Tabata Training 101

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? 

What Is 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 percent. 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 eight to 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 five to 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.
As with anytime you're exercising, be sure to listen to your body, hydrate properly and stop if you feel sharp, acute pain, are dizzy, feel lightheaded 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 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate, but working out this hard is generally reserved for only advanced exercisers and athletes. For Tabata training workouts, aim for 75 percent 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.