What is Tabata and Should You Be Doing It?
Maybe you have heard the term Tabata bandied about at the gym and nodded your head in agreement about its merits without really knowing what it is. Maybe you’ve already decided that it is another new faddish exercise trend that will be in one minute and out the next and not worth learning about let alone trying. But Tabata has a number of benefits backed by science and can be another option if you want to employ a variety of methods in your fitness training.
How Tabata got its start
Sometimes referred to as the Tabata Protocol or the 4-Minute Workout, Tabata is a type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves short bursts of extremely rigorous anaerobic exercise following by an even shorter and less intense recovery period.
The Tabata Protocol got its start in Japan in the sport of speed skating and was the brainchild of coach Irisawa Koichi, who started using the method to train his athletes in the 1990s. Koichi asserted that the training method not only improved short-term explosive strength but also long-term endurance.
A coach who worked under Koichi—Izumu Tabata—is the method’s namesake because he was asked to measure and determine its effectiveness and went on to publish his findings. Tabata was previously a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and Nutrition and is currently a professor of sport and health science at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University.
How effective is Tabata?
You might be thinking, “What level of fitness can be accomplished by something known as the 4-Minute Workout?” It’s a logical question. Turns out, more than you might think.
Tabata’s research—“Effects of Moderate-Intensity Endurance and High-Intensity Intermittent Training on Anaerobic Capacity and VO2max”—was published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise in 1996.
During the study, the group that did Tabata three times a week for six weeks increased their aerobic capacity by 28 percent and their VO2max by 15 percent. The other group did a steady-paced one-hour-long cardiovascular workout six days a week and only achieved a 10 percent increase in VO2max and no measurable improvement in aerobic capacity.
In addition to the increase in VO2max and aerobic capacity, Tabata improves glucose metabolism and can kick start fat burning. And Tabata (and all HIIT workouts) stimulate the EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect meaning that your body continues to burn calories even after the workout is over. EPOC is the amount of oxygen your body needs to return itself to its normal resting rate of metabolic function.
A study conducted by Michele Olson, Ph.D., and titled “Tabata Interval Exercise: Energy Expenditure and Post-Exercise Response,” measured the energy cost of the Tabata Protocol as well as the energy expenditure following a Tabata workout.
Olson’s research measured the mean kilocalorie expenditure before, during and after the workout. The mean kilocalorie expenditure for the 30 minutes prior to the workout and resting in a supine position was 39 kilocalories. During the workout, which consisted of eight rounds of jump squats, study participants burned 13.4 kilocalories per minute. Following the workout, measured in the same way as pre-workout and also for 30 minutes, kilocalorie expenditure was 80.5.
The structure of a Tabata workout
During a typical high-intensity interval workout, the intervals of work and recovery vary but some of the most common are 30 seconds to a minute of intense exercise followed by a similar or slightly shorter length of recovery. For example, a HIIT workout might entail 45-second intervals of work followed by 15 seconds of recovery or even one minute of work followed by 30 seconds of recovery. The intervals can vary greatly in general HIIT workouts.
In Tabata however, the interval and recovery periods are strictly set at 20 seconds of intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest or low-intensity recovery. Those 20 seconds are at maximum effort and the recovery period is typically not just standing around but continuing to move in some fashion for 10 seconds.
How Tabata benefits runners
Of course, if your focus is to become a better runner, you probably shouldn’t replace running with Tabata but instead, use it as a supplement to your regular running routine.
A study conducted in 2014 at Hong Kong University found that runners who incorporated HIIT training into their fitness routine three to four times a week for six weeks, had better core strength, running performance and a higher level of endurance. Their HIIT training focused on core muscles and the muscles that support the breathing process.
In addition to aerobic and anaerobic gains, HIIT and Tabata can help prevent overuse injuries by working the entire body and can help strengthen muscle weakness or imbalances. In addition to the forward and backward motion of running, HIIT and Tabata incorporate vertical and lateral movement as well.
The jumping motions sometimes used in a Tabata Protocol—like burpees, jumping lunges, and jump squats, to name a few—can help develop and enhance explosive power and speed.
A HIIT or Tabata workout can provide a safe alternative to running outside when weather conditions are icy and treacherous or even when you are traveling and don’t have time to squeeze in a run.
How do I do a Tabata workout?
One of the many benefits of a Tabata workout, in addition to its short length, is that you can do it anywhere and no equipment is necessary.
You can make up your own Tabata workout or do any of the many that can be found online or in your local gym/fitness center.
Any kind of intense exercise that you can do for 20 seconds will work. Some examples include: sprinting in place, high knees, burpees, jumping jacks, jumping rope, jump squats, star jumps, jumping lunges, knee-tuck jumps, etc. The 10-second active recovery might include a light boxer shuffle or just shaking out your arms and legs.
You can do a Tabata workout on a stationary bike, treadmill or the track, with 20 minutes of sprint cycling or running followed by a recovery of low-intensity cycling or jogging.
You can also do a weight-bearing Tabata workout, which might include push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, dumbbell/kettlebell swings, tricep dips, etc.
Although the Tabata Protocol is short, because of its intensity level, you should always include a warm-up and cool-down to get your body ready for the workout and to ease your body back to homeostasis afterward.
Tabata can be incorporated into an already-established fitness routine fairly easily because of its brevity and can be undertaken by most individuals who regularly exercise and have a decent base of fitness. Beginners or those who have underlying chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, etc., should consult a doctor before starting a regular Tabata regimen or an exercise plan in general.
- Tabata Interval Exercise: Energy Expenditure and Post-Exercise Responses, web site ,
- 7 Things to Know About Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), web site ,
- web site ,
- The 4-Minute Fat-Loss Workout, web site ,
- Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max, web site ,