What Is Tabata And How Will It Transform Your Workouts?
Twenty seconds. That’s nothing, right? But if you’re familiar with Tabata, you’ll be well aware it can feel like an eternity.
For those yet to make friends (or enemies) with Tabata training, then get ready to welcome it into your workout schedule with open arms. Trust me when I say it will be a love-hate relationship, but it will change the way you train.
Tabata is a massive part of my FIERCE program, and for good reason. It’s intense, efficient, fun (in that crazy-hard way), and it boosts your fitness fast!
What is Tabata?
Tabata is a style of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that involves 20 seconds of maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a certain number of rounds. It was founded by Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata, who compared the effects of moderate vs high intensity training.
Both groups in his study exercised five days a week for six weeks, but one group trained for an hour at a moderate intensity, while the other trained at a high intensity for just four minutes, alternating between 20 seconds of maximum effort and 10 seconds of rest.
What did they find? That HIIT training can be an effective way to improve anaerobic and aerobic systems significantly, whereas moderate intensity exercise only improves your aerobic fitness.
My FIERCE and FIERCE Zero Equipment program consists of full-body Tabata-style training, using various muscle groups to give you an all-over workout. It’s made up of either:
- Eight exercises, each completed in two-minute bursts, separated by 60-second rest periods; or
- Six exercises, each completed in three-minute bursts, separated by 60-second rest periods.
Don’t be fooled into thinking a two or three-minute round will be easy. If you’re doing it properly and working at your max, it will be tough. It’s one of those workouts where you’ll be gritting your teeth, maybe even fighting back tears and screams, but you’ll feel like a warrior when you’re done!
How long is a Tabata workout?
Although traditionally a four minute workout (and that’s still definitely a great place to start and enough to feel the burn), an ideal Tabata workout is about 20–25 minutes.
If you go for much longer, your muscles will start to fatigue and not perform at maximum power, or you’ll start to compromise on your form. Hitting maximum effort while still maintaining good form is the goal!
In my FIERCE program, it looks like 16–18 minutes of work, with 5–8 minutes of rest spliced in between where you can change equipment, rehydrate and catch your breath.
The number of exercises and sets can be modified to suit all fitness levels, which is why Tabata really is perfect for everyone.
How Tabata works
Izumi Tabata’s research found his four minute HIIT workouts can improve cardiovascular fitness by working your anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, but what does that mean?
You might remember those terms from Physical Education at school! Your anaerobic system is the short burst, high intensity, explosive energy system (activated by exercises like sprinting and squat cleans). Your aerobic system is that long-burn, conditioning, endurance system (get it moving with swimming and long-distance running).
What Tabata does is force your body to use both systems at once. This means you can improve your fitness across in a shorter amount of time — two for the price of one. Gotta love that!
How often should you do Tabata?
Because Tabata pushes you to your max, it’s best suited to intermediate or advanced fitness levels. If you’re a beginner, you can still try Tabata interval timing (20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest), but you may need to reduce the intensity as you build your fitness.
Some people also don’t enjoy the feeling of high intensity training, and that’s ok! Finding a training style you love is most important to building a consistent routine.
Plus, if you did Tabata every day, you’d be cursing its name forever and never want to do it again!
The same goes for most training styles — keep it fun and mix things up and you won’t have a chance to get bored. Take it from the girl who used to solely run around the block to work out — it gets real old, real fast.
Variety as a training principle means your body is always trying to adapt to a new training stimulus and you avoid the comfort zone where fitness plateaus happen. It’s a bit like when your hairdresser tells you to change your shampoo every now and then to prevent your hair from becoming used to one product and stop reacting to it (who would’ve thought your hair could fall into a comfort zone!)
The same applies to your training.
What you’ll feel with Tabata workouts
Fast-paced, ever-changing, high-intensity … basically everything I love rolled into one! For me, this style of training leaves me feeling on top of the world.
Tabata can help you feel fitter, more energetic and empowered knowing you made it through a tough workout. There is no better feeling than finishing a workout after you absolutely crushed it, so get those endorphins flowing!
Why your muscles might feel like they’re on fire
Ah, you’ve met our old friend lactic acid (aka the burn), who might join you in a high-intensity workout like Tabata from time to time.
“High-intensity” is any exercise that pumps your heart rate up to 70–100% of its maximum.
Operating at this level increases your body’s lactic acid production, so you can’t maintain it for too long. Work to a guide of 1–20 minutes — the higher the heart rate, the lesser the duration.
What else you can expect to feel
Along with making your muscles burn, lactic acid can also make you feel heavier, like it’s harder to move, or a bit sick in the stomach.
When we push ourselves, sometimes there isn’t enough oxygen to be used as energy for the muscles, so the body says, “Wow, hold on, let me produce this acid to make up for that.”
The body then burns up the acid and uses it as fuel, but often not as quickly as it’s being produced, which leads to the overflow and discomfort.
Don’t be scared of lactic acid
Sure, it hurts when that lactic acid kicks in, but it will fade pretty quickly. It’s your body’s defence mechanism telling you you’re working hard — which is not a bad sign!
After a solid workout, if you’re feeling that burning or heavy sensation in your muscles, the best thing to do is try to flush it out. Gentle cardio like a light walk on the treadmill or a slow cycle to push oxygen around your body and into your muscles is a good way to do this.
Don’t forget to warm up before a Tabata workout
As with every workout, you should always warm up the muscles you’re about to use to get them ready and firing, and help prevent injury.
A proper warm-up is more than just a couple of push-ups and star jumps and should have you breaking a sweat, get your heart pumping and prepare your muscles through their full range of motion. .
The better your warm up, the harder you’ll be able to work.
Ideas for your Tabata warm-up and cool down
Some great warm-up drills before a full-body Tabata session include mountain climbers, high-knees and glute kicks, bear crawls and inchworms with a push-up. You’ll have plenty of options with my FIERCE program.
Stretching is often neglected, but it’s so beneficial — it enhances flexibility and range of motion, reduces muscle tension, improves circulation and brings your heart rate back down.
Just make sure you do it when your muscles are warm. The tension you feel when stretching “cold” is due to connective tissue adhering to the muscles and surrounding vessels and nerves. It’s like a glue that needs a little encouragement to act as a lubricant for your muscles so they can move more freely.
Foam rolling and warm-up exercises can kickstart this process, then leave your stretching to after your warmup (rather than before), and post-workout. Your body will thank you for it!
Now you know all about Tabata training, it’s time to lace up your sneakers and give it a go.
Tabata is a fun and efficient way to improve your fitness — fast. It will push you, challenge you and make you laugh and cry all in the same workout. But remember… it will all be over in a matter of minutes. LITERALLY.
Still not convinced? Give this FIERCE Zero Equipment workout a try in the meantime.
I’ll see you on the other side of the clock, warriors!
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.