What is Tabata?

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.