High knees are one of the best Tabata exercises

Tabata Workout: High Intensity in a Short Period of Time

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

While starting your day with some steady-state cardio like swimming or cycling sounds like a great way of getting in the American Heart Association's recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, investing a hour every day to do a few laps around the block (or in the pool for that matter!) isn't realistic for everyone. For those days when you need a quick endorphin fix, it may make sense to try a Tabata workout.

A traditional Tabata workout is a type of high-intensity interval training (aka HIIT) that consists of eight 30-second rounds for a total of four minutes of exercise. There's nothing quicker than that! Even better—it delivers more aerobic benefits than long, moderate-intensity training. Sounds intriguing, right? Let's talk more about this buzz-worthy workout and find out why Tabata is such an effective fitness option when you're tight on time. 

What are Tabata workouts?

The Tabata protocol is named after Izumi Tabata, a Japanese scientist who tested this type of training in the mid-1990s. He designed a training protocol that involves short periods of high-intensity exercise, followed by even shorter periods of rest. In Tabata's original study conducted in 1996, his subjects performed a cycling workout at 170% of their VO2 max for 20 seconds, rested for 10 seconds and repeated the same thing for seven to eight sets. The total Tabata workout lasted about four minutes.

Like other high-intensity training, there are no strict rules about how long a Tabata workout has to last – nor does it have to be completed on a bicycle, making it modifiable for a variety of fitness levels. For instance, instead of eight rounds of 20-seconds on, 10-seconds off, you could perform 10, 15, 20 or 30 Tabata sets. You could also run, jump or do burpees to increase your heart rate and up your exercise intensity.

Looking for a total-body routine? No problem. You can mix upper- and lower-body movements in Tabata training. You might do five rounds of a power push-up to work your arms, five rounds of squat jumps to burn out the legs and five rounds of mountain climbers for core training. No matter which exercises you choose or how many 30-second rounds you complete, the goal is to work at maximum effort and try to perform as many reps as possible. You should need the 10-second rest periods, which is when you do no activity at all. When doing Tabata, the motto is: work hard; rest hard.

Pro-tip: Try Tabata songs to amp up your workout! While there are some songs that have been created for the workout itself, playing energetic music with a variety of beats and speed can help motivate you to match the intensity of your sets!

Tabata vs HIIT

Tabata and traditional high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are quite similar, but there are a few notable differences. For one, Mr. Tabata himself describes the training method as high-intensity intermittent training, which refers to the fact that individuals completely stop moving between rounds. With HIIT workouts, there is a period of low-intensity exercise between the high-intensity intervals. Essentially, high intensity interval training involves continuous movement at different intensities, while Tabata encourages total rest.

Another key difference is the level of exercise intensity at which an individual works. During HIIT, the interval is defined as an effort greater than 80% of maximal heart rate. In contrast, Tabata training involves getting above 100% of maximal heart rate and repeating that effort over and over again.

Sprint-interval training, or SIT, is another type of high-intensity cardio exercise. Interestingly, SIT requires an even greater intensity than Tabata. During a SIT workout, individuals perform an all-out run for up to 30 seconds, but then rest for long periods of time. The rest periods are often between three and five minutes, allowing for sufficient recovery between sprints.

To HIIT or to SIT? That is the Question

According to a meta-analysis, both HIIT workouts and SIT workouts lead to similar improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness. Not sure whether you'd prefer HIIT or SIT? Consider the space and equipment you have on hand, as well as any physical limitations. As the name implies, SIT involves running and running fast (not actual sitting!). If running isn't your thing, try a higher-intensity Tabata workout for your workout.

Why is Tabata effective?

There are many reasons Tabata is considered an effective exercise routine. Below are just a few major benefits of these high-intensity workouts to get you motivated to move:

  • Tabata increases aerobic and anaerobic fitness

    —In the original study, subjects completed the Tabata-style workout five days per week for six weeks. At the end of the study, subjects' VO2 max increased significantly. These results were further confirmed by a review of studies, which reported six to 12 weeks of Tabata increases VO2 max by 9.2 – 15% and increases maximal accumulated oxygen deficit by 20.9 – 35%.

    A higher VO2 max indicates the body is becoming more efficient at oxygen uptake, especially when performing cardio. The more oxygen muscle cells get, the more nutrients the body can aerobically convert into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – also known as cellular energy. Therefore, measuring VO2 max is the gold standard for assessing cardiovascular fitness. In fact, cardiorespiratory fitness as measured by VO2 max is believed to be the strongest independent predictor of life expectancy.

    That's not all. The subjects of Tabata's original study also experienced a 28% increase in anaerobic capacity, or the ability to generate energy without oxygen. One measure of anaerobic capacity is maximal accumulated oxygen deficit, which is the difference between total energy demand and total oxygen uptake during the workout.
  • Tabata is good for the immune system

    —If you've ever felt a little run down after intense exercise, you're not alone. However, an intense Tabata session may have the opposite effect. In a clinical study, 12 physically inactive individuals were recruited to complete three Tabata workouts per week for six weeks. The results of the study showed a significant increase in certain types of white blood cells that help fight immune system challenges.
  • Tabata supports fat loss

    —Exercise should never be a punishment for overeating or indulging. However, there are proven metabolic benefits associated with Tabata training that will make you feel better about pizza Fridays. In a short clinical study, Tabata exercise following a high-fat meal elicited higher fat oxidation than the control group. This means Tabata exercisers were better able to break down fat, supporting fat loss and a leaner body composition. Pair Tabata with the right workout supplements to further boost your muscle gains and weight loss goals.  

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10 best Tabata exercises

Tabata was originally tested during a cycling workout, which made it easy for participants to quickly spike their heart rates. If you don't love the bike, though, there are plenty of other options. The best Tabata exercises are the ones you can perform at maximum intensity. Therefore, explosive exercises – anything you can move through quickly – should be your go-to for an effective workout.

Some of the best Tabata exercises are:

1. High knees

How to:

  • Stand up tall.
  • Keeping core engaged, drive one knee toward your chest.
  • Quickly switch legs and continue switching left to right.
  • Stay light on your toes and pump arms to help propel your legs.

2. Squat jumps

How to:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • Sit hips back like you're reaching for a chair behind you.
  • Bend knees and drop hips down to get deep into the squat position.
  • Push through your legs to power feet off the ground.
  • Brace your core for a soft landing back onto your feet.

3. Bench hop-overs

How to:

  • Place hands on either side of a bench, positioning them closer to one end.
  • Feet are together on the ground next to the bench.
  • Tuck knees toward chest and jump feet over the bench, landing on the opposite side.
  • Keeping core engaged, continue jumping feet over the bench, side-to-side.

4. Burpees

How to:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • Squat down and place hands on the ground in front of you.
  • Jump feet back into a high plank position.
  • Bending from the elbows, drop chest to the ground and back up to complete one push-up.
  • Jump feet toward hands, landing with heels down and hips open for a deep squat.
  • Stand up from the squat to reset.

5. Plank jacks

How to:

  • Place hands on the ground directly underneath your shoulders.
  • Extend legs behind you with toes on the ground.
  • Maintaining a strong plank position, jump feet out wide to the side.
  • Jump feet back together to reset.

6. Mountain climbers

How to:

  • Place hands on the ground directly underneath your shoulders.
  • Extend legs behind you with toes on the ground.
  • Maintaining a strong high plank, drive one knee toward your chest.
  • Quickly switch legs.
  • Keeping hips in line with shoulders, continue switching legs.

7. Thrusters

How to:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • Using a neutral grip (palms facing in), stack a pair of dumbbells on top of each shoulder.
  • Sit hips back and down into a squat to "load" the legs.
  • Push through feet and drive the dumbbells overhead until arms and legs are fully extended.
  • Carefully lower dumbbells back to shoulders to reset.

8. Snatches

How to:

  • Stand with feet slightly wider than hips and place a dumbbell in the middle, slightly in front of your feet.
  • Squat down and pick up the dumbbell.
  • From the deep squat position, high-pull and flip the dumbbell overhead as you stand up. Use your legs to drive the weight up.
  • Slowly pull the dumbbell back down to place it on the ground and reset. Keep the dumbbell close to your body as it goes up and down.

9. Kettlebell swings

How to:

  • Stand with feet about hip-width apart. Use both hands to hold a kettlebell in the middle of your hips.
  • Shift hips back, allowing chest to slightly fall forward. Knees are slightly bent in the loaded position.
  • Push hips forward with power, so the kettlebell floats to shoulder height.
  • Pull the kettlebell back down to reset.

10. Power push-ups

How to:

  • Place hands on the ground, directly underneath your shoulders.
  • Extend legs behind you with toes on the ground.
  • Bending from the elbows, lower chest to the ground.
  • Press through your palms to reset. Maintain a strong plank all the way through and let elbows go back – not flaring out to the side.

How often should you do Tabata workouts?

One of the advantages of Tabata training is you only need two sessions per week to see results. In fact, researchers compared the effects of doing Tabata two days per week versus four days per week and found no significant difference. By all means, do four or more bouts of Tabata if you want. But for those tight on time, you'll see improvements in aerobic and anaerobic capacity completing just two Tabata cardio workouts per week.

Which supplements can help support my exercise goals?

Whether you do two or 10 Tabata workouts, be sure to focus on your recovery periods, especially if you're combining this workout with resistance training. High-intensity interval training of any kind requires adequate rest and muscle recovery. Certain nutrients can help support the post-exercise muscle recovery process, including all-around good for you branched-chain amino acids. Not only will they help support the recovery process, but BCAAs also have the added benefit of maximizing your workout and giving you a push when you need it!

Creatine, an amino acid derivative, is another great option if you want to further optimize your exercise performance and support your overall fitness goals. Its primary job is to convert ADP in ATP to energize your cells, an essential part of maintaining exercise endurance—something you'll definitely want to prioritize when performing any type of exercise, but especially any HIIT exercise!

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.