Tabata Training and How It Works

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If you've gotten into interval training, you may have heard of something called Tabata training, also known as the Tabata Protocol. This workout is a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) designed to get your heart rate up in that very hard anaerobic zone for short periods of time.

By doing this, you train all of your energy systems, something that regular cardio workouts usually don't do. Not only does that make you more fit, it helps you burn more calories both during and after your workouts.

The Tabata Protocol Format

The reason this type of HIIT workout works so well is because of the work-to-rest ratio. You only get 10 seconds of rest between each 20-second bout of exercise. That very short interval isn't enough to allow you to fully recover, which is one reason it's great for building endurance and getting you in shape.

The Tabata format is as follows:

  • 20 seconds of a very high intensity exercise (e.g., sprints, burpees, squat jumps, etc.)
  • 10 seconds of rest
  • Repeat 8 times for a total of 4 minutes

Tabata Training History

The idea for Tabata training originated from the world of athletes, as many of our workout ideas do. Dr. Izumi Tabata, a professor at the Faculty of Sport and Health Science at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, along with the head coach of the Japanese speed skating team, wanted to find out if very short bursts of high intensity exercise, followed by even shorter rests, would improve the skaters' performance.

To test the effectiveness of this training regime, Dr. Tabata took study subjects through a high intensity (170% of VO2 max) 4-minute Tabata workout using a stationary bike. A second group of athletes followed a different workout, working at an even higher intensity (200% of VO2 max) for 4 to 5 bouts of 30 seconds, followed by 2 minutes of rest.

The results, published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise in 1996, showed that the Tabata athletes improved their VO2 max, which is the body's ability to use oxygen more effectively. That translated into improved performance on the ice.

How Tabata Targets Energy Systems

The other interesting finding was that the Tabata Protocol improved two of the body's main energy systems. It targets the anaerobic energy system, which is responsible for short, high intensity exercise such as sprints. It also targets the aerobic energy system, used for endurance exercise such as long, slow running.

In traditional interval training, moderate intensity and steady state cardio both target the aerobic system, but, unless you work way out of your comfort zone, they don't always improve the anaerobic system.

However, as Dr. Tabata found, doing high intensity interval training with a rest period shorter than the work period can target both systems. That gives both athletes and the average exerciser more bang for their buck.

The bottom line? Tabata workouts offer more performance benefits in less time. But that doesn't mean these workouts are for everyone.

Precautions

Because the intensity intervals require an all-out effort (level 9-10 on this perceived exertion scale), and because the short recovery periods add up to a major oxygen debt, a 4-minute workout may feel like the longest 4 minutes of your life.

Tabata training is very advanced and best suited to experienced exercisers. Beginners should start with lighter interval training and gradually work their way up to this level of intensity. Try 20 seconds on/10 seconds off with easier exercises such as walking or low impact moves like marching in place, step touches, or knee lifts.

Tabata Workout Tips

While the original study involved a stationary bike, you can do the Tabata Protocol with almost any activity or cardio machine. For example, in this Tabata cardio workout, there are a variety of bodyweight exercises that, if done at full intensity, will get your heart rate soaring.

  • Warm up: Make sure you are thoroughly warmed up (for at least 10 minutes) before trying this type of workout.
  • Start slow: If you're new to this type of training, start with 5 to 6 cycles of each exercise and increase rest to 20 to 30 seconds. As you get a feel for the workout and build stamina, gradually shorten the rest periods and increase the number of cycles to add more intensity.
  • Rest between sets: If you do more than one Tabata set (as many workouts call for), rest for at least 60 seconds between sets.
  • Monitor your intensity frequently: Intensity accumulates as you go through each cycle, peaking as you reach the end of the workout when muscles are fatigued and form gets sloppy (making you more vulnerable to injury).
  • Take rest days: Do this workout no more than 1 to 2 times a week, with rest in between to avoid overtraining and injury.
  • Use an app: Tabata timing apps such as Tabata Pro, available for both iPhone and Android, help you keep track of your Tabatas,

Tabata Frequency and Recovery

Tabata training is a great way to spice up your workouts, burn more calories, and get more out of your exercise time. Because the intervals are so short, you really feel them, but the workout flies by. Try adding Tabata training once a week to see how your body responds.

If you feel like you're getting too breathless, extend your recovery times or take extra breaks. Listen to your body when doing any type of high intensity exercise. If you feel any pain or discomfort, take a break, try different exercises, or back off for the day. High intensity interval training is very taxing on the body, so it's easy to overdo it you're not careful.

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3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. 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.

  2. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, et al. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996;28(10):1327-30. doi:10.1097/00005768-199610000-00018

  3. Astorino TA, Allen RP, Roberson DW. Effect of high-intensity interval training on cardiovascular function, VO2Max, and muscular force. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(1):138-145. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318218dd77.