just martial artists. But short intense bursts throughout the day is a very useful part of the mix, and martial arts are very good ways to do that exercise.
  • Not sure about anyone else, but I use the "Cicuit training/bootcamp
    " option to log Tabata/HIIT workouts.
    We do this kind of stuff for fun, just to elliviate the boredom of exercising, did not know it had a name, lol. A lot of daily exercise is boring, so you speed it up in between to wake yourself up from the monotony.
  • I usually do intervals on my elliptical, but until today had not tried Tabata. I managed 2-1/2 minutes, then I just continued until I reached 15 minutes. I threw 2 more intervals in for good measure, but not the 20/10 consecutive seconds.
  • I've just started back with some interval areas on the recumbent bike. If I tried Tabata, I would either end up in the hospital or the morgue. Not for me.
  • It would be great if sparkpeople could list tabata workouts in the fitness tracker!
  • Sorry, there used to be a a way to save articles for later, without having to post to an external site. Where has that function gone? I'd like to revisit this article this week!
  • 10 minutes of warm up, 4 minutes of cardio, 10 minutes to cool down. that is closer to 25 minutes of work out than 4 minutes as stated.
  • Does SparkPeople have any of these Tabata workouts in the videos on this site?
    Sounds great for the already fit. If you are just beginning on your journey, just ramping up the effort for short bursts will be plenty. Don't go beyond your ability level.
  • MARYO125
    Tabata is a great workout that you can do at home with little to no equipment. I use the 'Tabata Coach' album of coached workouts by Motion Traxx. They have a certified fitness instructor guiding you through your Tabata routine. AMAZING!! Itís on my iPod so I can use it anywhere, anytime:
  • HEATHERL2011
    I think I will try this today as part of my work out and see how it goes:-)
  • I might think about it.
  • I've done a Tabata class several times and hated it in the most loving way possible. :) It was a GREAT workout, and such a different format from anything else that I have done, hence the loving it. Hated it only because I worked myself hard, I was tired, sweaty, sore (in the good way), and just done when it was over. :) Just wish that it was on the fitness tracker so that I could properly put in my workout. I try to remember each exercise that we do, but when I put all in it says that I've burned maybe 100 calories total, when I know it was so much more than that.
  • This is how karate is often practiced, and it's a very good exercise because it gets the whole body, and concentrates on the midsection (because everything starts from the center). I built a karate dummy out of old tires a few decades ago that I beat up with my hands and feet, baseball bats, and other things. The effort is always full speed and full power. It's an excellent workout, and good self defense training at the same time, so you get added value for the time you invest.

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites, and A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

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