What is Tabata?

Tabata class

A Tabata class in New York City

People are talking a lot about Tabata these days. It's a burst of intense activity followed by a very brief rest and repeated for eight bursts total. It's a balls-to-the-wall approach to fitness and it's been getting hyped all over the fitness industry and through the media. But do you actually know what it is?

Tabata: a type of HIIT or Interval Training

First, a little history. Interval training has been around for a long time ... since 1912!  There was a guy named Hannes Kolehmainen, a vegetarian runner who used bursts of speed during his training program. It worked pretty well because he won three Olympic gold medals.  Then in 1937 more runners developed "fartlek running" using the same general idea, but in a group training setting. A bunch of runners would head out into the woods to do the trails, the guy at the end would have to sprint to the front of the line, then the next guy and so on creating a training effect. Izumi Tabata didn't show up until 1996. He conducted a small study with just seven people, all Olympic-level speed skaters. Tabata literally taped their feet to an erg bike and had them work out six days a week for four minutes. During those four minutes, the athletes pedaled as fast as they possibly could with heavy resistance for 20 seconds, rested for 10 seconds, and repeated for eight rounds total. As a result, the skaters had somewhat increased aerobic capacity but a 28% boost in their anaerobic capacity. Very significant ... but remember, these are seven Olympic hopefuls, not exactly the general population.

Tabata vs. Tabata Type vs. Tabata Style

If you're taking a 60-minute group exercise class called "Tabata Something" you're NOT doing Tabata. Frankly if you did this level of repetitions for an hour, you'd be dead. Literally. At the least you'd be puking your guts out; it's just not possible. What you are likely doing is "Tabata Type" or "Tabata Style." Most trainers tend to stick to the 20 seconds of work / 10 seconds of rest ratio, but some will mix it up. Tabata Type or Style tends to use somewhat less intense exercises and, of course, you're probably not on a bike. These classes will likely have you doing bootcamp style moves or perhaps kettlebells or weight training moves (think squats ... lots of squats). It's not "true" Tabata, but you'll still be sweating buckets and getting a good workout in.

A Few Caveats on Tabata

For one thing, Tabata tends to be very fast-paced, which means you're more prone to injury. Please make sure you're in control of the exercises you're doing. If the guy next to you is flailing away, that doesn't mean you have to. I was in a room with a bunch of personal trainers taking a Tabata class and walked out listening to people complain about hitting themselves with a dumbbell or straining a groin from an overzealous lunge. And these are personal trainers who supposedly know better! Lack of control significantly increases the likelihood of injury, so don't do it! Form first, strength second, speed last ... that's the order you should be thinking. Also, make sure the class or trainer is gearing the workout to you. Maybe your knees don't want you to do deep squats; that's okay, perhaps you can just go a little more shallow, but at a bit faster pace. What you want is to be very, very winded and uncomfortable at the end of 20 seconds, no matter how you get there, as long as it's safe.

Tabata Isn't New

I swear the reason why we're all taking about Tabata is because it's just a good name. It sounds cool to do a "Tabata" and you can brag about it at holiday parties and around the water cooler. The thing to remember is that steady-state cardio is great and something that you should continue to do, but feel free to throw in bursts of all-out activity into the mix. You'll find your metabolism will increase, your waist will likely decrease, and you'll be able to perform your sport or activity, whatever it is, a little bit better. Have you done Tabata training? Would you like to try it? What about it's "kissing cousin" HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)?  I'd love to hear about your workouts. Cheers, Lisa

photo credit: Equinox

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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12 Responses to What is Tabata?

  1. Nick November 14, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    So, if I’m doing 6 – 8 HIIT sets of sprinting/slow jogging etc, is this Tabata, or do I need to be strict with timing and use some form of resistance, like those exercise bikes you explained, for it to be called Tabata?

  2. staci November 14, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    i have been doing tabata for several months now. i really like how fast you can get a workout in and how tired you are at the end. i typically would do 5 sets and vary up the exercises for 20 minutes total. i’m spent at the end. i started taking a class recently and it’s tough but not as hardcore as what i would do on my own (i’m sure to lengthen the class) but it’s a set of 8 for 45 minutes total. we still do the 20/10 for 4 minutes but take 30 seconds in between and its a mixture of lunges, squats, punches, mountain climbers, squat thrusts, etc. she has quite a variety.

    i’ve never tried doing the bike … that’s pretty similar to what SSoS recommends for cardio right?

  3. Lisa Johnson November 14, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    Nick, this is a loaded question … “true” Tabata (from the actual clinical trial) is with an erg bike only. I just read an interview with Prof. Tabata and he said he was pretty much open to any form of exercise and that he has found nearly the same training effect with only 3 Tabata rounds instead of 8 in mice (human tests starting soon). So if you want to follow the original test it’s 20 seconds on 10 seconds rest on a bike for 8 rounds. But the term Tabata is definitely spreading out to include more than just that. Basically anytime you’re pushing yourself really hard and then easing off you’ll have a positive training effect so experiment with what works best for you. :-) Hope that helps. L–

  4. Lisa Johnson November 14, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    Hi Staci,

    Yes it’s nearly identical to what SSoS recommends, I smiled when I saw the researching going by. He’s modified it somewhat but it’s the basic idea. So technically he’d be Tabata Type or just HIIT. Interesting to see what you’re doing and you’re group class would also be considered Tabata Type or Tabata Style if you’re going to get picky about it. :-) Cheers, L–

  5. @comebackmomma November 14, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    Good article Lisa. I have tried tabata style before and really enjoy it. I think you can get a great workout in half the time of steady-paced exercise. I knew a bit about original tabata, but did not realize it was just the bike test. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. Michelle November 14, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    I have tried Tabata TRX and the instructor does it as 8 rounds 20 mins on/10 minute rest it is hard core and we probably get through 8-12 different exercises in a 50 minute class. I also did a HOT Pilates Tabatatype class it was exhausting. I have never been a fan of being hot but, I actually found that I could “stretch” further in the heat. I have not worn my heart rate monitor in a Tabata class but, I would like to see my bodies reaction to a “Tabata” class vs a “Standard” class (in Pilates, TRX etc.). Thanks for the information.

  7. Lisa Johnson November 14, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    Michelle, thanks for stopping by. :-) Your class does sound pretty darned intense and it’s really only a semantics dicscussion. Your body doesn’t really care what the structure is, if you’re sweating buckets you’re likely getting a training effect!

  8. Stefanie November 26, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    I am a big fan of HIIT training and would recommend it to anyone who is ready for that next level. I have lowered my resting heart rate quite a few points from incorporating it into my workouts. I teach bootcamp classes, and I do use Tabata in my classes. We mix it in with strength circuits. My biggest complaint about Tabata is that some people will only do a 4 min. workout and be done. I think it needs to be an addition to a strength workout personally. It is a great addition though!

  9. Lisa Johnson November 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Great point Stefanie, it definitely needs to be part of a bigger scope of fitness activities. They still suggest one steady state aerobic workout per week for instance and if you have joint problems weaving in Yoga and Pilates will go a long way … all things in moderation. :-)

  10. Dorine February 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    I am a Certified Personal Trainer and Bootcamp Instructor and I love tabatas. I incorporate them into a lot of my bootcamp drills and also use them as part of my warmups with clients instead of the usual treadmill/elliptical warmups. My clients like it as well.

  11. Kiki June 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    I am starting my weight loss journey and will track my progress. I will be incorporating Tabata in exercise regimen. I would like to know what is the likely amount of calories I will burn if I complete 8-4min sessions doing: Mountain Climbers, Burpees, Jumping Jacks, High Knees, Push Ups, & Squats Press? I will be using a tracking program, so this information would be helpful.

    Thank you in advance for your response, Lisa.

  12. Lisa Johnson June 28, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Hi Kiki,

    That’s not a straight up answer because it depends on your body weight and intensity level. The easiest way to tell is with a calorie tracking device like a heart rate monitor. You can get them for as little as $40 these days, they’re not as pricey as they used to be. :-)

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