Tabata Workouts: Will the Real Tabata Please Stand Up?

Tabata Workouts: Will the Real Tabata Please Stand Up?

Tabata workouts are popular these days and for good reason. They’re the most time-expedient to get a kick-butt workout in the shortest time possible. In case you haven’t heard about Tabatas, they’re a workout style devised by a Japanese scientist, Dr. Izumi Tabata. When he and his research team conducted studies on this fast-paced, intense style of workout, the results showed Tabata workouts, despite their brevity, improved anaerobic AND aerobic fitness level. That’s powerful since moderate-intensity exercise doesn’t tap into anaerobic energy pathways. Plus, the Tabata group experienced a greater increase in aerobic capacity relative to the moderate intensity group.

What’s astounding is, in the initial study, the control group worked out five times weekly for an hour each day, while the Tabata group exercised four times a week doing workouts lasting only, hold onto your hats, four minutes! The Tabata workouts consisted of 8 cycles of 20 seconds of intense exercise separated by 10 seconds of recovery. Despite the brevity of the Tabata protocol, the Tabata exercisers made greater overall fitness gains. Plus, the Tabata protocol, unlike moderate-intensity training, enhanced anaerobic capacity. One hour versus four minutes – greater gains? That’s remarkable.

 True Tabata Workout Intervals are Tough

Before celebrating only having to work out four minutes to enhance your fitness, there is a catch. You have to work super hard during the active intervals. Therein lies the problem. There’s a tendency to call any workout with the 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off protocol a Tabata when in reality these workouts might best be called Tabata style or Tabata inspired.

When Dr. Izumi Tabata put forth the Tabata protocol, he tested it on participants pedaling an exercise bike. The participants pedaled as hard as they could against resistance for 20 seconds and recovered for 10 seconds. The intensity of the active intervals was 170% of V02 max, a lung-sucking intensity by any standards. Most people when they do a Tabata-style workout are probably NOT working out at this intensity, which is why the majority of Tabata workouts are Tabata-style rather than true Tabatas.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get an effective workout Tabata style without exercising at 170% of your V02 max.  Many Tabata-style workouts repeat the four-minute cycles two or more times with a minute of rest between each cycle and include a 5 or 10-minute warm-up and cool-down. So, a Tabata-style workout could last 20 minutes or more, depending upon how many times you cycle through. This is enough to offer aerobic benefits and you might enhance your anaerobic capacity as well depending upon how hard you work. On the other hand, you probably won’t improve your anaerobic capacity to the same degree as you would doing a Tabata workout the way Dr.Tabata intended it. True Tabata workouts are short, only 4 minutes. That’s by necessity since you’re working so hard that you almost HAVE to stop after 4 minutes. With 20-minute Tabata-style workouts, you’re holding back somewhat on intensity so you can go longer.

More likely you’ll work out at an intensity that’s tough but not so hard that you hurl. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse had 16 volunteers perform a Tabata-inspired workout consisting of 20 minutes of a compound, full-body exercises using the 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off protocol. The participants reached an intensity of around 74% of their V02 max, significantly less than 170% as in the original Tabata study but still enough to improve aerobic fitness.

Tabata Workouts Are Versatile

Despite not all Tabatas being true Tabata workouts, you can do a Tabata inspired workout with almost any selection of exercises – no exercise bike required. Mountain climbers, burpees, skipping rope, fast jumping jacks, and sprinting are only a few of the exercises you can do during the active intervals. You can also do a plyometric, dumbbell or body weight workout Tabata style. Keep in mind that particularly with bodyweight or dumbbell exercises, you may not be working at a high percentage of your aerobic capacity, although you’re getting your heart rate up enough to get aerobic benefits.

When you’re doing a bodyweight Tabata-style workout or using dumbbells, should you do the same exercise for all 8 active intervals? The advantage is working the same muscles repetitively fatigues them thoroughly, which enhances muscle endurance. However,  switching between exercises reduces central fatigue and helps you maintain a higher intensity. When you use more muscle groups, you also increase the metabolic demand and burn more calories.

One popular way to structure a Tabata-style workout is to switch between two exercises and change the two exercises to new ones once you’ve completed an 8-interval cycle. For maximal metabolic benefits, stick with compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups. Since Tabata-style workouts are built around specific time intervals, 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest, you’ll do as many reps as possible during each active interval.

Don’t Overdo Tabata Workouts

Although Tabata-style workouts are not as intense as the true Tabata protocol, they’re still challenging. So, make sure you’re resting for at least 48 hours between Tabata-style sessions. Before doing Tabata, make sure you’ve developed a baseline level of conditioning. It’s not an ideal workout for beginners.

The beauty of Tabata workouts is how versatile they are and how you can easily work a few Tabata cycles in even when you’re pressed for time. The key to maximizing the benefits is to push yourself hard during the active intervals so you’re tapping into anaerobic energy systems. Doing this will greatly increase your level of conditioning and make you a better athlete.

 The Bottom Line

Tabata-style workouts borrow from the structure of the Tabata protocol but don’t necessarily reach the same intensity level. Still, Tabatas are a time expedient, fun way to increase your fitness level, especially when you’re short on time. Enjoy the benefits of getting your heart rate up and moving every muscle in your body with this amazing workout.



ACE Fitness. “Is Tabata All It’s Cracked Up to Be?” November 1, 2013.

Fitness RX. October 2015. “A Better Way to Do Burpees + Fat-Burning Bodyweight Interval Workout”

Active Running and Sports. “What is Tabata Training?”

Huff Post Health Living. “High-Intensity Tabata Training Deemed An Effective Workout, Study Says”


Related Articles By Cathe:

The Biggest Mistake People Make When Doing Tabata Training

Tabata Training: A Workout in Four Minutes?

Is It Okay to Do Hiit Training Every Day?

High-Intensity Interval Training: How Intense Does It Have to Be?


Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs:

XTrain Tabatacise Workout DVD

HiiT and Interval Workout DVDs


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