Tabata Workouts And Why Personal Trainers Think You Should Try Them

We asked personal trainers to share their favorite tabata exercises. The result? A quick workout that makes the most of every minute.

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If you’re new to the fitness world, you may have noticed some unfamiliar terms popping up on the fliers on the bulletin board at your local gym. Maybe you’ve seen a mention of the violent-sounding HIIT or guessed at which syllable gets the inflection in Tabata.

While these terms might seem very different, they’re quite closely related—and you should really get to know them. High-intensity interval training (HIIT)—specifically the practice known as Tabata—is actually one of the most successful methods for fat loss.

Tabata workouts have become increasingly popular over the last few years, but how do you know if this type of training is right for you? What exactly is HIIT, and what makes Tabata workouts so great, anyway?

We’ll tell you everything you need to know about Tabata training and how to incorporate this method in your own fitness plan.

Understanding High-Intensity Interval Training

First of all, what is HIIT? The answer is in the name (when you actually spell it out)! HIIT workouts include a cycle of high-intensity movements followed by a rest period followed by more intensity, and on and on until you’re done. The idea is that you physically go all out during the “on” time (and kind of always wish the “off” times were a little longer).

This type of interval training works by increasing your anaerobic capacity—your body’s ability to physically function without oxygen. Why would you ever want your body to perform tasks without oxygen, you ask? Well, exercising to oxygen deficit with HIIT can eventually increase your endurance and help with fat loss.

Generally speaking, there are two types of exercise, certified personal trainer and nutrition expert Kyra Williams tells HealthyWay. “Aerobic [exercise] is like going for a jog or doing 20 continuous minutes of bodyweight exercises,” Williams says. “Anaerobic [exercise] is something you would do where you become out of breath in just a few seconds, like sprinting up a flight of steps.”

Aerobic exercises, such as taking a walk, will also help you lose fat and can be a great stress-relief option, Williams explains. But too much aerobic exercise has a tendency to backfire.  

“If you were to do something like [go] for a 5-mile jog every day, this can actually increase stress on your body and cause you to store fat,” says Williams.

This is where interval training comes into play. “HIIT is not only time saving, but it depletes glycogen from the body very quickly then targets fat stores and is done so quickly, it spares your hard-earned muscle,” she adds.

Tabata workouts fall into the HIIT category. The Tabata method is named for its creator, Japanese researcher Izumi Tabata (pronounced tuh-BAH-tuh, not tab-bit-TA).

In a study Tabata conducted, participants showed a higher increase in metabolism and anaerobic capacity after doing short interval exercises five days a week for six weeks compared to other participants who performed longer workouts at less-intense capacities. Thus the Tabata method was born.

Tabata: the Basics

A Tabata workout is made up of timed intervals in which you push yourself to work as hard as you can for short bursts of time. Then you get to chill out a bit, although you keep moving during the rest interval. The typical timing for Tabata exercises is 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, repeated eight times. This means you can complete an entire Tabata workout in just four minutes.

The quick workout time is definitely a benefit of using the Tabata method.

“Tabata can be done as a stand-alone workout or paired with pretty much any workout,” says certified trainer and health coach Corey Phelps. “It is excellent for those who are short on time or anybody looking to make the most out of every minute of their workout.”

Tabata is also incredibly versatile. ”You can perform almost any movement Tabata-style as long as you are completing only one movement for the four-minute cycle and going all out,” says Phelps.

Plus, Tabata workouts don’t require any specific weights or equipment, so you can do them almost anywhere. You can use the timer on your phone or download a Tabata timer app to keep track of your reps.

It’s a good idea (especially when first starting out) to pay close attention to your heart rate during a Tabata workout. For most people, the target heart rate should be at about 75 percent when you’re “on,” depending on exertion and your level of ability.

While you don’t need a heart-rate monitor, they do make tracking all of this pretty easy. If you don’t have a monitor, you can also simply use this reference guide to calculate your target heart rate.

Here’s an important note: If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded during a workout, stop and take a break. You might be pushing yourself too hard and increasing your heart rate too much. Take a longer rest period, drink some water, and don’t go quite as hard on the next round. Always be sure to listen to your body during these types of workouts! There’s a thin line between pushing yourself and overexerting your body.

Tabata Exercises You Should Try

Here are some great beginner exercises to get yourself acquainted with the Tabata method.

  • Mountain Climbers: Mountain climbers are excellent for upper-body and core conditioning. To do this exercise, set yourself in a plank position. Start your Tabata timer, and then alternate pulling your knees toward your chest (think running in place, but with your hands on the floor). Keep alternating your legs for the entire 20 seconds, and then rest for 10 seconds.
  • Burpees: No one likes doing burpees—but they are a great full-body motion you should incorporate into your workout routine. Don’t worry if you struggle with this motion (especially when Tabataing). If it seems hard, that’s because it is. But the more you do it, the easier it will get. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bring your hands to the floor and then jump your legs out so you’re in a plank position. Do a push-up and jump your legs back up toward your hands. Then as you stand, jump as high as you can with your arms over your head.
  • Sprints: Sprints are one of the most common Tabata exercises. The idea is simple—you’re sprinting almost as hard as you can possibly go for 20 seconds and then either jogging or walking for the 10-second rest. Make sure you find a sprint speed you can endure for the entire 20 seconds and don’t go too hard too soon.
  • Medicine Ball Slams: This is a great exercise to work out your upper body and release some pent-up aggression. Pick out a medicine ball that isn’t too heavy (remember you have eight rounds of these) and make sure the floor you’re standing on can handle some good slams. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the medicine ball out in front of you. Extend your arms as far as you can overhead, then flex your core and throw the ball as hard as you can to the ground. It’s important to keep your back straight and your abs engaged throughout this motion.

If you want to kick things up a notch, you can try a whole Tabata circuit. This is where you go through multiple movements back to back with Tabata timing for all eight rounds. These workouts are no joke, and you’ll definitely be feeling it when you finish.

A good beginner circuit includes push-ups, squats, medicine ball slams, and jumping rope.

The circuit would go:

  • Push-ups for 20 seconds
  • 10-second rest
  • Squat for 20 seconds
  • 10-second rest
  • Ball slams for 20 seconds
  • 10-second rest
  • Jump rope for 20 seconds
  • 10-second rest
  • And then repeat all of that seven more times.

Just remember to pay attention to your body when you start down this Tabata path. Take things slow, be sure to do some kind of warmup, stay hydrated, and don’t feel bad about taking a break—after all, Tabata really puts the “intensity” into “high-intensity interval training.” And that’s why it works.  

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